On the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ

The Feast of the Nativity, or, as it is known in America, “Christmas,” is an ancient Feast whose origins are somewhat obscure. By the fifth century AD it is mentioned by the Council of Isaac (AD 410) in conjunction with the Feast of the Epiphany: “. . . we should together, as one, keep the holy feast, the first-born of blessed feasts, the glorious day of the birth and epiphany of Christ our Savior.” [Chabot, J. B., ed., Synodicon Orientale, Paris, 1892, p.20, lines 15-16 (Eng. trans. by M. J. Birnie).] At some later time the Epiphany was separated into two Festivals, one celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, the other celebrating his Baptism (and retaining the name “Epiphany”). All the churches (with the exception of the Armenians) adopted December 25 as the day to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord, leaving the Feast of the Epiphany on the older January 6 date.

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The Feast of the Epiphany

On January 6 the Church of the East, along with most other Christian churches, celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany. The Epiphany (Beth Denkha) is an ancient festival observance of the Church. It has been celebrated at least from the 3rd century of the Christian era. The word Epiphany is of Greek origin, and it means “manifestation”, and the Greek title of the feast has usually carried over into other languages, though it has been translated among the Syriac-speaking churches (“Denkha” carries the same meaning). The feast was from the beginning a celebration of the Baptism of Christ, and was one of the three principle feasts of the early Church: Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost. From the 5th century the Western churches began to transform the feast-day into a celebration of Christ’s manifestation to the Gentiles, and the three “Kings” (Magi) became the central figures (apart from our Lord) in the day’s festivities. However, in the Eastern churches the commemoration of the Baptism is still the central feature.

The word “manifestation” refers to the public revelation of the special relationship Jesus of Nazareth had with the God of Israel: “Now when Jesus was baptized, as soon as he had gone up from the water the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him, and lo, [there was] a voice from heaven saying, `This is my beloved Son, with whom I have been well-pleased.’” (Mk. 3:16-17) Here a miraculous occurrence before the large crowds that had come to be baptized by John (or to observe him and hear his preaching) confirmed the unique status of Jesus, setting him off on his ministry of teaching, healing, and proclaiming the advent of the Kingdom of God. But more than that, the Holy Trinity was here first proclaimed openly, opening up a vast new world of understanding, though the fullness of what it all meant would not be known until the final triumph of our Lord over sin and death, and his glorification and session at the right hand of the Father in heaven.

This two-fold revelation–of the Sonship of Christ and of the Holy Trinity–is our reason for rejoicing and celebrating this special day. “Creation was made glad in its Lord and acknowledged its Savior who was baptized and who revealed in the Jordan the doctrine of the Trinity: the Father who cried out and proclaimed, `This is my beloved Son with whom I have been well-pleased,’ and the Spirit who came and remained upon him, making known his glory in the presence of the nations.” [“Anthem of the Mysteries” for Epiphany.]

The Great Fast (Lent)

The “Great Fast” is a seven week period of self-discipline and penitence which precedes the Feast of the Resurrection (Easter). This fast is universally observed throughout the Apostolic Church, and is known in English-speaking lands as “Lent”, from an old English word meaning “to lengthen”. Lent originally just meant “Spring”, that is, the time when the days are lengthening.

Fasting is a discipline which has been observed in the Church from the very beginning of its existence. The practice of fasting had been an important feature of Old Testament life. Moses fasted 40 days, as did Elijah. In the New Testament the followers of John the Baptist were rigorous in the observance of fasts, and Jesus, both in his practice and in his teaching, recommended fasting to his followers (Lk. 4:2; Mt. 6:16-18; Mk. 2:20). After the Ascension of our Lord into Heaven his Apostles practiced fasting (Acts 13:2; 14:23; 2 Cor. 11:27), and first century Christian written sources indicate that members of the Church fasted twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays.

The fast before Easter was originally observed differently in different regions. Some only fasted between Thursday evening (Passover Thursday) and Easter Sunday, others for the week between Palm Sunday (Hosannas) and Easter, others for three weeks (this could be the origin of the three “Weeks of the Mysteries” in the Church of the East). But following the Council of Nicea (AD 325), the “Forty Days Fast” became universally observed. The first canonical mention of the Great Fast in the Church of the East is in the acts of the Council of Mar Isaac (AD 410): “Again, as one and at one appointed time we should together keep the complete fast of forty days, seven weeks.” [Synodicon Orientale, ed., J. B. Chabot, Paris, 1892, p. 20 (Eng. tr. by M. J. Birnie).]

