While I was changing the altar covers to Red this week, signaling the beginning of this 40 day march to the Nativity of Christ, I was reminded of what we as children in the Church used to sing in my home parish every Sunday during the Christmas Fast while we counted down the weeks to the Winter Pascha:
Prepare O Bethlehem, for Eden has been opened to all! Adorn yourself O Ephratha, for the tree of life blossoms forth from the Virgin in the cave! Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Divine Fruit: For if we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam. Christ comes to restore the image which He made in the beginning. –Troparion for the Forefeast of Nativity
When I sang this as a child, I didn’t really appreciate how this entire 40 day period is truly encapsulated in that one hymn. It begins by imploring us as the Church to prepare: Prepare O Bethlehem, for Eden has been opened to all! Step out of the normal routines of life, and to prepare ourselves. The Garden of Eden, that spiritual paradise that all of mankind had in the beginning, is about to be opened back up to us!
Are you tired of the stress, anxiety, frustration, and depression of all of the challenges you have had this past year? Leave it behind and put your focus on something you can control…your relationship with God and with those around you. Gather around the icon corner with your family at night and read portions of the Nativity Story. Have quiet and reflective dinners together (or if you have kids, at least have a loud dinner together). Turn off the world and turn on Christ for these next 40 days.
“Adorn yourself O Ephratha” the Church continues. Ephratha was the ancient name for the city of Bethlehem, which in Hebrew means “Fruitful”. It is a reminder for us that as a part of our preparation for the Nativity, we need to bear fruits of virtue in our life.
We saw in the parable for the Gospel today the story of the Good Samaritan. We heard about a man who was beaten and left for dead, and how the first two people, a Priest and a Levite, sinned greatly against this man by continuing to go about their business. The Samaritan didn’t just stop to check on him. He didn’t just “not sin”. The Samaritan showed compassion, charity, and love for his neighbor.
Our little parish offers us many ways in which to show virtues during this Nativity Season. The Angel Tree is available in the back today for us to show charity to seminarian families who are not working and unable to get small gifts for their children. This month, we as a parish family will be distributing blankets to the homeless. There are many people over these next 6 weeks to whom this season is extremely difficult and lonely, and although our children will be reaching out with cards to show love, we as adults can make sure that we take time out of our busy days to sit down and call and support one another. Adorn Yourself with virtues! Be fruitful these next 40 days.
The hymn continues: “…for the tree of life blossoms forth from the Virgin in the cave!” The Church shows honor here to our Mother, the blessed Virgin Theotokos, the woman who God waited thousands of years from the creation to find a suitable place to enter into the world. Right at the beginning of this fast, we are given a Major Feast Day of the Theotokos. If you are a lover of scripture, The Entrance of the Panagia is awesome to read about and celebrate, as it offers so many Old Testament images of how the world has been preparing for thousands of years for the Incarnation of God through this simple 13 year old girl. On our Mother’s Feasts, we should always make it a point to come home to the Church.
“Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the Divine Fruit: For if we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam.” We are reminded of how through mankind’s sin, death entered into the world. We went from paradise and walking with God Himself, to centuries of walking in the opposite direction.
In order to understand where you are going, it is important for us to look back at where we have been. During these 40 days, it behooves every Orthodox Christian to read from the Old Testament about just how far mankind had fallen. We make it a point to hear the words of the Prophets who were pointing to the coming of God in the midst of chaos, and to understand what the Incarnation truly does mean for the world and for each and every one of us. But most importantly, we enhance our life with scripture during the 40 days to to get excited and encouraged by the realization that “Christ comes to restore the image which He made in the beginning.”
We are called as human beings to something greater…a greater life and existence than the one that we are living in right now. We are reminded that we don’t have to wait in order to experience it! That life is available to us right now. Our Lord has literally opened up the door for us to restore the icon of God that is planted within our hearts, that we continually cover up with the dirt of our sins and human weaknesses. The door is open. The narrow path is laid out in front of us. This Nativity Season offers us the chance to once again guide our footsteps towards new life.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we begin the countdown to Christ’s Incarnation into the world. Let us do everything that we can these coming weeks to open our hearts and allow Him to truly manifest His life within us, just as He continues to do throughout the world.