I have a favorite Joni Mitchell song. In her very mournful style she sings about the season before Christmas:
It’s comin’ on Christmas,
They’re cuttin’ down trees,
They’re puttin’ up reindeer and singin’ songs of joy and peace.
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on…I would teach my feet to fly!
It is a melancholy tune, echoing the bittersweet experience of the culture Christmas. We love it. We hate it. We wish we had a river we could skate away on.
Christmas is the great feast of sentiment in our culture. It is filled with deep poignant reminders of childhood hopes and dreams as well as bitter pains. The songs associated with it, from religious carols to the crooning of Bing Crosby, are geared towards a set of thoughts and feelings that are among the most strongly held in modern America. A Jewish friend once said to me, “Everybody’s a Christian at Christmas! You can’t help it!” It certainly feels that way. Little wonder that those who want Christians to be unseen and unheard bring frivolous lawsuits and get angry at a holiday that pierces so deeply.
Of course, the feelings are not about Christ or His birth. That event itself becomes overshadowed in the fog of sentiment. The feast is about a feeling – one that is often co-opted for other purposes.
The angels proclaim, “Peace on earth, goodwill towards men!” and their song is taken up as a slogan, a desire and longing for a world that does not exist, but which we feel as though we somehow misplaced. “I’ll be home for Christmas,” the singer croons, but we never do get home. For the home is a childhood that we remember, but with all of the tricks of false memory. It is blended with images of Jimmy Stewart and Zuzu’s Petals and the sentiments of a Christmas that never comes.
And so we react with anger. The marketing of the sentiment begins too soon and is often either too earnest or simply wrapped in kitsch. Anger is the reactive passion that seeks to protect us from the season’s onslaught. And it hardens the heart – like that of Scrooge.
But whatever Christmas is—it is not nothing. It cannot be avoided or dismissed. As such, it should be recognized for what it is – a spiritual struggle that begs to be joined. Anger and dismissal are already defeat, the triumph of misbegotten dudgeon.
The struggle is not about Christmas – it is about the passions. The cultural treatment of Christ’s incarnation is only an occasion of temptation. Christians angry about the abuse of Christmas does nothing for the world and only impedes the gospel.
So how do we struggle? First we forget what the culture is doing. How can we expect the culture to do something different? Modern culture exists to sell things to people and the people exist in order to feed their passions – to acquire pleasure and avoid pain. But the Christian struggle is to keep the feast. And the feast begins with fasting.
This is the Orthodox way of life, the last complete example of classical Christianity in the modern world. There are other vestiges of classical Christianity – trace elements that mark the memory of a Christianity now greatly weakened. In contemporary Churches that memory is called Advent. Advent is marked with a special wreath with candles and readings appointed for Sundays. The home might include an Advent Calendar, a ritualizing of the Christmas countdown. But forgotten by contemporary Christianity is that Advent was once a fasting season, comparable to Lent. In Orthodoxy, the fullness of the fast remains. The Nativity Fast begins 40 days before Christmas (November 15 on the New Calendar). Though not as strict as the fast of Great Lent, it is nearly so.
And this is the classical pattern of the Christian life – the arrival of every feast is prepared with fasting. The greater the feast, the stricter the fast.
Why the fasting before the feast? It would be just as appropriate to ask, “Why the feast?” The liturgical celebration of events, or saints is not an exercise in ceremonial memory. The Church is not engaging in fits of nostalgia. The faith of the Church is that the mystery of the feast, or the person of the saint is, in fact, made mystically present in the feast. We do not celebrate the memory of Christmas – Christmas comes into our midst and we become partakers of the mystery. The Word becomes flesh, and the spiritual energies of Christ’s incarnation permeate the lives of those of partake of the feast. It is a saving event.
It is this reality that fasting prepares for. Fasting is a spiritual preparation that readies the body, soul and deep heart for the reception of the feast. And in the feast we are transformed. This is the hallmark and pattern of the whole of the Orthodox spiritual life.
…purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1Co 5:7-8)
Our attention in the 40 day Nativity fast is properly directed towards our own lives. We refrain from certain foods and increase our prayers. We increase our giving and remembrance of the poor. We strain ourselves towards union with Christ in all things. And all of this so that at the great feast of His Nativity, He might be mystically born in us, in His humility, finding a welcome and kindred home.
He does not enter the heart that is crowded with wealth and cares. For there was no room in the public inn. It is in the humble cave in the company of the ox and ass that Christ finds His home. And there, in the company and companionship of His mother we welcome Him.
We really don’t need to concern ourselves with what is happening in the stores and shops. We may indeed decorate our trees and buy presents. But the heart that has taken up the discipline of the fast can forgive the world for its forgetfulness and neglect. For it was in just such a time that Christ was born. Those who are watching for Him will always find Him.