Dear Parish Faithful,
Here is a meditation from a few years back - and one that is also in my new book in a slightly different form - that I do not overly hesitate to send yet again, because the issues presented here for us to think hard about ("meditate"), are certainly with us today and are far from being resolved: "There is nothing new under the sun." I hope everyone is prepared to make a real effort to embrace the forty-day Nativity Fast on a level that works for you and your family and that commits us to the life of the Church in a meaningful manner. If we are not prepared, perhaps what you read here will alert you to the Season we are now entering.
~ Fr. Steven
Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
Forty Shopping (and Fasting) Days Until Christmas
Today, November 15, we will observe the first day of the 40-day Nativity/Advent Fast, meant to prepare us for the advent of the Son of God in the flesh, celebrated on December 25. (The Western observance is from the four Advent Sundays before Christmas). For some/many of us this might very well catch us unaware and unprepared. However, as the saying goes, “it is what it is,” and so the church calendar directs us to enter into this sacred season today. This indicates an intensification of the perennial “battle of the calendars” that every Orthodox Christian is engaged in consciously or unconsciously. The two calendars – the ecclesial and the secular – represent the Church and “the world” respectively. Often, there is an underlying tension between these two spheres.
Because of that tension between the two, I believe that we find ourselves in the rather peculiar situation of being ascetical and consumerist simultaneously. To fast, pray and be charitable is to lead a simplified life that is based around restraint, a certain discipline and a primary choice to live according to the principles of the Gospel in a highly secularized and increasingly hedonistic world. That is what it means to be ascetical. And to be an ascetic is not to be a fanatic, but to follow the words of Christ who taught us to practice "self-denial" (MK. 8:34). It further means to focus upon Christ amidst an ever-increasing amount of distractions and diversions. Even with the best of intentions and a firm resolve that is not easy! From our historical perspective of being alive in the twenty-first century, and leading the “good life” where everything is readily available, practicing any form of voluntary self-restraint is tantamount to bearing a cross. Perhaps fulfilling some modest goals based on the Gospel in today’s world, such as it is, amounts to a Christian witness, unspectacular as those goals may be.
Yet, as our society counts down the remaining shopping days until Christmas; and as our spending is seen as almost a patriotic act of contributing to the build-up of our failing economy; and as we want to “fit in” – especially for the sake of our children – we also are prone (or just waiting) to unleashing the “consumer within” always alert to the joys of shopping, spending and accumulating. When you add in the unending “entertainment” that is designed to create a holiday season atmosphere, it can all get rather overwhelming. Certainly, these are some of the joys of family life, and we feel a deep satisfaction when we surround our children with the warmth and security that the sharing of gifts brings to our domestic lives. Perhaps, though, we can be vigilant about knowing when “enough is enough;” or even better that “enough is a feast.” An awareness – combined with sharing - of those who have next to nothing is also a way of overcoming our own self-absorption and expanding our notion of the “neighbor.”
Therefore, to be both an ascetic and a consumer is indicative of the challenges facing us as Christians in a world that clearly favors and “caters” to our consumerist tendencies. To speak honestly, this is a difficult and uneasy balance to maintain. How can it possibly be otherwise, when to live ascetically is to restrain those very consumerist tendencies? I believe that what we are essentially trying to maintain is our identity as Orthodox Christians within the confines of a culture either indifferent or hostile to Christianity. If the Church remains an essential part of the build-up toward Christmas, then we can go a long way in maintaining that balance. Although I do not particularly like putting it this way, I would contend that if the church is a place of choice that at least “competes” with the mall, then that again may be one of the modest victories in the underlying battle for our ultimate loyalty that a consumerist Christmas season awakens us to. The Church directs us to fast before we feast. Does that make any sense? Do we understand the theological/spiritual principles that is behind such an approach? Can we develop some domestic strategies that will give us the opportunity to put that into practice to at least some extent? Do we care enough?
The final question always returns us to the question that Jesus asked of his initial disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” If we confess together with St. Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then we know where we stand as the “battle of the calendars” intensifies for the next forty days. In such a way, these forty days will result in a meaningful journey toward the mystery of the Incarnation rather than in an exhaustive excursion toward a vapid winter holiday. The choice is ours to make.