Our Keeping of Christmas

Bishop Seraphim : Article
Our Keeping of Christmas
[Published in the “Canadian Orthodox Messenger”, Winter 1996/97]

By the time this message will be seen by most of our readers, it will be either quite close to or after the Feast of the Birth of Christ, our Saviour. It would have been nice to address a little earlier the way we approach and celebrate the Feast of the Nativity, but that’s the way our rhythm of publication works out : that’s life.

About seventeen hundred years ago, it began to be decided that we would celebrate the Birth in the Flesh of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ on 25 December. Until this time, there had not been a great emphasis on this celebration as a separate event, perhaps because it seemed even self-evident. However, there were temptations by some to down-play or ignore the Incarnation (the taking-flesh of the Word of God), and many were being led astray by inaccurate ideas. The Incarnation of the Word was, and is, central to our perception of Christ and to our life in Christ as much as it is to our salvation. Thus, in order to keep the right focus for the faithful, our Fathers established this separate feast. In the Roman Empire, at that time in December, there was a pagan celebration of the beginning of the return of the sun. It was a perfect opportunity not only to emphasise the Incarnation, but, as our hymns say, to speak out openly that Christ is the source of that sun, and is Himself the Sun of Righteousness (see Malachi 4:2).

The celebration even now proclaims that “those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to worship the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God”. The Word of God took flesh and dwelt amongst us. He took upon Himself all our fallenness in order to raise it up with Himself. He who Himself is the instrument of Creation became the creature (mankind) that of itself had fallen away and become distorted, and He renewed it. Only He, by this self-emptying, could restore the unity from which we broke. For many centuries, the Birth of Christ has been the clear focus of our celebrations on 25 December.

Now, at the end of the twentieth century, we are again in the midst of a secular culture which is not concerned with Christ, even though it has taken some elements of our celebration to itself. Only hints of the real point of this festival remain, but it is upside down. Saint Nicholas, who has nothing directly to do with this feast, has been distorted into being merely a jolly toy-giver. Gift-giving has become a materialistic tit-for-tat mania, a competition to out-do one another, rather than to imitate the Magi. The festal celebrations now begin far ahead of the feast itself (more than six weeks earlier). Even before we begin our lenten period, the sales have begun. Everything now seems to end on the eve of the holiday. This is in stark contrast to the sensible ways of former times, when the celebrations began with the feast itself and lasted for several weeks afterwards. This is one reason why people do not seem to comprehend the meaning of the songs about the twelve days of Christmas. Worst of all, Christ Himself is not “politically correct”. To top it all off, amongst those who still celebrate the real Nativity Feast, we Orthodox Christians also add the spice of celebrating either on the Julian (old) or the Revised Julian (new) calendar. We live in an ironic time.

This is almost like a re-enactment of the Fall itself. We have been restored to full communion with God, who out of His merciful compassion healed the wound which killed us. However, out of a combination of fear of the light and pride that we really know better, we revert to diversionary ways.

This atmosphere makes it a great challenge for the Orthodox believer to be a witness to the Truth (please note : for us Truth = Jesus Christ). There is no way that we can make some lobby-method revolution in the thinking of society. Nevertheless, the changes which happened so long ago can happen again, by the mercy of God. However, the changes require the determined faithfulness of Orthodox Christians, and loving intercession for the world, as Saint Silouan of Mount Athos encourages us.

Most particularly, at this time of the year, it means that while we need to be sensitive to our obligation to participate in certain of the secular events because of work, school, or the like, we can do so with a certain restraint that can suggest to anyone who is perceptive that there is another and a better way. The fast before the Nativity of Christ is one of the greatest challenges. True, it is not necessarily so strict a fast (until the last two weeks), but it is still a fast. It is possible to attend some of the necessary secular functions and still keep the fast. By “keep the fast”, we are to understand not that we eat nothing, but rather that we abstain from eating certain foods. Here, we need to be especially creative. While we must never be triumphal about our observances, we can by understatement convey to those who want to see, our love for Christ and how it affects every aspect of our life.

We can put brakes on pre-festal celebrations and accent the celebrations after the Nativity itself. Our gift-giving can be restrained and simplified, and we can take care never to give a gift which carries a condition of being equalled in return. We can exercise true loving hospitality at our tables to our friends and co-workers after the Nativity Feast itself, and show how Christians really observe the Birth of the Word. In fact, we can do so best by helping the poor and the needy at all times, not just at the Nativity. We can remember how to sing those carols which truly reflect Christ’s Birth, and remember Whom we serve.

We can finally accept that the life in Christ, especially for an Orthodox Christian, is always a tension : to live in the world but not to be of the world (see John 15:19 ; John 17:14-15).

It is not easy to follow Christ and to reveal Him in this world. After all, He Himself said : “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his Cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). May the Lord who is God and has revealed Himself to us enable us to do just this.

Loose Lips

“Loose lips sink ships”, was a war-time saying which I heard frequently as a youth. Of course this saying referred to the results of indiscriminate remarks (perhaps at a pub, or at a game of cards, or some other informal setting) which allowed enemy agents to know the movements of merchant or naval fleets, and to attack them. I suppose that one could refer to many film stories on this subject. However, ships as such is not my concern here. My concern is for persons, and about the results of the way we talk.

Christians must always be concerned about how we speak about other persons, and above all, about how we speak about the Lord. Not only is this crucial because it is a reflection of our love for Christ and other persons, but it is crucial because as Orthodox Christians we are measured by others, some truly searching for the truth, by our example. Ultimately, we will be measured by the Lord, Himself.

