By Elena Dini
ROME — The Church recognized very early the need to set aside time to prepare spiritually for the feast of the Nativity of Jesus — Christmas. This season, called Advent in the Roman Catholic tradition, and the practices that accompany it may vary in the different Christian Churches, but they all aim at supporting the faithful in their spiritual path to welcome Jesus at his birth.
The Lay Centre is blessed this year to have scholars from the Greek Orthodox Church and from an Eastern Catholic Church among the resident community.
Stergiani (Stella) Tapaskou is a graduate student from Greece at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. She received the opportunity to continue her studies in Sacred Scripture in Rome, thanks to a scholarship offered by the Catholic Committee for Cultural Collaboration (CCCC).
Usually, in the Greek Orthodox tradition, people observe a weeks-long fast in preparation for Christmas. Therefore, after the midnight Christmas liturgy, people return home and end their fast.
“There is a huge table prepared since early morning for that moment,” said Tapaskou. She named a number of traditional Christmas recipes, such as cinnamon cookies, cakes and “Christopsomo,” a sweet bread that has the seal of a cross on top.
Music plays an important role, as well.
“On Christmas, children often go out singing 'kalanda' (carols) in the streets. They play the drums, the flute, the guitar and triangles as they sing. If they sing well, someone might give them some money. They go around the neighbourhood singing Christmas songs and knocking on the doors to preach the Good News,” she said.
Alexander Aboutanos, who is studying philosophy at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, said his father “immigrated from Lebanon to the United States, so our ancestry lies in the Eastern Catholic Churches.”
“I currently attend a parish of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. It is a church of the Byzantine tradition whose apostolic origins lie in the ancient city of Antioch, in modern-day Turkey,” he said.
“In preparation for the Nativity, the current Melkite practice is to begin the Nativity Fast, approximately two weeks before the feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. During this time, we abstain from eating meat and spend more time in prayer, preparing our hearts and bodies to welcome the Infant Child,” he explained.
“I am delighted to spend this Advent in Rome because of the many saint days leading up to Christmas. Rome seems to light up more and more as we progress towards Christmas, and I’m incredibly blessed to be here,” said Aboutanos.
At the end of November, the resident community at The Lay Centre enjoyed Greek Orthodox prayer, during which a short version of Christmas Day Matins was sung.
While we live this Advent time in preparation for Christmas, may we be accompanied by the words of this Christmas Matins service that will joyfully resound in a few weeks in the Greek Orthodox Church: “Christ comes from Heaven; go and meet Him. Christ is on earth; arise to Him. Sing to the Lord, all you who dwell on the earth; and in merry spirits, O you peoples, praise His birth. He is glorified.”