The fast of Lent in the beginning consisted of abstinence from all flesh meat, including fish, and from eggs and milk products. It allowed for one meal a day, taken towards the evening. This rigorous schedule was carefully maintained for some generations, but in the West it was gradually eased, until today there are only two fast days remaining, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. However, the Eastern churches still enjoin abstinence from meat, eggs, and milk products throughout the Great Fast.

The Great Fast provides us with the opportunity of reflecting on our lives and focusing our vision as we approach the great drama of our salvation, the Passion, Death, Burial, and Resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It is a time to put away, insofar as possible, the besetting cares of this life and the demands of appetite, and even the innocent pleasures which are satisfying to us, but often distract us altogether too much from following our Lord, or sometimes even take control of our lives to such an extent as to damage our usefulness as instruments of Christ’s will. This is the time for taking back the direction and control of our appetites and of our lives, and turning them back over to the service of Christ.

“Know this as well, that now is the time and the hour to awaken from our sleep. For now our salvation is much nearer to us than when we believed. Now the night is passing and the day is drawing near. Let us then put away from ourselves the deeds of darkness, and put on the armor of light. Let us walk with decorum, as in the day, not with reveling, nor with drunkenness, nor with sexual impurity, nor with envy and strife. Instead, put on our Lord Jesus Christ, and pay no mind to the lusts of your flesh.” (Rom. 13:11-14)

How Do I Benefit Personally From Attending Qurbana?

The question “How do I benefit personally from the Qurbana?” might be answered best if we first ask ourselves another question, “What do I need help with?” This is not always the easiest question to answer, but the liturgy itself spells out the specific needs it intends to address in its prayers, and it repeats these needs several times: remission of sins, a clear conscience before God, the hope of resurrection, and new life in the Kingdom of Heaven. Each of these benefits is prayed for, not just for some abstract “humanity”, but for each and every participating worshipper. It is healing of the brokenness of our condition that the Sacrament is administered for.

“For all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) Who but the most hardened hypocrite does not feel pain at his own shortcomings and sins? What conscience is so callous that it fails to recognize the anguish we inflict on one another through our indifference or forgetful neglect of moral responsibility? Can anyone say that, because he is a Christian, he no longer is subject to the failures of being human? It is to Christians that St. Paul writes, “For it is God, in Christ, who has reconciled the world with his majesty, not imputing to them their sins. And he has placed in us our word of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, and, as it were, God beseeches you through us. In behalf of Christ, then, we beseech you, be reconciled to God, for he made him, who knew no sin, to be sin for you, that we may be made in him the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:19-20) The Christian man or woman, having been reconciled to God through Christ, must continue to strive to make that promised state a reality in his or her personal life in this world. He or she must face up to the failures that beset the course of life, and the brokenness which recurs with every sin of omission or commission along the way, and “be reconciled to God.”

God gave to the Apostles, and through them to the Church, the ministry of reconciliation. This ministry is exercised regularly, whenever the Church meets together at the place of reconciliation, before the Altar of God. There it prays for forgiveness and cleansing. There it offers the counsels of love and forbearance. There it reaches out to offer the kiss of peace, succors the ailing, and draws to itself the alienated and confused. There it calls to renewal and reconciliation all who feel broken by sin. And there it offers the hope of resurrection and new life in God and in his Kingdom. The benefit personally is great, for there we have the opportunity to participate in all these things ourselves, to be a part of that healing and reconciliation. There we can fulfill this ministry of service to which we are all called as members of Christ’s body.

At the center of this ministry of word and deed is the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ himself. Jesus said, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he shall live for ever. And the bread which I will give is my body, which I give for the life of the world.” (Jn. 6:51) What we come to Qurbana to receive and give is possible only in Christ and through his Self-offering. Forgiveness, healing, hope, reconciliation–all these Christ conveys according to his promise to each and every believer who in true faith partakes of his gift of himself. This gift of himself is the first and greatest benefit of faithful attendance at Qurbana.

