The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ
In our Church’s tradition, the Eve of the Nativity feast, also called Holy Eve (in Ukrainian, Sviat vechir), is honoured with particular solemnity. Every home becomes a Bethlehem of the family: the table symbolizes the manger; straw is placed under the tablecloth, and upon the tablecloth are placed the prosphora (bread), a symbol of the Child Jesus. A lit candle is placed next to the prosphora to symbolize the star of Bethlehem. With a meatless supper, the family gathers around the table to prayerfully honour the incarnate Son of God.
The twelve dishes honor the Twelve Apostles as they gathered for the Last Supper. The first and most indispensable of the twelve courses is “Kutia.” The ingredients of which are wheat, honey, poppy seeds and nuts which symbolize the fertility of God’s nature. Consequently, Kutia is assumed to symbolize prosperity peace and good health. The order of courses, and even the courses themselves, are not uniform everywhere, for each region in Ukraine had its own traditions and were subject to the ingredients available to it. However, the following are commonly served: borsch, fish (served in different ways), holubtsi, pyrohy, mushrooms with sauce, stewed dried fruit; pastries and the like. After the Holy Supper the family joins in singing of Christmas carols.
After this we greet the family with the traditional Christmas salutation: “Christ is Born!“. The response is: “Let us glorify Him!” The high point of the celebration of the Nativity feast is the solemn divine service, for which all parishioners gather. The Eucharistic Supper at the Divine Liturgy crowns the family supper.
After Supper the whole family goes to church for the service of Great Compline (the very moving and unforgettable service where one hears sung majestically, “God is with us”).
Great Compline and Solemn Divine Liturgy
The service of Great Compline for the feast of the Nativity is held during the evening hours of December 24, preceding a celebration of the Divine Liturgy and followed by the singing of Christmas carols.
We celebrate Great Compline on the feasts of Christmas, Theophany, Annunciation and during Lent. On other days we celebrate Small Compline. The service includes thanksgiving to God for the day just concluded and the work accomplished.
Psalm 90 is followed by the liturgical hymn (in Ukrainian, Z namy Boh): “God is with us! Understand, all you nations…”
The refrain is sung by the people in alternation with the clergy. It is a hymn of joy that God is with us – Emmanuel. He has come into the world, and He brings us the saving help promised in the preceding psalms.
On Christmas and Theophany, these are combined with a lytia service – an intercessory procession with prayers for the whole world and its needs. As the clergy make their way to the church entrance, the choir sings the “hymns of the lytia”: At the Lytia, bread, wheat, wine, and oil are blessed to signify the bounty we have received from God, and to pray for their multiplication throughout the world.
The solemn Divine Liturgy crowns the entire Christmas celebration. At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, the faithful approach the altar for myrovannya (a blessing with Holy Oils) and receiving the blessed bread during the Lytia service.
Christmas and Theophany Carols
During the Nativity (Christmas) season, all services are preceded and followed by the singing of Christmas carols. Christmas carols are sung by the faithful. In hospitality, homes open their doors to everyone who celebrates the Nativity of Christ. The Nativity brings a rich treasury of hymnody among Ukrainians. These songs are sung before the Christmas services, and also by carolers and as part of Christmas plays and other celebrations.
Christmas Carols became the re-telling in song of the birth of the God-man from the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem. Recognizing the true God in Jesus Christ, “heaven and earth” and “angels and people” join in jubilation. The universal joy of all creation is expressed in the images of the sun, moon, and stars, which, like all creation, come to worship the Divine Infant.
On the eve of Theophany, the Baptism of Christ, special carols of this feast are added to the usual Christmas carols. In Ukrainian they are called shchedrivky, from the word for generous. The Ukrainian name alludes to the fact that the Theophany in the Jordan River became the generous source of the Christian life, from which in turn flow all of God’s good gifts: happiness, health, longevity, and the like. Such, in fact, are the good wishes mentioned in these carols and the accompanying greetings.
The Theophany at the Jordan is liturgically connected with the feast of the Nativity. In her celebration of both these events, Church tradition emphasizes that both the Incarnation and the Baptism of the Lord are when God appears (in Greek, theophania). In accordance with the text of the Great Blessing of Water at Theophany, “in the preceding feast we have seen you as a babe, and in this present feast as perfect human, appearing as our perfect God.”
At the Nativity, God the Word “was born,” but now he “appears in the flesh to the human race.” At the Nativity, the “Sun of Righteousness” rose, and now it “shines forth.” In the liturgical tradition of the Church, the feast of Theophany is also called the feast of Illumination. The sticheras of the feast of Theophany elucidate the bond between the feasts of the Nativity and Theophany: What was announced by the angel is now announced to the people by the Baptist; the spilling of infant blood caused Bethlehem to become childless, but through the sanctified waters of baptism, the Jordan now has many children. What was announced by the star to the magi in Bethlehem is now revealed to the world by the Father himself.
The Ukrainian Catholic Church has always observed this feast with a solemnity that ranks it along with that of the Resurrection and the Nativity of Christ.
- The great blessing of water takes place on this feast. From ancient times Christians at Jerusalem have gone to the banks of the Jordan River and there the Clergy have conducted this solemn ritual. In many places, Christians go to rivers and lakes to perform the blessing. In our parish, it is the custom to have water prepared in the church, and the great blessing, with its magnificent prayers and ritual.
Why do we bless water? It is a vital substance for life. It is a symbol of life and of death to mankind. In the Old Testament we know that water was connected to life and sin of men. For example, in days of Noah, the great flood encompassed the earth. The Israelites would have perished in the desert at the time of Moses, had he not struck the rock with his rod (rod) to bring forth life-giving water.
The ceremony of the solemn blessing of water points to the great meaning of water for life. In the ceremony we pray: “that this water be sanctified by the power, act, and descent of the Holy Spirit… that it be given the grace of redemption and the blessing of the Jordan … that it may become a gift for sanctification, redemption for sins, for the healing of soul and body … “
Blessed water is used for many of the ministrations of the Church. It is water and prayer that are visible signs of the invisible grace of God. As a child is born again in baptism, it is water that is the medium of this regeneration.
It is no accident that this blessed water is used at the beginning of a Christian’s journey in life and at its end. A man is baptized with water, and when he falls asleep in Christ the body is sprinkled with water in the service of Christian burial.
- The blessing of homes has become another important feature of this feast day of the Theophany. What a precious custom it is that we welcome our parish priest into our dwellings, that together with the Family we might call upon God’s Name there and sprinkle the home with the water of the Jordan.
The Church especially prescribes a blessing for a new home. This is a service of great meaning to Christians. The walls are blessed with holy water, incense is used, the Scriptures are read, prayers are said, and some walls are anointed with oil.
There is a difference between a house and a home. A material house has its importance only if it is a true Christian home.