As predictable as a pile of unwanted catalogs in my mailbox, November brought with it an ad for a community “Holiday Celebration.” Which holiday? Is it possible that my Denver suburb will be celebrating Pancha Ganapati, the five-day Hindu festival in December honoring Ganesha? Possible, but unlikely. A choir probably will not be singing pagan Yule or Saturnalia songs at the event, although they might devote a tune to Hanukkah amid the various paeans to snow and hot chocolate.
I roll my eyes at the more egregious examples (“holiday tree,” anyone?), but I don’t lose sleep over the declining use of the word Christmas and the so-called culture wars. As a non-monastic striving to follow Christ while living in the world, I am well aware of the state of our society. Culturally, the meaning of Christmas was lost decades ago, buried under an avalanche of acquisitiveness and vague sentiment. The problems are much deeper than word usage.
This relentless secularism in the West gives me yet another reason to be grateful for the timelessness of the ancient Orthodox Christian Faith. I don’t need to scramble to find new ways to remember the “reason for the season”—the Nativity Fast will help bring my scattered thoughts back to Christ.
Lighting the Way to Bethlehem
Like the flame of a beeswax candle on a moonless night, the beauty of the Nativity season in the Orthodox Church shines brightly in the surrounding secular darkness. The Orthodox approach to Christmas is truly a countercultural experience. In just a few more days (starting on November 15th, or the 23rd for old-calendar worshippers), we will enter a season of dietary abstinence in the midst of holiday gluttony, prayer and silence as the world rushes by, and sacrificial giving to people who actually need stuff—like food and shelter.
The Church provides us with a rich banquet of worship as we stumble together towards Bethlehem. For forty days, Christmas hymns and Old Testament readings fill the services, reminding us that the Incarnation of Jesus fulfills prophecy.
But the Church gives us more than just a collection of new reading assignments. In Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth from Ancient Faith Publishing, Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou writes,
Our preparation for Christmas with the Old Testament is not an intellectual exercise, not a mere study of Scripture by which we affirm biblical truth. Rather, it is a spiritual preparation that challenges us to change our lives as a result of this divine revelation, to ‘be doers of the word, and not hearers only’ (James 1:22). We are invited to be changed by our worship and our hearing of the word of God. (p. 21)
A forty-day fasting period feels long, especially when trying to navigate office holiday parties and the Christmas-cookie-baking expectations of extended family. But preparation is a form of training. Like a runner getting ready for an elite race, our “readiness” for Christmas requires some work. Going caroling is not enough (although it’s a lot of fun). Binge-watching Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel is not enough (although millions of
people women would disagree). We must prepare our minds, our hearts, and our bodies to receive the King.
It is not enough to celebrate Christmas. We need to be changed and shaped by what we are celebrating. If our spiritual life is no better in spite of all our praying, fasting, and church services, then we have not yet begun to fully respond to the significance of Advent and of the Nativity. (pp. 27-28)
How can we be changed? As in every lenten season, we give, pray, and fast. And during this ascetic struggle, the Church helps us with hymns that shape our thoughts and attitudes:
Let us cast aside the sleep of idleness, and with vigilance of soul let us sing to Christ, who is born of a pure Maiden….
Let good action be sufficient for the storehouse of our soul, that with a radiant countenance we may sing to Christ, who is born….
Increasing our talent by good works, let us offer them instead of gold and frankincense and myrrh as gifts to Christ, who gave them. (Eighth Ode of Compline of the Forefeast, December 20)
(By the way, I highly recommend Meditations for Advent. The fifteen short chapters can be read in small portions throughout November and December, turning our hearts and minds towards the miracle of the Incarnation.)
Repentance Among the Twinkle Lights
Even more countercultural than fasting before Christmas is the Church’s focus on repentance.
The Church’s invitation to prepare for the Nativity is above all a command to us to open the gates of repentance, that Christ may enter our very being and be born anew in our hearts, and to offer our virtues to the newborn King. Instead of gold, we offer charity; instead of frankincense, prayer; instead of myrrh, repentance. Then, like the song of the angels and the adoration of the shepherds, our worship will be pure and our love without pretense. (p. 28)
This vision of repentance is not morose, but joyful. Even as we take stock of our lives and find the inevitable failures, confessing sins that are “voluntary and involuntary, in word and deed, known and unknown,” we rejoice in the Incarnation—Christ’s appearance among us in history and also in our hearts.
Keeping such important things in mind is a challenge in the midst of our to-do lists. The soundtrack at the mall fills our ears with “Santa Baby” and “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.” Even when the occasional carol sneaks onto the playlist, it’s hard to think about repentance while strolling through Macy’s. But the disciplines of the fast help us, reminding us to think about how we spend our time, talents, and treasure.
As we prepare to celebrate the birth of the King, may He find our hearts a spiritual Bethlehem, ready to welcome Him.
Christ is to be born within us: in our mystical celebration we shall become Bethlehem, the humble place of His Nativity, and so we must prepare ourselves in order that our Lord may make His dwelling within us. (p. 24)