From time to time even a benign shopping session at Walmart can give you insight on the status of our society today. The other night, as part of pre-Christmas preparation, I was looking for a copy of the recent Hollywood movie “The Nativity story”. After scouting for a while with no avail in the helter-skelter of the multi-media proposals, I noticed something that I sought would relief me from my fruitless search: a Christmas movies stand! Glazing with joy I instantly told myself: were would the Nativity story movie be better placed but there? So with all my hopes up I eagerly approached the booth of my “salvation” and started browsing through the colorful covers.
All the favorite Christmas movies were there: Miracle on 34th Street, Dr. Seuss: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, National Lampoons Christmas Vacation, Jingle all the way and so on. All the usual and unusual Christmas characters were represented: Santa the red/white fat sensation, Rudolph the red nose reindeer, Grinch the villain and even Arnold Schwarzenegger the current governor. All kinds of Christmas stories were told with one notable exception: The Nativity story! Not only that I did not found the movie I was looking for, surprising for a Hollywood production, but I could not find any movie that will tell, albeit in part, anything about the birth of Jesus Christ. It was like Christmas had no Christ in it, like the One that started this whole celebration period was pushed out, devoid of any copy right in the greatest plot of all times.
I realized in that moment that Christmas was stolen away from Christians, melted in the furnace of the secular society and remolded in a totally new form that has nothing to do with the original. Under the influence of the pluri-cultural, post-modern, post-Christian society of the day, the pure gold of the Christian faith, that made Christmas possible in the first place, has being mixed with a myriad of pagan, esoterical and secular influences that have perverted the core of the incarnation of God celebration.
For most of the people Christmas is not anymore Nativity, and I think a lot has to do with this name change. Nativity is an unequivocal term: we name exactly what we are celebrating: the birth of our Savior, nobody can take that away if we call it like this. The English word Christmas is however broader term. Coming from Catholic tradition of the Midnight Christmas Mass it can in fact be used to name any day: after all every service we are performing in Church, is dedicated to Christ, so can be a Christ-Mass. From this already generic terminology recently sprung the term Xmas, an apparently benign spelling leap that led to a total hijacking of this great feast of the Church. Using the X as a placeholder the “Christ” in “Christmas” can be conveniently replaced by anything or anyone you have in mind. As a consequence, what started as a religious holy-day was transformed into a “hip” celebration that has cut any links with its sacred roots.
But the Christmas name is not the only suffering radical transformations. Take for instance Santa. Santa is as post-modernist and multi-cultural as you can get. He started as Saint Nicholas, went to Sinter-Klaas and ended up as the more familiar and conveniently neutral Santa. Santa can be anything. He is part saint, part magician, part entrepreneur, part farmer, part entertainer. His body mass evolved over the years from the ascetic allure of St. Nicholas to a more and more generous round fat belly that expands as the material goals of our consumerist society grow larger and larger.
What can we say then about the Nativity Lent? Ask any Westerner about it and they will look at you as you were coming from Mars. They will explain that Christmas is not about abstaining, is about overindulging. Now is the time when they say to their souls “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”(Luk 12:19). It is like they are so happy that Christ is coming that they need to eat all the food before He comes so He can lead them into ascetic life because there is no food left!
So in today’s world what is Christmas? Let me give you an insight from Oprah Winfrey’s article “Oprah’s Christmas party”: “Christmas is a feeling in your heart. And whether you’re commemorating Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or December 25, the celebration is meaningful only if the spirit of the day lives strong in you all year round.” Can we go any vaguer than that? What about Ramadan? Can we fit that in too? Apparently so because now you can buy as a Christmas present at Target a doll that cries out: “Islam is the light”.
Here is the picture: on Nativity day, the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, a kid can receive, from a generic Santa, a Muslim doll, wrapped with a card that says Season’s greetings, while having dinner at a table were the 7 candles of Hanukah shine!
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for religious dialogue and tolerance, but this has gone a bit too far. There is no Truth anymore, there is no Way to follow, there is no guidance in our lives because we have disconnected ourselves from the very source of all that: God. Christ said “I am the way the truth and the life.” But they say today let’s call on Buddha too, let’s call on Mohammed too and the shamans and the witches, they are all full of wisdom.
Yes, but they only have the wisdom of man and here is what the Bible says about human wisdom: “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? […] For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength”. (1Co 1:20-25)
The premise of all the pretense open-minded theologians is that there are ways to God that do not involve the way of the Cross. But how do they go around Jesus, the God-Man that says “No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.” (Joh 14:6-7). But the way of the Cross is hard, means accepting suffering as part of life, means renouncing of this world; true, but with the unimaginable gain of moving into another dimension, from ephemeral to eternal, from material to spiritual, from perishing to everlasting.
As Orthodox Christians we approach Nativity with a more serious mindset and preparation that involves fasting, increased prayer and almsgiving. We don’t do this because we are sad for Christ is coming, on the contrary, we are glad. But we are not awaiting an earthly King that needs to be welcomed with feasts of food and gifts of gold, but a spiritual one that does not care for any of that. Christ became like one of us not for Him to indulge in this world but to give us the possibility to be like Him: spiritual, not material. But how we can do it if we are so deeply sunk into this material world? This is why we fast, to prepare for the way He leads us on, to make another step toward being masters of our own bodies and not let the bodies control us; to give priority to our spiritual nature over our physical one, to be part of a world that is not overshadowed by the greed of the Xmas rush but enlightened by the true Sun that is arising in Bethlehem.
The Nativity season should indeed be a season of joy and sharing, a season of gifts, but let these gifts come from above, let them be everlasting not perishable, let them be for our edification as citizens of the Kingdom of heaven not as statistics on a consumer report.
Christ is coming, let us glorify Him, let us return His gift of life by giving him our lives so He can take them and transform them in what we were meant to be from the creation of the world, partakers of eternity. Let’s us start by giving Him back at least his earthly birthday.