Why do we call the Qurbana a “Sacrifice”?

In another entry on this internet page the question is posed, “What is the Qurbana?”, and it is answered by referring to early Christian practice and Holy Scripture: it is the Offering made by the Lord’s body, his Church and her members, in which they identify themselves with his own self-offering upon the Cross, and through which they realize his presence, both in the offered bread and wine, and in one another.

But throughout the service of Qurbana the word “sacrifice” is also employed to describe the Offering we are making. The word “offering”, or “sacrifice”, is used in more than one sense, of course, but in religious ritual it usually conjures up an image of a priest offering a victim upon an altar, and this is, in fact, its primary sense. In early Biblical times priests offered sacrifices because of a break which had taken place in the unity men were created to have with their Creator. The sacrifice renewed that unity which had been broken. In English we use the word atonement (that is “at-one-ment”) to describe what happens in religious sacrifice: a bringing together into one the people for whom the sacrifice was offered and God, from whom they had been alienated because of their sin.

To an outside observer it might seem strange, then, that we speak of the Qurbana as a sacrifice. Though there is a priest and an altar, there doesn’t seem to be any apparent victim–only the bread and wine, a somewhat peculiar sacrifice. The use of the terminology of sacrifice may strike him as somewhat inappropriate. If he is knowledgeable at all about the purpose of sacrifice, and of the need for a ritual death, he may write off our sacrifice as an exercise in futility. But he would be wrong.

Our sacrifice is very different from, but yet similar to, those ritual sacrifices of Old Testament times. It is one in which our Lord Jesus is at once the priest and the victim. Once and for all, in time and in the humanity which he took from us, the Son of God offered himself, a sinless priest and a pure and acceptable sacrifice, to repair the breach that existed between mankind and God, that we might achieve at-one-ment with our Creator. Once and for all he entered the Sanctuary in Heaven, leaving this world and entering a timeless realm, with his own pure blood as his sufficient offering, and there he eternally intercedes for us before his Father.

“A priest such as this is right for us: pure, harmless, undefiled, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens. There is no need for him to offer sacrifices daily like the high priests, first for his own sins and then for the people, for he did this once, offering himself. . . But now, at the end of the age, he has offered himself once by his sacrificial act, that he might abolish sin.” (Heb. 7:26-27; 9:26) Here we see both the uniqueness and finality in time of our Lord’s sacrifice. “But the Christ who came was made high priest of the good things which he brought to pass, and he entered a great and perfect tabernacle, which is not made with hands and is not of this created world, and he did not enter with the blood of kids or calves, but entered the sanctuary once with his own blood and acquired [for us] eternal salvation. . . . But the priesthood of this [Jesus], because he remains for ever, does not pass away, and he is able to save for ever those who approach God through him, for he is ever alive and offering prayer on their behalf.” (Heb. 9:11-13; 7:24,25) Here we see the permanence and ongoing character of our Lord’s priestly ministry being carried out in eternity, outside of time and without limitation.

The Qurbana is where these two realities, time and eternity–this age and the age to come–meet in the faithful prayers and expectations of the worshippers. Here Christ Jesus himself is present: in bread and wine, in the celebrant (the presbyter or bishop), in the Word which is administered, and in his Body’s members. Here the Priest and Victim, whose passion, death, resurrection, and glorification are now an integral part of who he is and what he is about, offers himself by accepting sacrificial suffering, death, burial, and resurrection, mediating on our behalf with his Father and healing the transgressions and sins which come between us and God. This meeting between the Body of Christ and the eternal High Priest of our religion occurs when we in faith join the heavenly choirs, the cherubim and seraphim and all the spiritual hosts, and escape for the moment our time-bound existence in union with our Lord and his sacrifice.

When the Apostle Paul was urging the Corinthian Christians to moral renewal he called to remembrance the passion of our Lord: “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse yourselves of the old leaven, since you are unleavened bread. For our Passover is Christ, who is slain for us.” (1 Cor. 5:6-7) As elsewhere in this epistle, the Apostle draws together teaching on moral conduct among Christians and the imagery of sacrifice (see especially chapter 11 where he draws upon the Qurbana and the Passover Supper in the Upper Room for this imagery). It is the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ which is the central fact of God’s provision for our atonement, our reconciliation with him. And it is the exercise of the Son of God’s eternal High Priesthood which is the guarantee of our ultimate salvation, for sin is a besetting reality in the human situation.

