How Orthodox Christians should connect the New Year and the Nativity is the topic of an interview granted to Nasha Gazeta by His Eminence Archbishop Michael of Geneva and Western Europe of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia..
The noisy greeting of the New Year of 2014 has passed. Orthodox Christians of Russia, Serbia, Georgia and others prepared for the great holiday of the Nativity of Christ. Not long after was the “Old New Year” beloved by many. How are these events connected?
Nasha Gazeta: How are we to explain the phenomenon of the New Year from the point of view of the Church?
Archbishop Michael: The New Year arrives when we begin a new astronomical cycle, each year has a beginning and an end. We never celebrate the end of a year, only the beginning of a new one. From ancient times it was considered that the day begins with the dawn of the sun, and evening begins with the setting of the sun; from dawn to dusk it is bright, and from dusk to dawn it is night. And so every person perceives the concept of time. There is another cycle, not daily but yearly, also an astronomical concept: over the course of this period, the Earth circles the Sun. When we greet a new year, we understand that we live for the future, and that time awaits us ahead. We do not know what this time will bring, what awaits us, but it helps formulate a natural concept of life. This natural understanding of life was given to us by the Lord. God created the heavens and the earth, and man himself, in His Own image and likeness. Man himself is now sinful by nature, and his conception of life can only arise when he understands that he is a sinner by nature. But since he was created in the image and likeness of God, then he might always seek God. This is the meaning of being Christian.
Nasha Gazeta: The civil New Year and the arrival upon earth of Christ the Savior, what do these events have in common? Is it simply a coincidence of dates?
Archbishop Michael: The greeting of the New Year is a profoundly Christian phenomenon. Because when we see that the new year is 2014, and not any other, we connect it with the Nativity of Christ. When we greet the New Year, we welcome the new Nativity of Christ. It is a few days later than the New Year, but it is essentially the same time period. We greet a new annual cycle when we greet Christ, Who assumed our nature Himself, and, since He did, He accepted all these natural concepts that God created, and the Incarnate Son of God Himself, while on earth, shared them with us. That is, the Divine concept of the new year becomes clear for us because although we are no prophets, we cannot foretell the future, but we understand it, because we enter this new life ourselves, for the coming of Christ to earth was manifested by God the Father’s Divine Providence.
Nasha Gazeta: Can you remind our readers who may be far from the Church and from Sacred history how it came that Christ came to our world?
Archbishop Michael: No one knew how Christ would become Incarnate, how He would live on earth, how He would arrive. Some imagined that He would arrive on a steed with a host of warriors to reign over the world, or to give the chosen people power over the world. But as it turned out, Christ became incarnate on earth in an unexpected way. Christ appeared born of the Most-Holy Virgin Mary, from the Holy Spirit. At this time, the Roman Empire was taking a census. In Judea, everyone had to travel to the birthplace of their ancestors. And so Joseph the Betrothed and the Virgin Mary found themselves in Bethlehem. But a great many people had already arrived, and there was no place for them to stay, and so the Son of God was born of the Virgin in a cave—there was no other place to go. And we know from Church Tradition and from apocryphal writings that the Child lay in the cave, in a manger from which livestock was fed. The first people to greet the Child were the Wise Men who came from distant lands. They were heathens, Mazdaites [Zoroastrianism—transl.], who followed a star, and the star came to a place where it showed the place of the Son of God. These pagans came to meet and honor God, bringing Him gifts. At this moment, angels, archangels, all the Bodiless Powers rejoiced. The song “Glory to God in the Highest, peace on earth” was heard by shepherds in a neighboring pasture. They came, too, and bowed down before Him, but those whom we call the “Old Testament people of God” were not there. It is generally accepted that they knew nothing about this event, though when the Wise Men came to King Herod, they explained the purpose of their visit. And so word got out; they remembered that in the Old Testament, the coming of the Son of God was foretold. But the first thought Herod had was to destroy Him. The Son of God came, but His people did not greet Him, instead, the desire sprang up to kill Him.
Nasha Gazeta: Would it be correct to say that the Nativity of Christ is the real New Year?
Archbishop Michael: When our year begins, it begins with the Incarnation of the Son of God. This is something new, new life, which was unknown to the people of the Old Testament. The time of the New Testament arrived. Mankind embarked upon a path towards the new. That is the meaning of this holiday, that we understand that before us is exactly the Living Word of God, Which was born for us within time, because as the year comes to an end, the Son of God is Incarnate again. New life begins in Christ, and each person senses that this new, future year will be lived with Christ. Will he live correctly, or incorrectly, can he overcome all obstacles? Therein lies mankind’s challenge: the Lord is with us, and came for our Salvation, and each must come with his mind and faith to the conclusion that without God there is no life. That is the meaning of the greeting of the Nativity of Christ and the New Year—it is a spiritual concept which is connected to the acceptance of Christ. All peoples of the world today greet the New Year; but many only sense the need for some kind of renewal. Some greet the year with fireworks, others more modestly, and Orthodox Christians greet it with prayer, piously. This joy is a spiritual joy, because the Son of God became Flesh, meaning a new cycle of life with God begins, and a new understanding of Salvation which belongs to God. This is the main thought of this holiday, the fundamental meaning of this feast day: at this moment the recognition of a person’s life comes to him. The rest of the time he exists in daily life. One must eat, one must work, one must occupy oneself with something—family, a spiritual family for some, some simply have their business to tend to, and people fuss and run around doing things all day, work or study. A holiday halts all of these activities and concentrates a person’s mind on cognizance of his existence. For many this occurs through spiritual revelation or spiritual birth, a new force for the future arises. This provides new hope; that is why when we greet the New Year, we congratulate each other by saying Happy New Year, and when we greet the Nativity of Christ, we exclaim the greeting “Christ is Born, glorify Him!”