Eastern Slovakia
Slovak and Carpatho-Rusyn Genealogical Research

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

CHRISTMAS, EAST AND WEST

First, a general observation about Byzantine and Western liturgy. There is a very widespread belief that the Byzantine liturgical tradition, and other Eastern Christian liturgical traditiions, are all much more ancient than the Roman liturgical tradition.

Some people think that the Byzantine liturgy in its present form is the liturgy that St. John Chrysostom and the Greek Christians of the 5th century celebrated. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Throughout the first millenium, the first 1000 years of Christianity, the Byzantine liturgy had so many different forms and expressions that we still don't have a complete history of them all. The Byzantine liturgy did not reach its present form until well into the second millenium, after the year 1000 AD.

The Roman liturgy, on the other hand, has always been extremely conservative. It has stuck much more closely to the Bible and biblical texts than the Byzantines did, who wrote volumes and volumes of liturgical hymns for the liturgy. The reform of the Roman liturgy after the Second Vatican Council in most ways did away with the later modifications and returned the Roman liturgy to a very ancient form.

Nearly all of the new liturgical practices in Christian churches during the first 1000 years came from the Eastern churches. Those that were accepted in the West arrived very slowly, centuries after they began in the East. All of them, except one: the Nativity of the Lord on 25 December.

In the earliest stage of development, each church tradition developed one celebration for the beginning of our Lord's existence on earth and His ministry. In the East, this celebration was the Theophany on 6 January or thereabouts. In the West, it was the Nativity on 25 December. In each case, it was a celebration of His birth, childhood and the beginning of His ministry. Such a primitive single feast of the Theophany still exists in the Armenian tradition, which has no separate feast of the Nativity.

All the other ancient traditions of the Church picked up the other celebration they had not previously had. The Eastern churches picked up the Nativity on 25 December and the Western church took up the celebration of the Epiphany on 6 January.

In this process, the one celebration became two separate celebrations. The two celebrations came to have two different focuses: the Nativity concentrated on the birth of our Lord and the Theophany dealt with the beginning of His ministry, particularly His baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan (which is why it is frequently called "Yordan" among Slavic Byzantine Christians).

In the East, the feast of the Theophany, with the manifestation of all three persons of the Trinity, has always remained the more important feast. The hymns and the homilies for the Theophany are much more ancient and theologically much richer than those for the Nativity. Yet, in East and in West, the message is essentially the same: God has come into our midst to deify human beings and give them a share in God's divine life.

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Steven Hawkes-Teeples, S.J.
Pontifical Oriental Institute
Rome, Italy
106267.613@compuserve.com


Copyright 1996, Steven Hawkes-Teeples, S.J.

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