Christmas for Christians: Eat, Drink & Be Merry?

It is undoubtedly true that there has always existed a temptation, even among Christians, to make food and clothing something much more than a simple response to the need to eat and be covered.

In modern society, the public is bombarded with advertising designed to create an obsession with elaborate clothing and fancy foods. The average Christian accepts almost without question the standards (our “high standard of living”) with which such advertising indoctrinates him. (The advertising industry excuses itself by claiming that it merely reflects the demands of society.) Many Christians see no conflict between their excessive anxiety about food and clothing and their Christian principles.

Some point out defensively that only the cults require simplicity and modesty, a radical change of lifestyle in response to their faith. (While it is true that many cults do demand denial or sacrifice of certain things, it is because, for them, those things are evil in themselves. In the Christian faith, it is the use to which things may be put that makes them evil.)

In the early Church, a certain simplicity in all aspects of life was generally accepted by all Christians. It was only after the establishment of the Church as the state religion and the entry of whole populations into the Church that expectations and standards were lowered, and it became fairly common (and acceptable?) for Christians to indulge themselves in luxury and high living. The ideals taught by Christ and the Apostles, however, always remained in the Church’s conscience and manifested themselves in two notable ways: monasticism and the Great Fast (Lent).

In both, the call to the simple life is of primary importance. In monasticism, men and women bore witness to the fact that it was possible, quite literally, to follow the teachings of Christ, no matter what society approved of. In Lent, all Christians were called back to the simple life, simple food and clothing, elimination of entertainments, and increased concentration on their relationship with God.

(Bishop Dimitri, The Kingdom of God: The Sermon on the Mount, pp. 93-95)

The Incarnation: So We Can See Christ

For humility is the raiment of the Godhead. The Word Who became man clothed Himself in it, and therewith He spoke to us in our body. Every man who has been clothed with it has truly been made like unto Him Who came down from His own exaltedness, and hid the splendor of His majesty, and concealed His glory with humility, lest creation should be utterly consumed by the contemplation of Him. Creation could not look upon Him unless He took a part of it to Himself, and thus conversed with it, and neither could it hear the words of His mouth face to face.

The splendour of His glory appeared on Mount Sinai; and the mountain smoked and quaked in fear of the revelation that was in it, so that even the beasts that approached the lower parts of it died. The sons of Israel made ready and prepared themselves, keeping themselves chaste for three days according to the command of Moses that they might be made worthy of hearing the voice of God, and of vision of His revelation. And when the time was come, they could not receive the vision of His light and the fierceness of the voice of His thunders. But now, when He has poured out His grace upon the world through His own coming, He has descended not in an earthquake, not in a fire, not in a terrible and mighty sound, but ‘as the rain upon a fleece, and rain-drops that fall upon the earth’ softly, and He was seen conversing with us after another fashion.

This came to pass when, as though in a treasury, He concealed His majesty with the veil of His flesh, and among us spoke with us in that [body] which His own bidding wrought for Him out of the womb of the Virgin, even Mary the Theotokos. All this He did so that on beholding Him Who was of our race conversing with us, we should not be smitten with terror by the vision of Him.

Wherefore every man has put on Christ when he is clothed with the raiment wherein the Creator was seen through the body that He put on.

(St. Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of Isaac the Syrian, pp. 381-382)

Christmas Lent

The American road to Christmas winds through mountains of parties, friends and family, festal foods and drink, baking and buying, social gatherings and gift exchanges (and also giving to charity – more money is given in America to charity in December than in any other month – 1/3 of the annual charity given in America occurs in December).  On the other hand, the Orthodox Church 1000 years before America was even conceived had carved a path through the desert to Christmas.  The pre-Christmas season was meant to be quiet, prayerful, ascetical, preparatory, anticipatory and devoted to alms giving (these two ways at least have charitable giving in common!).