When Christ is present with his people sacramentally and in fulfillment of his promise, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them,” (Mt. 18:20) he is there not only as friend, brother, and teacher, but among the sinful and unworthy congregation he is there pre-eminently as eternal High Priest of our religion, ever alive and offering prayer on our behalf. We, in our Offering, are united with him in that once-in-time, but for ever sufficient, sacrifice.

But let us, like Paul, draw upon this image to stimulate ourselves to moral renewal. Jesus once said, “Whoever desires to follow me should deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mt. 16:24. Cf. Mk 8:34; 10:21; Lk. 9:23; 14:27) Our Lord lived a life of ongoing self-sacrifice. He set a pattern of self-giving and demanded we emulate it: “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Mt. 10:38) In the Qurbana Christ’s supreme sacrifice is depicted before our eyes. To be joined with him in his sacrifice, and to be united with him in his life, brings to the believer the necessity of taking up his own cross, a life of self-giving, and following his Lord in sacrificial service to his family, his fellow members in the Body of Christ, his community, and ultimately his Lord (“Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these, my brothers, you have done it to me.” [Mt. 25:40]) The imperative of sacrifice may seem demanding and beyond our feeble powers to fulfill, but its spiritual benefits to the obedient are richly rewarding. Also, the imperative carries with it words of consolation: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in my heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is mild, and my burden is light.” (Mt. 11:29-30)

What is the Qurbana?

The word “Offering” (Qurbana in Syriac) was first used to describe the worship of the Christian Church in the earliest Christian communities. It describes what is done when believers are gathered together for the worship of God. I stress the word “done” because both the Syriac word “teshmeshta” (service, or ministry) and the Greek word “leitourgia” (literally, “work of the people”) suggest doing something. You may sometimes hear people say that they go to church to observe the Qurbana, or that they go to hear the Qurbana, or that they go to receive the Qurbana. In the modern day there are few who feel that they, personally, go to Church to offer the Qurbana. They think this is the priest’s job, and in thinking this way they are not so much wrong as they are limited in their understanding of what is going on. Watching or hearing–or even simply receiving–the Qurbana suggests a person is detached from the experience of offering it–from experiencing the full satisfaction of membership in the living “Body of Christ” which is doing the offering.

Of course, the Qurbana has been understood in different ways by different people at different times and in different circumstances throughout its long history. Believers in Apostolic times met together in the house of one of their fellow-Christians for a common meal, at which they broke bread and shared a cup of wine mixed with water in obedience to our Lord’s command, “Do this for my memorial.” (1 Cor. 11:24; Lk. 24:19) Like the Passover meal of the Jews, in which the participants remembered the experience of the Exodus and made it their own, the breaking of bread and the recitation of the saving acts of God in the passion, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ made the participants in the Qurbana participants as well in the reality of those acts. By recalling that gracious intervention of God in time and among men, they considered themselves one with their Lord, and with one another, participating mysteriously in the most decisive moment of history. This whole experience of oneness with Christ and with one another in the power of his saving acts fortified the faithful, who were a minority in a hostile world, and gave them courage to bear witness to Christ in the face of sometimes brutal opposition.

It is instructive to remember how some of these early Christians provided for this common meal–or, to be more specific, how they provided for the “Offering.” Each family would bring its loaf of bread and flask of wine to the meeting and give it to the deacons. The deacons in turn presented the gifts of the faithful to the presbyter (or bishop) who then led the congregation in presenting them to God as an “offering.” In presenting them he offered, on their behalf, thanksgiving for God’s creative acts and for the new creation brought about through the Incarnation of his Son. He recounted the events of the passion, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and proclaimed their relevance to mankind. He prayed for God’s blessing upon the offering of bread and wine, and for the benefits that came to those who had fellowship in faith in the Body and Blood–that is, in the very person and life-of his Son, Jesus Christ. At the conclusion of his prayer, which the people affirmed with their “Amen,” the presbyter and deacons distributed the broken bread and mixed wine to the faithful.

