On behalf of the parish community, we would like to congratulate all of you on the beginning of the Coptic month of Kiahk, which commences this Wednesday, December 10, 2014 and ends Thursday, January 8, 2015. We celebrate the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity on Wednesday, January 7, 2015.
Joy and Wonder
During this month, we commemorate the events that led to the transformation of the world through the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are called to be attentive and faithful during this time as we see the Glorious Feast of the Nativity on the horizon, rapidly approaching as each day passes. It is a time for us to prepare and wait for the feast in which the coming of the Son of God was made a reality for us. St. John Chrysostom recognized the awesome significance of this feast, saying,
A feast day is about to arrive, and it is the most holy and awesome of all feasts. It would be no mistake to call it the chief and mother of all holy days. What feast is that? It is the day of Christ’s birth in the flesh.
As you know, the Church began Her preparation for this great feast two weeks ago when She took up the task of the solemn 43-day fast. It seems to many that our fasting, prayer, and ascetic life during this time is the complete opposite of the joy of the holidays we see throughout society. While others are celebrating, we are fasting with rigor and harshness while celebrating frequent Divine Liturgies. How do we explain this stark contrast between the way the Orthodox Christian prepares for the feast and the way many others prepare?
We must understand that we do not see Christmas as merely a joyous event. It is true that the angels proclaimed “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14), but we cannot forget the significance of the event that caused the angels to sing in this manner. We do not simply celebrate the historical event of our Lord Jesus Christ’s birth, but rather, the deep and profound mystery that He Who by His nature has no birth is born. The Great Architect of creation, by Whom all things were made, takes the flesh of His creation. He Who holds the entire universe is held in the arms of the Holy Theotokos Saint Mary.
For this reason, we do not celebrate the Christmas season merely by focusing on the joy without appreciating the wonder. The month of Kiahk is a time for us to immerse our hearts in the wonder of the mystery of our Lord’s birth. At the end of this spiritual exercise, we will encounter the true joy of Christmas:
Today, the virgin bears Him Who is transcendent, and the earth presents the cave to Him Who is beyond reach. Angels, along with shepherds glorify Him. The Magi make their way to Him by a star. For a new Child has been born for us, the God before all ages.
To fully appreciate these beautiful words chanted on the Feast, our hearts must be ready. It is as any person who resolves to climb the highest peak to see the most beautiful sight from the pinnacle. Unless he has climbed from the valley below, what he sees is only another beautiful picture, not the transcendental vision he worked, struggled, and longed for with all his being. Even if we feel some joy on the Feast, we must ask ourselves whether it is the same exalted joy reflected in the hymn:
A star appeared in the East, and the wise men followed it, until it led them to Bethlehem, and they worshiped the King of ages. The Lord of glory was called a Son, according to the words of John before he saw Him, the Eternal Word became flesh, and dwelt in us and we saw Him.
This joy will be revealed to us only if we first experience the wonder of this deep and profound mystery.
The Ascetic Journey of Kiahk
The Coptic month of Kiahk, combined with our fasting, helps us draw closer to the wonder of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. As with the Great Lent, this period is a journey towards the promise of salvation that was first revealed in the Protoevangelion (or “first good news”) in which God cursed the serpent saying, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (Genesis 3:15). At the time God curses the serpent with these words, the woman has no children. In His reference to the woman’s Seed, therefore, God is referring to a Person Who will come at a later time. The One Who will crush the head of the serpent is the One Who was born in a cave, the One to Whom the Magi journeyed.
In the same way, we must journey to Him during this four weeks. By its nature, a journey is ascetic. Who among us traveling to a distant country for some time would take all of his possessions? It is the same with us today. We cannot take all of our possessions on this journey. We cannot reach the Incarnate God if we are weighed down by our sins, passions, addictions, and worldly attachments. We must let them go willingly and joyfully as we seek the true joy that awaits us when we come face to face with God Who condescended and came to us in His humility.
During this time, we abandon any and all things that make us servants rather than set us free. The frequency and size of our meals should be reduced and highly regulated so that we feel a constant and lingering hunger. This lingering hunger serves not only to discipline our bodies, but more importantly to remind us that we have a great spiritual hunger that must be satisfied. Our participation at church services should increase, for the services — and especially the Liturgy of the Eucharist — are the source of nourishment we need now more than anything. We set aside sweets and alcoholic beverages during this time to remind us that the joys of this world are trivial and temporal. Our social lives are also regulated to help us seek a relationship with God before we seek one with others. Anything which holds the slightest power over us, whether Facebook, television, travel, or recreation of any kind should be cast aside (or at the very least, significantly minimized) so that we might give ourselves fully to possession by God. This is a time of self-purification so that the seeds of virtue may find good soil in our hearts and bear fruit thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold. Our goal is to humble ourselves that we may proclaim with St. Ambrose of Milan,
He was a baby and a child, so that you may be a perfect human. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, so that you may be freed from the snares of death. He was in a manger, so that you may be in the altar. He was on earth that you may be in the stars. He had no other place in the inn, so that you may have many mansions in the heavens. “He, being rich, became poor for your sakes, that through his poverty you might be rich.” Therefore his poverty is our inheritance, and the Lord’s weakness is our virtue. He chose to lack for himself, that he may abound for all. The sobs of that appalling infancy cleanse me, those tears wash away my sins. Therefore, Lord Jesus, I owe more to your sufferings because I was redeemed than I do to works for which I was created…
We should remember also that a journey by its nature requires movement. One who journeys can never remain stationary and stand still. He must always be on the move, leaving the old and acquiring the new. The more he moves, the more he understands. Even if he returns to a place he has already visited, he sees it with a certain newness that comes from newfound understanding. This is what the Advent Fast and the month of Kiahk are for us. Since these events in the life of the Church are repeated year after year, they are undoubtedly familiar to us, and yet, through our efforts in this ascetic journey, they acquire a particular newness that brings about a sense of wonder at the deep and profound mystery of our Lord’s Incarnation.
Let us therefore approach the month of Kiahk in the right way. When God condescends and comes to us, He not only comes to mankind in a collective sense, but to each and every one of us in a personal sense. This period is not only about God coming down to us; it is also about us rising up to Him.
We will never comprehend the fullness of this profound mystery of the Incarnation in which God became man. God reveals His wisdom to us in a manner commensurate with our limited human understanding. Nonetheless, through our ascetic efforts throughout this fast and the month of Kiahk, He will grant us, through Grace, some understanding of this profound and deep mystery leading to our salvation. With that understanding will come true joy, a joy that will allow us to proclaim from our hearts the words of the hymn, “For the Incorporeal was incarnate, and the Word became flesh, the One without beginning began, the Eternal came under time.”
May God grant us all a blessed Fast and month of Kiahk preparing for the joy of Christmas.