Tomorrow begins the Christmas fast in Byzantine-rite churches following new calendars. Notice that I did not call it “Advent.” Orthodox Christians sometimes lapse into calling this fast “Advent” because it overlaps with the Latin-rite season of preparation for Christmas which goes by that name. But ask yourself: Are they really the same? So, with a nod to the four Sundays of Advent, here are four reasons why they are not.
If any word is used to designate the season in the service books, it would be tessaracoste [τεσσαρακοστή] — simply “the forty days.”
Roman Catholic hymnographers had good reason to repeat adventus so many times. The season of Advent meditates on the anticipation of the two advents of the Lord: his birth in the flesh, commemorated at Christmas, and his coming in glory at the end of time. By contrast, the Christmas fast of the Byzantine rite focuses on the prophets who foretold the Lord’s birth. No liturgical text mentions the Lord’s second coming.
By contrast, the Byzantine-rite liturgical year begins in September with the commemoration of the birth of the Mother of God and ends with the commemoration of her repose (dormition or falling asleep).
Part of the problem resides in the fact that traditionally Orthodox cultures do not place a great deal of emphasis on the winter fast (mirroring the comparative lack of emphasis in the Byzantine-rite liturgical cycle). Although perhaps we could see a lesson in this de-emphasis, the fundamental problem remains: Eastern Christians find themselves living among Christians who place a great deal of emphasis on Advent (though even they are drowning in society’s ever-expanding flood of Christmas exploited for commercial gain).
Honestly, I do not have an answer for that problem — living among Christians with very different traditions — except to note that we lose something when we try to make the gift that we have received look more like someone else’s gift.
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