In the Orthodox Church the Christmas Holiday Season begins on November 15 with the beginning of the Nativity Fast. Traditionally in Orthodoxy the Pre-Christmas season was intended to be one of quietness and simplicity as one meditated on the Incarnation of God the Word which is a key part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world. Jesus came into the world in the poverty of a cave where animals were sheltered from the weather. At that time there were no 40 days of shopping and over eating by the Holy Family in preparation for the fulfillment of God’s promise. Mary contemplated the meaning of the birth of God’s Son, as should we all. She did this in the simplicity and poverty of life which were part of her lot in life.
One way to prepare for the Nativity is to examine your own heart and conscience regarding how well you follow Christ in your daily life and then to go to the Sacrament of Confession. This would certainly be a godly way to prepare yourself and your family for the celebration of the Nativity of the Savior.
A dynamic priest-friend of ours shocked his parish at the beginning of Lent with a sermon that ignored the traditional things people tend to “give up” or “do” for the forty days. Instead, he focused on scouring the blasé attitude of their hearts. “Who needs your religiosity, your fasts, icons, prostrations, services, Bible studies, periods of meditation, and good works,” he said pointedly, “when they are not rooted in your heart, permeating your thoughts and actions with goodness? And you claim you are good? When is the last time that you really looked at your life honestly?” (The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness)
Christ came into the world opening not only heaven to us, but also opening our hearts so that each of us could see cleary what is in our hearts.
The Lord said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:20-23, NRSV)
According to our Lord Jesus Christ, sin does not come upon from outside of ourselves. Rather sin emerges from within. Confession is not magic to ward off evil from entering our lives, but rather is part of our ascetic effort to uproot and expunge the evil that lurks within us. It is not external temptations that cuase us to sin but rather the passions from within that we fail to tame. In Confession we acknowledge this spiritual warfare, we name the sins that are at work within our hearts in order to triumph over them. Repentance means that we change ourselves from within. We recognize the root of our problem is in our hearts and we begin the difficult task of putting the passions under control so that we can follow Christ.
In His teachings given to His disciples, Jesus Christ places a great emphasis on self denial, generosity, giving, charity, and mercy. He is a preacher of love for others, for one’s neighbors, even for one’s enemies. The opposite of the love which God offers the world is self-love. The difference being that true love is focused on the other, while self-love is not love in this same sense for its object is one’s self not someone else. Love is always other oriented (see 1 Corinthians 13).
I was asked what I think about Joel Osteen’s message and version of Christianity. I have to admit being a person who rarely watches TV and so who isn’t awed by the most current “celebrity saint”, I had no idea who Osteen was. Coincidentally two people sent me different electronic references about him including an article in The Atlantic about the so-called “prosperity Gospel” which is certainly appealing to every self-loving American. “Name it and claim it” theology is so popular because it is so self-serving.
It is not that a positivist message is wrong in and of itself, but I think it is not true to God or the Gospel. To put it in another way it is more about gaud than God or more about gaudiness than godliness. Christ Himself warned His followers that they could expect persecution for rejecting the values of the world, Osteen though changes the message and has Christ teaching prosperity rather than persecution.
Someone might say I as a pastor of a congregation under 200 members am jealous of Osteen’s worldwide outreach. But I don’t have the personality to do what he is doing – I have no interest in making myself the message. Besides it is the Church as whole – the Body of Christ’s task to reach the world. I personally don’t have to do it by myself. My role is a small part within the Body of Christ. Osteen is promiting himself and his ideas. Osteen certainly strikes me as being part of America’s love for celebrity. It is his message which he is selling, literally in the form of books.
I also think the prosperity Gospel is false, because history shows countless Christians who remained totally faithful to God despite persecution, enslavement, impoverishment, exile, imprisonment, torture, minority status and martyrdom. Faithfulness to God is no guarantee of success in this world, nor is it meant to be. The entire Old Testament is witness to the fact that despite defeat, enslavement, exile and all manners of suffering, the Jews remained faithful to God and did not embrace the religions and gods who triumphed over them. One real contribution of Judaism to all of Western civilization is their belief that there is meaning to be found even in suffering and defeat. Even when there is only suffering God still speaks to His people. The search for meaning is the Jewish legacy to the world. The glory of the people of God was their determined faithfulness to the Lord even when they languished in captivity or exile.
Though the positivist message is admittedly totally appealing to a self-loving population, it has little to offer to people in time of crisis, suffering, tragedy or cataclysm.
The message of the Gospel is one of love – of giving of one’s self, of being merciful to others, of being charitable and generous. The prosperity Gospel puts everyone’s faith at risk when there is no prosperity. It makes prosperity, riches and wealth to be the greatest good which will only lead to greed – the willingness to be prosperous at the expense of any others, and the willingness to kill any who threaten one’s wealth. Hardly the Gospel message of Jesus, the Son of God.
I see the same problem with the prosperity Gospel as I do with those believers who fear science and religion. It sets up a false God which requires one to sacrifice truth in order to defend the idol. Faith in God is to help us survive prosperity as well as poverty (“Fret not yourself over one who prospers in his way” – Psalm 37:7; “For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” – Psalm 73:3). Faith in God is not threatened by the mounting evidence of evolution at work in the world. Faith does not oppose truth, but helps us transcend an indifferent or hostile empirical universe. God as Creator and Savior of the universe is just as true in times of plenty and at times of want. God as Creator of the universe is just as true even if the on-going mechanism at work in creation is an evolutionary descent with modification. Neither poverty nor science can change the truth about the Creator. Faith sustains us through times of suffering and impoverishment and gives us peace and wisdom as science offers a materialistic view of the universe.
Faith is not magic that can manipulate the powers of the universe to carry out “my” will. Faith is accepting that I am the servant of the Lord – He is not my servant who must accomplish my will because He cannot resist my faith anymore than a Storm Trooper can resist the Force in the hands of a Jedi. The prosperity Gospel ignores the plight of countless people who suffer disease and trauma in this world despite their faithfulness to God. It turns God into the Cosmic Santa Claus who must reward your every whim whether you’ve been bad or good because you have the power to force Him to do your will.
The prosperity Gospel focuses not on God but on what works for me – any god will do as long as that force/god can be bent to do my will. This has nothing to do with truth, mercy, love, kindness, peace, generosity or charity. It says the universe is here to serve me – it is not even a geocentric vision which was ousted by truth centuries ago, but is an egocentric vision of reality in which the universe is nothing more than the narcissistic supply which feeds my self centeredness. God is only necessary to the extent that He serves me for in this universe “I” am the only one who really exists or matters. The world outside of myself is mine to manipulate, mine or pillage as I see fit for “’I’ am the Lord my god” in this pseudo-theological thinking.
If all the positive thinking gurus have got you down, you would be in good company with Barbara Ehrenreich whose new book BRIGHT-SIDED is subtitled, “How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America.”