Living in America, we really have to stop and intentionally choose the Orthodox way to Christmas.  For the hubbub of the season will certainly capture our attention with all its sparkling lights and joyful music, while the quietness of Orthodoxy will be lost beneath the mounds of gifts, food  and seasonal dress.  Fr. John Behr comments on the Nativity Fast which is the Orthodox road to Christmas and preparation for the Feast: 

Lent is an intense period provided for us to focus again on what should be the content of every moment of our life – our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is the beginning, the middle, and the end of Lent because he is the Alpha and the Omega of all creation – the first word and the last word of life itself – who, again, for the joy set before him accepted the Cross so that we might live, so that we might taste this joy as we also begin living, not for ourselves, but for God and others.

The transforming power offered to us in Lent doesn’t originate here below in the human realm where we muddle along with our eyes on the ground or closed in slothfulness or sleep. Lent is our chance to look up, to wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. As the first Christians said: Maranatha! Our Lord is coming!  (The Cross Stands While the World Turns, p. 32)

The Feast we are preparing to celebrate is the birth of a man who was born in a cave because his family was too poor to afford other accommodations.  His family was forced to flee even their inadequate lodgings because of the threat of persecution and to become refugees in a foreign land.   So, St Photius the Great, writing in the 9th Century reminds us what Lent consists of – 

Fasting is acceptable to God when abstention from food is accompanied by refraining from sins, from envy, from hatred, from calumny, from vainglory, from wordiness, from other evils. He who is fasting the true fast that is agreeable to God ought to shun all these things with all his strength and zeal, and remain impregnable and unshakeable against all the attacks of the Evil one that are planned from that quarter. (The Homilies of Photius Patriarch of Constantinople, p. 227)

Theotokos Enrollment for the Roman Taxes

The Lenten practices of self-denial, humility, hunger, sojourning and feeling like exiles bring us much closer to the Holy Family and their condition at the first Christmas than do all of our parties and abundance.

Making Excuses to God

 
Then the Lord Jesus told this parable:   “A certain man gave a great supper and invited many, and sent his servant at supper time to say to those who were invited, ‘Come, for all things are now ready.’ But they all with one accord began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.’

And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.’ Still another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So that servant came and reported these things to his master.

Then the master of the house, being angry, said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind.’ And the servant said, ‘Master, it is done as you commanded, and still there is room.’ Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. ’For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper.’”  (Luke 14:16-24)

Archbishop Dimitri comments on the parable:

The first said unto him, I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee have me excused. And another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove them: I pray thee have me excused. And another said, I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come (vv. 18-20).

All three rather contemptuously disregard the generosity of the host, who cares for them and values their friendship. Their responses might be paraphrased, “Oh, I had intended to go, but something more important to me has come up.” The three excuses are meant to typify human concerns and priorities that, important as they may be in daily life, are nothing in relation to God’s love and care. The invitation and the response illustrate man’s neglect of what is of infinitely greater value to him – salvation and life eternal with God – than his earthly, perishable concerns. The Jews had been prepared for this final invitation by the events of their own history and by God’s speaking to them through the prophets, but since it did not offer improvement in their material concerns, they rejected it.  (The Parables, p. 128)

The Light of the Bethlehem Star is the Light God Spoke at the Beginning of Creation

The Sunday of the Forefathers of Christ

It sounds like a paradox that we should read from the Old Testament in order to discover in it the Face of Christ, and in a sense it is. But paradox is of the essence of the Christian mystery: the Increate, breaking into the creative act; the Infinite, giving number and measure to a finite world; the Timeless, yielding to the rhythm of days; the Divine, entering the family of men.

The Book of Revelation teaches us that Christ shall be the Last. This demands that we recognize him as the First, for He is the eternal Word by whom all things were made “in the beginning.” And it is no mere coincidence that these three words are read in the first verse of Genesis, and in the first verse of the Gospel according to St. John. We reckon by years before Christ, B.C., and years of the Lord, A.D.; the years under the Law, and the years of grace; the Old Testament, and the New Testament.

