Source: The Orthodox Oasis: Newsletter of Assumption Greek Orthodox Church
Did you know that the Orthodox Church has an oriental Christmas in November? It’s one of the best- kept secrets, but it’s very real…and it speaks to something we desperately need.
Here, finally the weather is beginning to feel a bit more like the chilliest side of Fall. The Winter is slowly descending upon us and as we enter into the “Holiday Season,” our thoughts slowly turn toward Christmas. We reminisce of the kitchen fragrances of cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves and hot apple cider, thyme and rosemary, filling the house with the aroma of a new season of kindred fellowship. Delightful, Norman Rockwell memories of times when families gathered round the table together to exchange sentimentalities warm our hearts. Now is the season that we also begin to hear people lament about the need to “put Christ back into Christmas.” We desperately long for those kinds of times. However…
The Ghost of Christmas Past
In Christmas past, many of us have arrived upon December 25, only to frustrated, stressed, numb, broke, and sometimes even fragmented from our families. The spirit of the times – the corruption and the expectations of the world can fill our hearts with so much clutter, that by the time Christmas arrives, we sit in a daze, scratching our heads, wondering how our own, present-day experience of Christ’s Birth, could possibly have had anything to do with God’s plan. The utter temptation is to look at this demoralizing experience of Christmas going on around us and to say, “Bah! Humbug!”
November’s Oriental Christmas
As a solution to all of the clutter that keeps us from experiencing Christmas with the heavenly joy that God intended, the Church offers us the ultimate Christmas present. It is the experience of being present in God’s Presence. It is an oriental Christmas in November--re-orienting ourselves so as to finally experience that profound joy on December 25. So where does that term “orienting” come from? How do we “re- orient” ourselves?
In the Church, we have our altar facing the East (the direction of the Orient). We do this for a couple of reasons. First, the East is the direction from which the sun rises--the day’s new light. Christ said, “I am the light of the world,” thus, we orient ourselves toward the East, looking for His light to dawn upon our lives. The second is that the East is the direction from which the Son will rise on that last day. Thus, we orient ourselves in anticipation of Christ’s second coming, about which the scripture says “For just as the lightning flashes from the East and shines and is seen as far as the West, so will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matthew 24:27). In our Nativity Troparian, we sing, “Your birth, O Christ our God, shines forth on all the world with the light of knowledge. For at Your birth, those who had adored the stars were taught by a star to worship You, the Sun of justice, and to know You, the Orient (Greek: anatolín) from on high. O Lord, glory to You.” So each time we turn our lives back toward Christ, each time we face toward the altar, we are reorienting ourselves.
Yet, beginning in November, we have something especially designed to help us do this with our whole lives. As we enter the Nativity Fast on November 15, looking forward to the day when God’s Son becomes flesh and takes up His residence among us, we are reminded of the words of St John the Baptist…“Prepare the way of the Lord, clearing a path for Him!” Essentially, during Christ’s advent, we are preparing a path to re-orient our hearts, to clear away all the exhausting clutter, so that we can experience the birth of Christ with the same irrepressible joy that the shepherds and the wise men and the angels experienced. The mystery of God’s birth as human flesh is a revolution that brings about the transformation of the world, but starts with each of our hearts--as the mystery of Love. During this Nativity Fast, each of us has our own Bethlehem--it is our own heart. “Make ready, O Bethlehem: let the manger be prepared, let the cave show its welcome. The truth has come, the shadow has passed away...” (Nativity Hymn by St Sophronius). The Church offers 40 days for each of us to reorient, to prepare the manger within the cave of our hearts, to clear away the clutter so that there is a passable path for Him who is Love to enter in and be born anew, in ways that transform us to lives that shine with truth.
But how do we prepare apassable path for the Lord to reenter our heart? Won’t this 40 day Nativity Fast be impossible within this culture, which does everything within its power to fill our hearts with a clutter of thoughts and worries? Here, first, our hearts are drawn to the Archangel Gabriel’s encouragement to Mary at the Annunciation of Christ’s birth, when he proclaimed, “Don’t be afraid…since nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:30 & 37).
Clearing Away the Clutter & Preparing the Manger
Here is just one thing, very simple and do-able for us to begin with--a fast of our thoughts. St Theophan the Recluse mentions that one of the biggest obstacles to clearing away the clutter from our hearts is with our own thoughts. He observes that our thoughts keep whirring around in our minds restlessly and aimlessly like buzzing flies. Now, it would be silly to tell ourselves to “stop thinking.” We could no more successfully do that than we could tell ourselves to “stop breathing.” The fact is, our minds are incapable of being totally idle. So, while it’s impossible to make the continual chattering of our thoughts disappear, what we can do is to gently, but persistently detach ourselves from them hrough a tool that the Church offers to us. In order to dissipate the huge swarm of frenzied thoughts, we must offer a task to the mind to satisfy its need for activity— something to keep it properly engaged, but without allowing it to be too active. Thus, St Theophan teaches that “to stop the continual chaos of your thoughts you must bind your mind with a single thought, or the thought of One only.” For us Orthodox, especially during our re-orienting Nativity Fast, “the thought of One only” is the holy name of Jesus through the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer, “O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” silently prayed, constantly throughout the day, is our very simple way of clearing our minds and preparing the manger of our hearts during this frantic season. It can and should be done any and everywhere. This is especially important to use to clear our minds when we become frustrated with the actions of others, recognizing that we ourselves are sinners in desperate need of God’s mercy. Interspersed with that, on many occasions, it may become more feasible for us to simply shorten it to “Lord have mercy.” For instance, when we watch the news, let’s try to engage the news with this prayer, asking for God’s mercy upon those persons created in His image, who are suffering the effects of the world’s darkness and corruption. When we are driving down the road amidst the frustrations of bumper-to-bumper traffic, let’s lovingly offer the people around us up to God, asking for His tender mercies upon them. In the grocery store, in conversations with people with whom we work, in interactions with family members, in all of these sorts of activities, we can begin to incorporate the use of the Jesus Prayer in silence. When we thus fulfill God’s words spoken through the Psalmist, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), exalting Him and His merciful Love in every aspect of our lives, clearing away the clutter of our thoughts, then we find ourselves becoming re-oriented and able to experience the beauty of His birth in complete joy. “Come, O you faithful, inspired by God let us arise and behold the divine condescension from on high that is made visible to us in Bethlehem. Cleansing our minds, let us offer through our lives virtues instead of myrrh, preparing with faith our entry into the feast of the Nativity, storing up treasure in our souls and crying: Glory in the highest to God in Trinity, whose good pleasure is now revealed to men, that in His love for mankind He may set Adam free from the ancestral curse.” (Sticheron of the Sixth Hour, Christmas Eve)
May you have a blessed, oriental Christmas in November.