Advent is here. As an Anglican, Advent was a time of preparation prior to Christmas. Every Sunday in December, we lit a candle signifying some aspect of the coming saviour. Every day in December, I would open a little window in my Advent calendar, increasing my anticipation of Christmas, not that I needed any help in that area.
Upon marriage, I joined a Baptist Church where my husband and I introduced them to the December Advent wreath.
As Orthodox, Advent is so much more than a wreath.
Advent is known as the Nativity Fast and begins on November 15. It is a full vegan fast where we refrain from all meat and dairy, which makes it really hard trying to do any Christmas baking. The Nativity fast parallels the Paschal Lenten Fast.
During the Nativity fast, we prepare for the birth of Christ, to receive Him as the saviour of the world and then, thirteen days later, on the feast of Theophany, we celebrate His baptism, when He is raised to His full ministry. During Lent, we prepare for Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross and His glorious resurrection ,saving all of creation.
Christ was born in order to die. He was baptized in order to be raised. This season of Nativity is often referred to as the Winter Pascha. The Pascha of Christ’s resurrection was begun at the Pascha of His birth.
The Nativity fast incorporates other meaningful feast days. On November 21, we celebrate the Feast of the Entrance into the Temple of the Theotokos.
The Orthodox know Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, as the Theotokos, meaning God-bearer. Her entrance into the temple is not recorded in the gospels. Much of what we know about Mary, is found in the Book of James, known as the Protevangelion, which dates back to the second century.
Mary was born to an aged couple, Joachim and Anna, who had prayed to God for a child. When she was born, they dedicated her to God. They kept her as their own for three years until the time came to keep their promise, in part because they were nearing death. They formed a procession of the young girls of the neighbourhood to escort Mary. The girls danced in front of Mary, carrying torches. Drawn by the lights and the procession and a sense of destiny, Mary followed them joyfully to the Temple, not crying once as she was parted from her parents.
As she approached the Temple, the holy virgin ran ahead of the other maidens and threw herself into the arms of the High Priest Zacharias, (who was later father to John the Baptist). He had been waiting for her at the gate of the Temple. Zacharias blessed her saying, “It is in you that He has glorified your name in every generation. It is in you that He will reveal the Redemption that He has prepared for His people in the last days.”
Zacharias led Mary into the Temple where the grace of the Lord descended upon her, thus making her the living Holy of Holies, the living sanctuary and temple of God who would take His flesh from her and dwell within her for nine months. Traditionally, the Orthodox Church views this moment as negating the need for the physical temple in Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God, replacing it, instead, with the hearts of all those who love and serve God.
Mary remained in the Temple for nine years. When she was twelve years old, the time when young girls were to marry, Joseph was chosen by God to be her guardian and protector.
The Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple is the beginning of Mary’s total dedication to God and the beginning of her preparation to become Mother of the Incarnate Lord. This is a feast of anticipation and that is why it is celebrated during the Nativity Fast. As we show honour to Mary in her preparation, we are to emulate her dedication and preparations as we anticipate the incarnation of Christ, the saviour of the world who will be born next month on December 25, the Feast of the Nativity.