Every year on Christmas, there is much meditation among us Beauty Guards; and this happens because, every year, we hope to write an article that truly reflects the meaning of this great Christian celebration. Because Christmas is not just melomakarona, shopping, decorating, family gatherings around the table and lots of rest – the way it has been imprinted on the minds of most people today. Christmas is something much deeper and more essential that all of that. And so, every year, long meetings accompanied by tons of coffee and brainstorming (OK, lots of sweets too… we still have the incurable sweet tooth) take place in the context of Beauty Guard. But not this year! This year everything was crystal clear about what we really wanted to write regarding the spirit of Christmas. And the reason for this was our casual meeting a few months back with a monk from Mount Athos, who lives the solitary life of Christianity for the past 25 years. We asked him to talk to us about Christmas, as it is experienced in the heart of the Orthodox world; to give us a message for contemporary people – and he did so with a lot of joy and understanding. The only thing he asked for was that we respect his peace. Such people, having reached a state of humility, are not at all fond of publicity. And so, in this article, I will not mention the Elder’s name; but I will communicate the essence of his words… as uttered by himself…
“Here, in the Garden of the Virgin, my children, Christmas is understood and experienced very differently than out in the world. Ideas like the colorfully decorated Christmas tree or notions like luxury, presents, lavishness, great variety of dishes – they do not exist here. The celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ is realized with uncompromising simplicity, yet essential devoutness. One might wonder at how it is possible to celebrate Christmas without festivities, dancing, singing, presents and good food… however, my children, the only way to experience the true spirit of Christmas is to do so spiritually – without the interference of external ways and conditions.”
So, in the end, Elder, what is Christmas? (we asked…)
“Christmas is the remembrance of Christ’s birth. God was made flesh, (…for us people and for our salvation he descended from heaven and made flesh through the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.) He became man to lead us to salvation, he gave us the mysteries, repentance, confession, absolution, Holy Communion; for the healing of trauma, grief, despair. We monks, and all Christians alike, should await this great miracle, this celebration, with a preparation different than the one forced on us by the contemporary morality of commercialization, mass culture and over-consumerism. We prepare ourselves with fasting, which is necessary for the cleansing of the soul, for absolution that is achieved through confession, for forgiveness of our brothers instead of mere tolerance. The hymns sung in church have a joyful meaning that gives life and hope and reminds people of their true purpose on earth:
“Christ is born; praise him. Christ is coming from heaven; meet him. Christ is upon the earth; raise yourselves.
Sing for the Lord all over the earth; and in joy, people, sing, for he has been glorified.”
And I will tell you this as well… when people understand this great truth and decide to partake in the celebration of Christmas essentially, they will realize that this process hides anything but deprivation. The spiritual gifts that comprise the reward are so great that people will have no difficulty in the process. Because, in truth, they are no longer trapped; they are liberated from all the vanities of the world that come and go like flowers…
“Man, whose days are like the grass, will blossom, like the flowers in the fields.”
What is most hopeful, though, is that, in recent years, more and more people understand the value of all the things I mentioned and partake essentially in the celebration of our Lord’s birth. Characteristic, as well as moving, is the flow of believers here in the Garden of the Virgin every year during these holy days. All these devout people make a long journey, which can often prove difficult for practical or even financial reasons, in order to experience joy and hope. They leave their families behind and come here fully realized, in order to partake essentially and respectfully in all the happenings and Mysteries. And we monks, despite our need for isolation and prayer, always welcome them with infinite love and understanding. The monks’ hospitality on Mount Athos is granted generously to every brother.”
And then, the Elder talked to us about the ritual process followed until the day of the Birth…
“Every year, on the 15th of November, the so-called Nativity Fast begins; this is, in truth, the second long period of fasting after the Great Lent. In either case, we monks never eat meat; however, during this fast, we also do not consume dairy products. To be precise, from the 15th to the 20th of November, we eat food that contains oil on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Some of us abstain from oil as well. On the 21st of November, when we celebrate The Entrance of the Virgin, we eat fish; but later we only eat it on Saturday and Sunday – until the 12th of December. From that date until the 23rd of December, the fast dictates that we eat food with a bit of oil on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; on the other days, we abstain from oil as well.
