I just returned from Holy Trinity Cathedral in Portland, where I spoke with some lovely parents about how we live the Nativity Fast, how we help our children prepare their hearts for Christmas.
Think of the story of His birth:
When Herod called for the census, Joseph and Mary had no choice but to head for Bethlehem to be counted. Mary was large and pregnant, and would be giving birth soon. They made their way to Bethlehem, and they were probably concerned about exactly how they were going to safeguard this very special baby.
They arrived to find that the city offered no place for God’s Son. Every room was taken – the city had no room for Him. It makes me think of our own society right now: we are all dressed up for Christmas, with carols playing and everything decorated — but we don’t necessarily have room for Jesus. Much of our celebration is secular; it’s a Christian holiday, but much of what we do publicly is kind of religiously neutral. Christmas is of course, a very busy shopping season, a huge money-maker for the American economy, but at its best in our culture, Christmas is about feeding the poor or bringing gifts to needy families. It can be about reaching out to other people — but in the public square, it’s not necessarily about Jesus Himself, but only indirectly about His message of loving your neighbor. So, kind of like our own culture, the city of Bethlehem was busy with other things. It didn’t exactly reject Joseph and Mary outright. They weren’t cast out of the town, but Bethlehem didn’t make room for them: there was no place at the inn.
Eventually, Joseph and Mary found space among the livestock; as our hymnology points out, the earth itself offered Him a cave. Again — the world knows its Creator. The earth welcomed Him, and made room for Him. Joseph and Mary found a warm place in a cave, and there they prepared to receive their Lord.
Whenever a new baby is coming, the family usually prepare cozy beds and ready stacks of baby clothes and blankets. We want the new baby to know that he is welcome and loved, that he has a special place in this family he’s joining.
As Christmas approaches, we prepare our homes by decorating trees and hanging stockings. Can we prepare ourselves with as much enthusiasm and energy? Can we make a place that is warm and soft, welcoming and ready for Him, in our homes as well as our hearts?
How would we do that? How does one prepare, and then invite Jesus to be born inside of us, to make His home in our hearts?
What if we think of our household as a manger? What if we look around our homes and ask ourselves how to ready the place for Christ?
First, we should literally make room for Jesus.
In Bethlehem, no one had any space in their houses where He could be fit in.
We need to think about that, and to literally provide space in our house. We should have a little icon corner set up somewhere. We dedicate that corner to prayer, with the family’s icons gathered together. It’s nice if it’s on an East-facing wall, with icons of Christ and the Theotokos, and all of those other Saints that are especially dear to the family. It could be any wall (East is very optional). It should be in a place where the family can stand together to pray — if you think of the manger, where the magi and the shepherds came to worship the newborn King, this is the space where you gather your family, bring your children, to offer your love and worship to Him.
Come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!
There should be icons in that space, and also a little shelf or a small table where we can light candles. We should always light a candle, if possible, when we pray. The candles shine in the darkness like our faith and hope shine in this world. Jesus Christ is the light, so we light the candle, and fill the room and our hearts with light. Orthodoxy doesn’t just intellectually accept that He’s light, we bring the light. Physically, materially. Because that’s what human life is — it’s not all theory and intellect. It’s applied knowledge. And when we light the candle, we can teach our kids to pray that a fire be lit in our hearts as well.
What else should be on that table or shelf? You might try to keep some incense and a censer, some oil, and a little bottle of holy water. You can cense your home any time (especially on feast days), and you can anoint your children with oil and bless them with holy water, bringing the Holy Church right into your own home.
It is really meaningful when children see that the actions we take in the Church are also happening here in the home. After all, our homes are meant to be “Little Churches”, and we ourselves are the shepherds, guiding our children along a spiritual journey.
It’s interesting to keep the Orthodox fast for 40 days before Christmas when you live in a culture that pre-celebrates like ours here in the United States. It’s common here to reap the rewards of your work long before you’ve even started working. We use credit to buy things before we can pay for them, people live together before they’re married; we expect to eat the fruit all year long, as if there is no need to work in the fields until you feast at the harvest. When the feast comes cheap like that, without work, we don’t appreciate it properly and our gratitude remains underdeveloped.
The stores are decorated and blaring Christmas carols before December even begins, and the Christmas parties are in full swing weeks before the holiday arrives. The fun and festivity of Christmas lasts at least a month — and it’s the month that precedes Christmas! On December 25, it’s over. By evening, the Christmas magic is worn out and everyone is left exhausted.
The Orthodox model is quite opposite of course: we are to fast before we enjoy the feast. We must work the fields of our heart, tending to the seedlings of our faith in our order to have earned bountiful fruits at the end. It’s not that we don’t want the fruits all the time, but that the really good fruit only comes if you do the work. The kind of fruits that comes so easily are more shallow; the fun of Christmas carols and the sweetness of candies are very nice, but the spiritual fruits of prayerful effort and struggle, do not fade so quickly or leave us feeling sick and fatigued. The real fruits are worth a struggle.
As we raise our children in this culture, we pick our way through carefully, and we look to the Saints for guidance: St. Basil and Elder Paisios remind us to be like the bees, taking that which is good and joyful — the spirit of generosity and the warm hospitality that is in the air, the way that Christmas lights brighten the dark night, the beauty of manger scenes and a sudden popular interest in the Newborn King — but leaving behind that which is not profitable, like gluttony — both where food is concerned, and also in terms of allowing our lives to be overtaken by a frantic pace.
If we can think of our homes as the manger where Christ is born, as the peaceful space being prepared to receive the Newborn King, we can remind ourselves to block out some of the busy-ness of the season, staking our claim to peace.