As the Church grew and eventually prospered, the arrangement I have just recounted became unwieldy and impractical. Houses were inadequate for the crowds of worshipers; in those areas where the faithful brought their own bread and wine, this also became impractical; and because of the size and diversity of the people, different forms had to be devised to accommodate the changes. But despite any development that the Qurbana went through, the basic concept of the Offering remained at the core. The people came to offer Christ’s own offering as members of his mystical body, to recall the saving acts of God in Christ, and to participate in his life (and their own shared life together as his bodily members) through their common offering.

Today there are some who feel they have no significant personal part in the Offering of the Qurbana. The clergy are doing that, and they are the audience, looking on and singing psalms and hymns to pass the time until the Communion is distributed. People with this experience and viewpoint often devise their own private devotions, which they engage in simultaneously with the great drama being played out before them. This is the viewpoint that, until recently, had predominated in the West since the middle ages, but it is not unknown in the Church of the East. Others view the Qurbana as a public ritual, necessary for preserving the cultural identity and traditional heritage of a people steeped in Christian values. To such people the Qurbana is an important cultural tool, providing unity and helping to preserve the integrity of the Christian (or Assyrian) community in the face of a hostile and often aggressive world. This view of the Qurbana as a necessary public ritual is widespread in our time.

The two viewpoints listed above are by no means the only ways people view the Qurbana. And they are not necessarily wrong so much as they are incomplete. The Church’s own understanding of its “Offering,” its Qurbana, is rooted in Scripture and in the memory of those first Christian believers gathering together for their common meal and sacred “breaking of bread.” It is rooted in the promise of Christ, that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt. 18:20) It is given even more dramatic shape by the words of the Apostle Paul: “Now you are the body of Christ, and members in your own place.” (1 Cor. 12:27) When we gather for our Offering Christ is present–not only among us, as he promised, but within us, binding us together as his own body. Each of us functions as a member in his own place. Christ is present to us and in us in the congregation assembled in his name.

This dramatic insight is Paul’s closing thought in a dissertation on the Body of Christ that begins, “I speak as to the wise. Judge for yourselves what I say: The cup of thanksgiving which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? As there is one loaf, so all of us are one body, for all of us take from the one loaf.” (1 Cor. 10:15-18) Between this declaration and the announcement, “You are the body of Christ,” Paul discusses a number of issues with this as the central insight. Among these issues is one concerning how the believers in Corinth treated one another when they gathered for their common meal and breaking of bread. Weaving together the two images of the Body of Christ in the loaf of bread and the one body in the congregation, it becomes impossible to separate them when at last he declares, “Whoever eats and drinks of it unworthily eats and drinks condemnation upon himself, for he does not discern the body of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 11:29) By this time the reader of the epistle cannot locate the Body of Christ only in the “loaf of bread,” but the “body of the Lord” which we discern must also be located in the assembled believers as well. This was the standard for judging the rightness or wrongness of the Corinthians’ behavior toward their fellow Christians: in their assembly did they discern the body of the Lord in the men and women who surrounded them as well as in the loaf? It all comes round to the words of Christ himself: “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these, my brothers, you have done it to me.” (Mt. 25:40)

So those early Christians who assembled brought their Offering to God as the Body of Christ. It was quite literally an offering of themselves under the symbols of bread and wine, in imitation of his own self-sacrifice on the Cross, as he had commanded them: “Do this for my memorial.” In this Offering they affirmed–and experienced–their own oneness with their Lord and his self-sacrifice, and their oneness with each other, having participation in his life and in one another’s lives. In it they learned the meaning of his words, “Whoever eats my body and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.” (Jn. 6:54) In the bread and wine they discerned through faith the power and presence of the Lord himself: in one another they discerned through faith the gracious presence of the same Lord, as well as the opportunity to serve him and share in his life.

The Mystery of the Qurbana, then, is the mystery of Christ present with us: present in the bread and wine which is offered, and present in the assembled faithful, his body, who do the offering–the mystery of Emmanuel, “God with us.” When we fully discern the body of the Lord, then we experience the fullness of the Mystery, “the mystery which was hidden from ages and generations, but now is revealed to his saints, those to whom God was pleased to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the nations, that is, the Christ who is in you, the hope of our glory.” (Col. 1:26-27)