However, fasting has no meaning by itself if it is not accompanied by prayer, devoutness and charity. For this reason, with the beginning of fasting, our tradition dictates that we perform the Divine Liturgy (what is called the Sarantaliturgo) daily. Here, on Mount Athos, we do this daily all year. But elsewhere in the world, this is only performed on the forty days before Christmas.
Performing the Sarantaliturgo is a great blessing for any of the pilgrims who choose to participate, as they are given the chance to hear the Scriptures, to experience a life of mystery and worship, to know the richness of our Church’s hymns. The very participation in the Divine Liturgy shows us the power of Christ’s Love. It teaches us to be charitable and benevolent; it leads us to humility and forgiveness; it unites us with other people and, at the same time, guides us to internal communication with God. Also, during the Divine Liturgy, we pray for our living and departed brothers. The commemoration of these names, otherwise known as the reading of Diptycha, is a divine work institutionalized by the Apostles and performed without break through the centuries.
On Christmas Eve, there are no festivities on Mount Athos as perceived elsewhere in the world. We gather after absolute fasting – even from oil – as we participate in the vigil, during which all monks sing devoutly and, following that, partake in the mystery of the Holy Communion. These are the gifts of Christmas for us, our sharing the cup of life, the Flesh and Blood of our Lord, the peace and joy that fill our souls.
After the vigil, which lasts for about eight hours, we meet at the Christmas table; this happens at around 7 in the morning, where we all share the meal of love. Again, our meal does not have the luxury found in the rest of the world, nor does it contain meat. But it does have warmth, devoutness, love, joy, brotherhood. And this is how we celebrate Christmas on Mount Athos, with devout humility and essential prayer.”
We all listened to the Elder’s tale with special interest. Yet, throughout his narration, my mind kept focusing on a fundamental question; one that flashes in my mind every year around this time – just like the colorful lights of Christmas trees keep flashing on and off. In the end… what exactly is the deeper meaning of Christmas? What is the essence that the monks of Mount Athos have dedicated their entire life on finding? Is it possibly the one that the average person will never discover; or, at the very least, will be very hard to come by? Is it possible to speak of the meaning of Christ’s Birth, something that our Orthodox Fathers have written extensively on, in just a few words, that will be understood by the average everyday person? So I asked the Elder to send a message to everyone; and it is with this message that I will conclude this article – hoping that this year, more than ever, I have come closer to the essence of this great Christian celebration…
And the Elder replied:
“On this Christmas, my children, and all those yet to come, let us wish and plead with the newborn Divine Child, our Lord, to breathe life once more in the cavern of our hearts; and from a cavern of “thieves” (our passions) it will become a cavern of peace, joy, humanity… To give us strength so that we can truly forgive our fellow humans; to be able to look them honestly in the eyes and tell them good morning, forgive me, thank you… Let us start over again, since our very Maker gives us the chance again, to turn our minds to heaven and eternity. To partake in the mysteries of our church, because thus the burdens of life become lighter with His help. The “cold” and despair cannot touch us. And let this whisper come from our hearts and lips alike:
Your Birth, Jesus, our Lord, has shone on the world the Light Spiritual and unreachable. Through Your Birth, those who believed are taught to kneel before You and to know You. Glory to You, oh Lord…. Amen.
With the Birth of Christ in the “cavern” of our hearts we start life under Christ as new people; as this excellent verse of Paul the Apostle says: “I live because, in me, lives Christ.” This is the greatest wish, blessing and Divine Grace. This is the purpose of existence of a being that is led to immortality.”
Merry Christmas to all
We would like to thank the Monastery of Simonos Petras for the photographs they offered ( http://athosphotoarchive.blogspot.gr/ ); as well as to D. Valelis for giving us access to his personal photography archives.