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Special Feature

A View from the East

by Stephen Godley

I'll never forget the first time I ever travelled to the northern hemisphere. I had left my family and friends shivering in the icy August winds in Sydney and landed in a hot and humid Beirut. On the way from the airport you couldn't miss the men pushing large barrow-loads of watermelons, and I distinctly remember thinking, "But it isn't Christmas!" One of the strongest associations with Christmas for me was, at that time, the summer fruits we enjoy in Australia. And when Christmas did arrive that year, it was to be my first in winter.

And if not that very first Christmas, then over successive years I can remember the cold; the snow on the high mountains of Lebanon (and one year, for a short time, actually at our college on the coast); the dusting of white on the legendary cedars; the long midnight Christmas service which finished in the early hours and we would emerge to the cold crisp air and clear sky with every star visible. "What eyes the wise men must have had to spot a new one in so many."

But for all that, nowhere in the services of our Church did I ever see any reference to snow and cold in the Christmas hymns. There is plenty of reference to the angels and their song, the shepherds in the fields, wise men and their gifts; we hear of the manger in a cave (probably used as a stable behind the inn), the star leading the Magi from the east, and even Augustus Caesar gets a look in, to ground it all firmly in history. But nowhere are we asked to "see amidst the winter snow".

The other strong impression I have of Christmas in the northern hemisphere has more to do with theology than the weather. In the early Church, the greater celebration was never Christmas, but Theophany (known in the west as the Epiphany), when at His Baptism, Jesus of Nazareth is proclaimed to be truly the Son of God. And to this day, such is still the case. Christmas seems to come and go rather quietly: a service in the early hours of the morning, a large family feast after a full forty days of fasting, and good wishes for the season and the new year.

But Theophany is, in some places, a public holiday, with parades through the streets involving not only the clergy in full Eucharistic vestments, but the military, student groups and civic leaders. It all culminates in the Blessing of the Waters with a cross thrown into the icy Mediterranean to be retrieved by one of a group of hardy souls. The contrast with Christmas could not be more marked. Even the western mania of gift giving at Christmas is often toned down in cultures where exchanging gifts is done either on 6th December (the actual feast of Saint Nicolas) or on 1st January (the feast of Saint Basil). In fact, in Greece, there is a carol about Saint Basil being on his way with gifts for the children.

I see that, once again, this year the debate about the commercialisation and the commercialism of Christmas has raised its head. Over the years we have seen a variety of slogans attempting to remind the general populace of why we are celebrating. 'Let's put Christ back into Xmas.' 'Jesus is the reason for the season.' 'Whose birthday is it, anyway?' And the general populace certainly does celebrate; just go into the Sydney CBD any Friday night in December - it is manic and chaotic.

Of course the commercialism of Christmas can be found all over the world, but I often think that part of the reason for the wild celebrations 'down under' is the very fact that it is summer. There is that sense of release and unwinding after a year of toil (bountiful public holidays notwithstanding), summer holidays, a chance to relax, catch up with family and friends, ignore the (bad) news in the media during the so-called 'silly' season. And somehow all of this has become attached to the celebration of the birth of Christ.

What should be the Church's response? Just ignore it, or a virulent campaign to restore the true meaning of Christmas? And then, of course, the latter may produce some negative reactions in a multicultural society that constitutionally can give no official recognition to any one religion. I do not pretend to have a solution, but I must admit to being a little concerned about some of the extreme behaviour all in the name of Christmas, by people who would not even acknowledge that Christ had actually existed.

So what do I do about Christmas? A fair question. It is often said of the Eastern Orthodox Churches that lex orandi lex credendi - what we pray is what we believe. And from the services for Christmas day, there is one phrase that becomes a refrain: "For unto us is born a young Child, the pre-eternal God". There is a constant reference to the incredible paradox of the almighty, eternal, boundless God taking on the human condition in the form of a helpless infant, reliant, as all human infants, on the loving care of a Mother. To quote the kontakion (or collect) of the feast in full:
"Today the Virgin gives birth to Him who is above all being, and the earth offers a cave to Him whom no one can approach. Angels with shepherds give glory, and Magi journey with a star. For unto us is born a young Child, the pre-eternal God."

And so at Christmas I will try to give myself time and place to contemplate the great mystery of the Word made flesh. I will offer my gifts of praise with the angels, wonder with the shepherds and Magi. I will spend time with my family (and that is not just my relatives, but a wider family of close friends) as I remember that Christ, to save us, had to become part of a particular family and of the human family. And I will pray that all those who celebrate the joy of the season will truly come to know that joy in the depths of their hearts.

Stephen Godley is a priest (retired) in the Antiochian Orthodox Church. He studied theology in Lebanon and Greece and for several years was a producer with ABC Religious Radio.

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