For Orthodox Christians Easter is at the center of the liturgical calendar, while for Western Christians (especially Protestants) the Nativity / Christmas is most prominent.
In this year of 2018 Orthodox Christians around the world celebrate Pascha (Easter) on April 8 according to the older Julian Calendar; Western Christians celebrate the Easter holiday on April 1 on the newer Gregorian Calendar. This represents a time of great joy for all Christians, and provides a worthy occasion for considering why for Orthodox Christians Pascha is at the center of the liturgical calendar, while for Western Christians (especially Protestants) the Nativity / Christmas is most prominent.
Throughout the year, with few exceptions, the main service of Orthodoxy—the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom—includes musical reminders of the Resurrection. In every liturgy the choir sings two hymns to the Resurrection, both being in the tone (specific core melody) of the week. These are the Resurrection troparion (тропарь) and the Resurrection kontakion (кондак). Both the troparion and kontakion represent Greek poetic forms of the early centuries of Eastern Christianity whose function in the church service evolved through the ages. Thus for the faithful, in each Divine Liturgy all year long there are at least two sustained reminders of the Resurrection.
In Western Christianity the emphasis of the yearly worship cycles is on the Nativity, rather than the Resurrection. The reasons for this are deeply embedded in the differences between the theological traditions of the Eastern and Western churches. These differences go all the way back to the first millennium, when church doctrine deriving from the Eastern Roman and Western Roman Empires was more or less unified (although differences were beginning to emerge). Still, ancient Orthodoxy and Catholicism shared a theological basis that maintained the Resurrection as the center of religious experience and meaning.
Starting from the writings of theologian Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) and extending to those of Anselm of Canterbury (1033?-1109 CE), Western Christianity’s understanding of the Nativity and the Resurrection changed from that of the original Apostolic teaching. During the years of the Protestant Reformation (of Catholicism), 1517-1648, Augustine’s theological concepts became further codified and formed the basis for the way in which today’s Protestants view these two pivotal events in Christianity. The Reformation fathers, such as Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564), continued this theological line of thinking. As a result, the Protestant justification for why Jesus incarnated differs markedly from that of Orthodox Christians, who retained the understandings of the ancient church.
Augustine’s thought posited the existence of an angry God, namely: God’s honor was offended by Adam’s disobedience, and as a consequence He sent Jesus Christ to be the perfect appeasement of His honor and order of the universe. In other words, Jesus as God’s Son was given to the Protestant world as a ‘payment’ to restore God’s honor with a perfect sacrifice. The Nativity and Resurrection are thus viewed as appeasement of God’s anger and honor. Because of Jesus’s coming into the world, everybody is able to receive salvation. The birth of Jesus Christ in the Augustinian tradition represents the understanding that God gave His Son to the world in order to restore the order of the universe. For the Protestants, if one believes in God, one is “saved.”
This interpretation is out of the realm of what the Eastern Church taught: In Orthodoxy there is no “angry God,” and God’s reason for sending His Son into the world was not for appeasement of honor. Rather, Jesus Christ came into the world as the New Adam to restore humankind and to offer salvation. This critical point escapes the Protestant mind. For the Orthodox, salvation was manifested with the coming of Christ, but it is constantly being won in an individual’s lifetime. Theologically we are saved three times: we are saved when we are baptized, we are saved when we die in Christ, and we are saved at the Final Judgment (also known as the Second Coming). Salvation is an ongoing process.
Orthodox Christians do not see the Nativity as the finalization of God’s salvation. For a deeper understanding of the Nativity, one needs Orthodox theology: In the Nativity Jesus Christ as a baby did not overcome death, but He accomplished this feat at the end of His time in the world. Christ in His humanity accomplished the restoration of human nature, and it is actualized individually in the life of each person. The supreme importance of Pascha for Orthodox Christian theology and the radiant anticipation that the Orthodox in Russia and all over the world experience during the Paschal season derive from the notion that Jesus Christ’s ability as God to overcome death is fulfilled--in His descent into hell and His overcoming of death in order to make this overcoming possible for all humankind. In this most important sense the Protestants do not understand Pascha.
For Orthodox Christians the Nativity is a quiet holiday preceded by a fast of genuine anticipation of the Coming of the Lord. In Russia, this is a spiritual holiday not normally accompanied by the giving of presents. It is a time to reflect on one’s closeness with God and the deepening of this connection because of Christ’s birth. The common greetings for the Nativity are: Christ is Born! Magnify Him! The Nativity is thus separated from the New Year in Russia, in which an evergreen tree is purchased and decorated, and gifts for the new year are given.
With the activities of Jesus Christ in the world—His ministry, miracles, teachings in parables and other forms, His actions, and acceptance of God’s will unto the Resurrection—humanity’s salvation is made possible and accomplished. This is why in Orthodox Christianity, the ancient faith, it is the Resurrection, and not the Nativity, that remains the focus of the liturgical calendar. This is why each year during the long standing services and Processions of the Cross of the Matins, Midnight Office, and Liturgy late into the Saturday evening that becomes the morning of Pascha, the Orthodox faithful bear in mind the words of St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal Homily of the 4th century: “O death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown.”i And the choir chants the Russian Orthodox hymn with the transcendently beautiful chordal changes: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down Death by Death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing Life.”
Valeria Z. Nollan is a past president of the Association for the Study of Eastern Christian History and Culture. Her translation of Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov’s The Philosophical Foundations of Integral Knowledge was published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. in 2008. A lifelong Russian Orthodox Christian, she was the keynote speaker for the 62nd Commencement Exercises of Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, NY in 2010.
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