The way of the fallen world is, as we are often reminded in the Scriptures, to praise a person when there is a positive product (and especially when “there is something in it for me”). However, if the person should err somehow, then the praise is quickly changed to damning. Even worse, if there should be a person in the way of one’s designs, or if envy or jealousy provokes, then there is often a deliberate torpedoing of the obstacle. One of the principal expressions of these evil passions is gossip.

Gossip involves the poisonous process of probing with speculation into a person’s motives and character, transforming these speculations into supposed facts, spreading them in a sort of conversation which generally adds creative details, and often results in the demolition of another person’s character, reputation, family, career. This process knocks a person down, and viciously kicks him or her. No wonder gossip has often been compared to murder. The person’s life itself may not be taken, but the means of livelihood, or the family context itself may be removed. I do not think any of us has lived past twenty years of age and not seen this in action. This is all deadly territory for Christians. It is the direct evil opposite of the Christian way.

The Christian must learn to look for and to see Christ in every other person (without making distinctions as the world does), and lovingly to serve and nurture that other person, as the good neighbour, the Samaritan did.

There is yet another sneaky way in which good intentions become slyly perverted. It is, ironically, through prayer requests. We all need to ask each other’s prayers for support in our struggle in life to follow Christ. It is right for us to ask for prayer of our brothers and sisters. However, we must be on guard when we pray for others. Curiosity about details can lead to our own downfall and bring us all too easily again to the field of gossip. Monastic elders often say that the best prayer is “Kyrie eleison” : “Lord have mercy”. This is a complete prayer of intercession. In fact, we do not need to ask too many details when praying, and we don’t need to “compare notes” with others who are praying. By following this advice, we keep away from the dark side of curiosity and we avoid this slippery access to the poison of gossip or idle talking. I have heard too many times of examples where sincere believers have, through empathy, slipped from compassion to curiosity, and they have inadvertently caused a brother or sister to fall.

It would be good if everyone were to read the General Epistle of Saint James. I will cite a little passage for you which I find to be very useful :

Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires. Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh. Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (James 3:4-18).

In another place, the Lord Himself, addressing the regulations about food, tells us that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out of the mouth – from the heart (see Matthew 15:17-18). This is why we need to remember that homespun advice which we learnt as children if we saw the film Bambi. Thumper the rabbit is advised by his mother : “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all”. The grammar needs improvement but the message is accurate.

We are not the judges of anyone else, only the Lord is the Judge of all. We are all sinners, and none better than the other. Why be an ally of the evil one in attacking and bringing down a brother or sister in a weak moment ? Let us rather, following Christ, do the opposite. Let us be bearers and bringers of life, repentance and renewal. Let us build up and encourage. Let us say only what is good, and what is praiseworthy. Let us measure our words, and when we do speak, let our speech be pure and gentle. Let us be merciful, even as our Heavenly Father is merciful (see Luke 6:36).

Travels and Temptations

We live in a time which allows for easy and rapid travel and we tend to make liberal use of these conveniences. As always, however, travel has its dangers. I am not talking so much about robberies or catastrophic accidents as about the spiritual difficulties that arise every time we change our daily rhythm. Travelling with the frequency and speed by which we are able to move about these days, probably makes much worse the difficulty we seem to have in maintaining even the minimal daily discipline. In this context, I have to say that I am glad to see that in more and more parishes, people are deliberately asking for prayers before even shorter trips.

One of the big temptations that we constantly face (and one which seems to be accentuated) is that of judgementalism. It is truly a good thing that we look up one of our churches and go there on Sunday when we are travelling away from home. However, when we go to another parish, we need to be prepared. Unless we prepare our heart beforehand, we can be sitting ducks for the devil’s target practice. It is an easy temptation to speak humorously about people who have immigrated from the old country with the attitude that the particular customs of their village were the absolutely correct Orthodox way of doing things. Criticising or making fun of other people’s ways is not a good thing to do. When that happens, we quickly find that those very things we attack are showing up in ourselves.

An old monastic piece of wisdom is : “Do not bring your typikon to another monastery”. The fact is that each monastery has its own way of going about its life, and so does each parish. If we go somewhere else, then we have to be prepared ahead of time to behave according to the customs of that place (whether we like their particular customs or not). We are, after all, only visitors. We must avoid abusing the hospitality of our brothers and sisters. For instance, perhaps my parish is one that does not concern itself about informal clothing in church of a Sunday. This does not mean that I could assume that if I am dressed quite informally when I visit another parish, that this informality would not lead my brothers and sisters into temptation. The same principle applies regarding the covering of heads, and other such customs. What is important is to present myself before the Lord with the best clothing I have, and not to concern myself with others.

Whether travelling or not, living with the variety of customs, or not, the main question is what sort of attitude is in my heart toward my brothers and sisters ? Do I participate in demonic target practice by looking for weak spots or faults in those around me ? Then, do I take aim and verbally shoot ? Or do I find ways to reinforce, support, nurture, encourage and help my sisters and brothers in repentance in one way or another ?

I remember being told as a child that “those who live in glass houses ought not to throw stones”. A variation I heard later is that when I point a finger in accusation, there are three fingers on my hand pointing back at myself, the accuser. In our Christian life, it is important for us to accept that we are all sinners in a hospital for sinners, sick in sin, and that our proper attitude is to be reflected in what we always say in the prayer before Holy Communion : that I am the first amongst sinners. I am the sinner.

It is the responsibility of each one of us to find healing in Christ, and to help others do so as well. It is in living this out that we truly show that we are Orthodox Christians. The practical details of daily life are very important, but they are empty unless they are fed by the principal of repentant love in Christ. Therefore, whether we are travelling or not, it is important to be watchful always, and to have our spiritual armour on every day (see Ephesians 6:13-17).