“Christ is born!” my priest says to begin his Nativity Feast sermon. Although he has taught us the response many times before, only a handful of people shout back “Glorify Him,” and even fewer (understandably) respond, “Truly He is born!” And as usual, Fr. Luke tells us that this is an Orthodox greeting that we unfortunately do not say.
But why is that? Is it really an ancient greeting? Was it used by the early church? And why is it so prevalent in the Eastern Orthodox Church and yet absent in the Coptic Church?
I don’t have all the answers, but here is what I could gather.
Christ is born, glorify Him. Christ from heaven, go out to meet Him. Christ on earth; be ye exalted. Sing unto the Lord all the whole earth; and that I may join both in one word, Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad, for Him Who is of heaven and then of earth. Christ in the flesh, rejoice with trembling and with joy; with trembling because of your sins, with joy because of your hope. Christ of a Virgin; O you Matrons live as Virgins, that you may be Mothers of Christ. Who does not worship Him That is from the beginning? Who does not glorify Him That is the Last?
Today, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the beginning portion of St. Gregory’s oration sermon is sung as a hymn on at least two occasions (it is referred to as being one of the nine “Irmoi” of the Christmas canon).
1) Matins of the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple (about a week after the Advent Fast begins)
2) Matins of the Feast of the Nativity
In many Eastern European households, Orthodox Christians eat a Christmas eve meal, which begins by prayer from the father of the family, who then opens dinner with the Christmas greeting, “Christ is born,” to which the rest gathered at the table respond “glorify Him.” In Russia and Ukraine, a Christmas dish known as “Kutya” (cooked grain with honey, sesame seed, and sometimes nuts) is traditionally served as part of that meal; in Old Russia, there were always three bowls of kutya: white, amber, and black, to remember the three Magi.
In short, if I were to answer the question as to why this is not prevalent in the Coptic Church as it is in the Eastern Orthodox Church, it seems because of the following:
- The greeting may have only become common with St. Gregory’s sermon, and particularly some time during its introduction in the actual worship service of the Eastern Orthodox Church; thus, it was (in my view) likely not an early Church greeting.
- The greeting, being part of Christmas-time traditions among some Orthodox Christians, further ingrained this as the customary announcement during the Nativity season.
- The Coptic Church has no similar hymn, and no similar custom.
- I would guess that because the introduction of both the hymn and the dinner custom seems to have happened later than the time of St. Gregory, and plausibly after the council of Chalcedon, the Oriental Orthodox never acclimated to what the Eastern Orthodox had instituted.
Nonetheless, this is truly a beautiful greeting, and I wish more of us in the Oriental Orthodox Church were accustomed to saying it. While “Merry Christmas” is not a bad greeting, as the birth of Christ yielded much joy to the world, yet at the same time it seems to have allowed for the meaning of Christmas to dissipate in our collective mentality. “Merry Christmas” for many can simply mean, “I hope you have a fun Christmas season”; “Christ is born, glorify Him” reminds us that the season is about Him.
Image above: comes from a friend of mine who visited the “Hanging/Suspended Church” in Egypt and gave me this icon as a gift; it is a replica of a seemingly ancient icon in their possession.
The Services of Christmas in the Orthodox Church, by Rev. Alexander Schmemann
Studies in the Greek Orthodox Church, by Antony Bashir
The World Encyclopedia of Christmas, By Gerry Bowler
The Liturgical Year: Christmas, v. 1-2. 1868, By Prosper Guéranger