Throughout the months of November and December, our senses are assaulted with the world’s best efforts at showing “love”. We are presented with a façade of lasting joy and false permanence, and seduced with the idea that we can somehow bring joy to those around us, at a cost. In our efforts to feed our own emptiness and the emptiness of those we care about, we consume the message that we must feed the belly, that emptiness can be filled by shopping for others, and even for ourselves.
The shopping mall becomes our substitute for real human intimacy, real human love, the kind that reflects the love of God. As we prepare to celebrate the birth of God into the world, the shopping mall also serves as the ultimate distraction – and a justified one at that – allowing us to escape the silence that forces us to look into ourselves.
Looking inside ourselves is the whole point of the Nativity Fast, of course. In fasting, we hope to free ourselves from the ties of the flesh, from concern about food, from our obsession with entertainment, and to be quiet enough for a few weeks in order to pray.
In so doing, we prepare for repentance, Confession, and Communion. What is the goal of all of this – a big Christmas meal? Our goal is the lasting joy that eludes us at the shopping mall. The Nativity of Christ is the lasting joy that carries us – literally, carries our souls and bodies – into eternity, if we allow ourselves to break away from the false joys and fleeting security of the shopping mall.
Centuries ago, the bishop (and later saint) Nicholas of Myra lived this hope. While the debaucheries of his time left children orphans and poor, Saint Nicholas spent his resources to help young women out of lives working on the streets. He did so privately, at night, when the world was asleep. Saint Nicholas held out no hope of fleeting satisfaction: he was going after the real thing, the peace which passes all understanding. Isn’t that what we want?
As the world celebrates something they call Christmas, Orthodox Christians also seek the “real thing”, the joy that lasts. We are not pinning our hopes on the toys on Christmas morning; even our services begin to celebrate the Joy of the world before that morning comes. And for those who celebrate Old Style Christmas on the civil date of January 7th, we enjoy a further blessing: a sharp divorce between the noise the world calls “Christmas”, and the celebration of the Incarnation of Christ.
Saint Nicholas is indeed our Christmas icon: an icon of still, silent, eternal hope, while the world rests exhausted, and in so many cases, unfulfilled. Let us ask that by his prayers, we too may escape the scream of the shopping mall, and find the Peace that passes all understanding.