My family did not attend Christmas services when I was a child. That left a big, empty hole in my experience of Christmas, but I did not know it at the time.
At my Ruthenian parish, Christmas liturgy begins at 11:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve. It is preceded by the singing of Christmas carols starting at around 10:30. But even earlier, people start to trickle in. The church is dimly lit and the quiet and solemnity are reminiscent of Lenten services and the prelude to the Good Friday service. The celebration of holy days in the Eastern churches usually bears elements of both remembrance and anticipation. The celebration of a sorrowful holy day will look forward to joyous events and a joyous celebration will anticipate sorrowful events. Even Christmas carries the muted awareness of the road that leads to crucifixion.
People whisper greetings, then take their seats and join in the stillness of a moment outside of time. Children’s heads nod in the aftermath of overexcitement, as do their mothers’ heads from the exhaustion of overseeing Christmas preparations. Some look at the empty spot in the manger.
Remembrance and looking back over the past year is associated with the approaching end of the year; for me it starts at this quiet moment. I see the joy and the sorrow of the year’s events. Much of the sorrow came around this time last year: a good friend died right before Christmas and my Uncle Bill – the last one of my parents’ siblings – died soon after the New Year. FootnoteMaven wrote with heartbreaking eloquence about “Another Tradition – ‘Not All Merry and Bright’” – and that is what this moment is for.
I will remember many people who are no longer with us; the memory of the loss of some of them will come sneaking over my shoulder in that moment and will bring tears and regrets. Many losses have been suffered over the course of this year by family, friends, and those who are reading this, and in that moment I will say a prayer for those who have lost someone and for those who were lost.
But thinking of these lost ones inevitably leads me to awareness and appreciation of those who are still with us, and this brings a joy that almost burns with its intensity. I realize how lucky I am, and how stupid and petty my complaints, my grudges, my hurt feelings are. I am not a very forgiving person and this is the only moment in the entire year that I can muster the generosity to truly forgive all those who in my uncharitable mind have offended me.
The carols begin – some quiet and gentle Eastern European ones first, almost like lullabies. We sing them in Rusyn/Ukrainian/Slavonic and in English. Then come carols in English, such as “Silent Night” – still rather hushed and solemn - and we sing it again in Ukrainian. And finally we stand and sing “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful” – “Adeste Fideles” – Priidite, priidite” – in full voice. The lights go on and we all blink and look around in wonder. The priests, deacons, and servers arrive in a procession, accompanied by children or other member of the parish bearing the Wise Men to take their place in front of the manger.
“Blessed is the kingdom….” The liturgy begins. And near the end of the liturgy, at midnight, our pastor will place the baby Jesus in the manger.
It is time for Christmas to begin.
Christos rozhdayetsya! - Slavite jeho!
Christ is born! - Glorify him!