No Xmas Without Humility and Hearth

So  many images of Christmas come to mind, as  each city  and each group of people react differently to this  holiday – which St.  John Chrysostom called the  “metropolis of feasts.” Marketers have been hard at work brainwashing the  masses to reach their consumerist climax ahead of the  holiday, while others groups have been advancing their own agenda, skewing the  meaning of the  Feast of the  Nativity into some silly winter festival where everyone is supposed to be  happy and merry, but  no  one is supposed to discuss the  reason why.

And yet, just  days after the  arrival of the  winter solstice, as the  northern hemisphere is engulfed in darkness and the  cold embrace of the  freezing temperatures tighten its grip on  the  people, the  warmth and light of the Nativity feast kindles a unique fervor that captivates the  human heart.

This warmth and radiance has stood as the  inspiration for  hymnographers and ecclesiastical orators, whose masterpieces have graced the  Orthodox Church and have been heard throughout the  centuries, as well as  for  authors like  Alexandros Papadiamantis and Photis Kontoglou, who dedicated some of their best pieces to celebrate this  holiday.

Kontoglou writes that “the spiritual joy  and heavenly delight that Christians feel on Christmas can in no  way be  experienced by someone who merely celebrates the holiday out  of sentimental habit, and who ties  it in to secular joys, the  winter season, snow, and a warm fireplace. Only Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas in a spiritual way and experience sacred emotions in their hearts, which are  kindled by a mysterious otherworldly warmth – the  warmth of the  Holy Spirit, body and soul celebrate together, rejoicing with divine exuberance which cannot be  experienced by anyone who finds himself far  from Christ.

Meanwhile, during these holy days, a Christian’s heart is filled with the  sweet fragrance of hymns, a sweet spiritual radiance that covers all creation – the mountains, sea, every boulder, every tree, every rock, every living being. Everything is sanctified, everything celebrates, everyone chants and rejoices, and all of nature is like ‘a fruitful olive tree in the  house of God.’”

In the  same essay on  Christmas, contained in his  book Aivali,  My  Homeland,  Kontoglou writes that Christ’s Nativity serves as a great lesson in humility for  humanity. He  points to Christ’s birth in the  manger, so that God’s ineffable condescension might be better experienced and comprehended by the  people. “His mother, the  Theotokos, found herself far  removed from her  home, sojourning as  a stranger in a strange land, and she gave birth to Him inside a stable.

The baby Jesus was warmed by the  breath of the  ox  and the  donkey, while shepherds kept this  newborn child company. And the  lamb of God who came to save mankind from Adam’s curse was numbered among the  sheep on  the  farm. What person ever entered into this  world with more humble beginnings?”

Kontoglou cites an  explanation by St.  Isaak the  Syrian, who remarks that the  Divine Logos became man and clothed himself in humility, “coming into contact with us  through this  humility and taking on  a body like  ours. And anyone who wears this  humility truly becomes like  Him who came down from His  place of glory and covered the  virtue of His grandeur and glory with humility.

And the  reason for  this  was so that creation would not be set  ablaze at His  mere sight. Because creation could not  behold Him if He  did  not take on  a part of it (flesh), and He  spoke to it in this  manner. He  covered His  grandeur with flesh and through this  He  came into contact with us;  through the  flesh that He  took from the  Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary. That is why, whoever puts on  the  vestment that the  Creator wore (humility), has put  on  Christ Himself.”

And metaphorically speaking, the  manger is a humble heart – the  only place where Christ goes and makes His  abode. That human manger that beats in each one of us and has the  capacity to welcome the  Divine Logos serves as the  great inspiration for writers like  Papadiamantis and Kontoglou, whose many Christmas stories are  often situated in the  humblest of settings (remote chapels, caves) and include characters who stand out  for  their unfeigned manner, simplicity, and genuineness.

The setting almost always ends with the  traditional Christmas meal, where all  the  persons present are gathered at the  common table celebrating the  feast in a spirit of camaraderie, mutual love, and a deep sense of elation over the  nobility of the  day.

Their literary tradition was lived out  by many Greeks even today. The late Giannis Kalamitsis, radio personality and lyricist, recalled his  childhood memories last Christmas, noting that “our mother used to wake us up  in the  early morning hours, dress us up  and take our  family to church. On  our  way back, we  would find Christmas breakfast waiting for  us  on  the  table.

That Christmas breakfast is unforgettable to me. Despite the  state of our  family finances, that breakfast was so plentiful that we  would
just  sit and look at it in amazement, instead of digging in.  We  would make this “extravagant expense” in our  home once a year, for  Christmas breakfast!.I  remember all  this  and these memories make me  ready to face the  poverty that has set  in and the poverty that will  follow.”

In his  same essay, Kontoglou offers great solace for  our  beloved Greek and Cypriot homelands, which are  facing such great challenges today: “And so,  brethren, let  us celebrate Christ’s Nativity ‘in spirit and truth, with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,’ and then the  other things ‘will be  given to us.’  In other words, the  joy  of our homes, families, nature, good company, unadulterated entertainment, because everything will  be  sweetened by the  love of Christ and kindled by the  warmth of the  One who is the  giver of life.”

(Christopher Tripoulas)