But the Incarnation is more than a serviceable time-divider. The light of the star which rose over Bethlehem is the same light that did shine through darkness on the first day of creation, unto the first man on earth, the fathers of the Old Law and the Gentiles, “every man coming into the world.”

We have no right to curtail the total perspective of God’s revelation. We have been taught to behold the image of Christ in the luminous pages of the Gospel, but we are not therefore to neglect or to despise the rays which have guided the Forefathers and sustained their hope. It is always His Face we should recognize, glowing amidst the shadows of the remotest past, and His voice we should hear in the reading of the sacred page, in Moses or in the prophets, as well as, in the Gospels or in the apostolic writings.

…and only under the intimate motion of the Spirit who first inspired Scripture, can we expect to discern the Face of our Christ shining amidst the shadows of the past, as it has secretly shone for the Forefathers. (Georges A. Barrois, The Face of Christ in the Old Testament, pp. 13-14, 44)

Posts on the Nativity of Christ

Each year since 2008 I’ve posted on my Blog posts related to the Nativity of Christ, Christmas and the Nativity Fast during this season.   At the end of each season I collect all the posts from that year related to the Nativity of Christ into a PDF, so anyone can read all the quotes I posted from any one year in one document.  Below are links to the quotes I posted each year related to the Feast of the Nativity or the Christmas season.

Twelve Quotes for Christmas

2010 Christmas Blogs

2011 Christmas Blogs

2012 Christmas Blogs

2013 Christmas Blogs

2014 Christmas Blogs

2015 Christmas Blogs

2016 Christmas Blogs

2017 Christmas Blogs

You can find PDF’s for all the blog posts I collected into one document at Fr. Ted’s PDFs.  This include the posts for each year for Lent or Pascha but also blog series that I composed on a theme.

Learning the Skill of Charity

One person has the skill to hammer brass into the most exquisite shapes and to engrave elaborate patterns on to it.

Another has the skill to make furniture, joining together different pieces of wood so firmly that no one can break them apart. A third person can spin the finest yarn, while a fourth weaves it into cloth.

A fifth craftsperson can lay stones one on top of the other to build walls, while a sixth puts a roof on top of the walls to make a house. Indeed there are so many different skills, each one requiring many years to attain, that it would be impossible to list them all.

So what is the skill that rich people should acquire? They do not need to fashion brass or wood, or to build houses. Rather, they must learn how to use their wealth well, to the good of all the people around them. The ordinary craftsperson may think that that is an easy skill to learn. On the contrary, it is the hardest skill of all. It requires both great wisdom and great moral strength. Look at how many rich people fail to acquire it, and how few practice it to perfection.

(St. John Chrysostom, On Living Simply, p. 14)

The Faith of a Physicist: The Incarnation

Christ the Divine Wisdom

“Yet the redeemer is not a gnostic Christ imparting the secrets of divine wisdom, who could indeed be a heavenly figure in human disguise.  The mystery of our redemption is something altogether deeper than that.  It proceeds, not from the outside by illumination, but from the inside by participation.  We need transformation, not information.  That is why docetisim is so totally unacceptable to Christian thought.  The Saviour must be truly and fully human.  In Gregory of Nazianzus‘ famous words, ‘what is not assumed is not redeemed.’  A heavenly figure could be of no redemptive  significance for us.  We should have no share in him.”   (John Polkinghorne, THE FAITH OF A PHYSICIST, p 136)

The Nativity Fast: Why Humility is Essential

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.  (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

Orthodox asceticism always presents us with a serious challenge to our tendency to oversimplify religion.  On the one hand, it seems to argue for nothing except absolute obedience to rules as THE way to follow Christ.  On the other hand, it reveals that strict obedience not only is a vacuity but is spiritually dangerous for it deceives us about its purpose.  As we continue on the spiritual sojourn of the Nativity Fast, we can think about the purpose of fasting and self-denial.

The same amma also said “it is neither spiritual discipline nor vigil nor diverse toil  that saves us if there be not genuine humble-mindedness. For there was a solitary driving off demons and he used to examine them:

‘What makes you come out? Is it fasting?’

They would say: ‘We neither eat nor drink.’ ‘

Vigil?’ he would say –

and they: ‘We do not sleep.’ ‘

Withdrawal from the world?’

And they would say: ‘We exist in the deserts.’

‘What then makes you come out?’

and they would say: ‘Nothing conquerors us other than humble-mindedness.’ Do you see that humble mindedness is victorious against demons?” (Amma Theodora, Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 129)

St Mary of Egypt

The spiritual victory over the demons does not occur in the desert, or in monasteries but in the humble of heart.   As the demons honestly (!) answer – just like monks, they don’t eat, they don’t sleep, and they don’t live in luxurious cities with every cosmopolitan amenity [so those who think the city is the playground for demons might be surprised to learn the demons don’t live in the cities but in the deserts!].  It isn’t strict ascetical practice which defeats demons, but humility.

If asceticism simply means being obedient to rules of self-denial, then monks are simply behaving like demons.  The real warfare for monks as for all Christians is to nurture and develop humility – a humble heart.   For the demons neither have humility nor can they abide in the humble heart for that humble heart is the abode of God!

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”  (Isaiah 57:15)

Lent, especially Christmas Lent, cannot be reduced to keeping strict rules of food fasting.  For its goal is to prepare the humble heart in which the Lord Jesus can come and abide.  What cleanses our heart is humility, which is the goal not only of Lent and asceticism but of the sacrament of confession as well.

“Every genuine  confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence.

Confession takes two forms. According to the one, we give thanks for blessings received; according to the other, we bring to light and examine what we have done wrong. We use the term confession both for the grateful appreciation of the blessings we have received through divine favor, and for the admission of the evil actions of which we are guilty. Both forms produce humility. For he who thanks God for blessings and he who examines himself for his offences are both humbled. The first judges himself unworthy of what he has been given; the second implores forgiveness for his sins.”   (St. Maximos the Confessor THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 18272-80)

Finding the Hidden Lord

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Today in Orthodoxy we begin the Nativity Season.  Of course, in Orthodoxy the season begins with a fast that lasts 40 days and 40 nights.  All around us, cultural Christmas is gearing up its shopping season with sales, Christmas decorations and sweet treats.  We are supposed to stand with Christ.

St. Mark the Ascetic writes:

The Lord is hidden in His own commandments, and He is to be found there in the measure that He is sought.   (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 3420-21)

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Looking to gift wrap, presents, festal deserts and Christmas decorations will not help us find Christ.  He is hidden in His commandments.  So we need to seek the Gospel commandments of Christ to find Christ this Christmas season.  He will be found in those commandments to that degree that we seek Him.  If we seek first the Kingdom of God, we will find Christ first.  If He is last on our list, He will be hard to find.

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If we believe He is Lord, we will seek His commandments to do His will, and then we will find him.  To keep His commandments, we have to know what they are and where to find them.   Time to read the Gospels and go to church.   This is the first day of the Nativity Season and Fast.  We are just beginning the search.

As St. Maria of Paris said on the verge of World War II, living as a Russian refugee in France having fled the Bolshevik revolution :

8187082426_c5b1c05faf_n“... we must not allow Christ to be overshadowed by any regulations, or even any piety.  Ultimately Christ gave us two commandments: on love for God and love for people.  There is no need to complicate them, and at times to supplant them by pedantic rules.  As for Christ, he is not testing us at present by our deprivations, by our exile, or by the loss of our accustomed framework.  He is testing us – when we find ourselves deprived of our previous living conditions and our way of life, when we are granted our awe-inspiring freedom – to see whether we can find him there, where earlier we had never thought to seek him.”  (Pearl of Great Price: the Life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, p 73)