Christmas

Keep the Nativity Fast for the Nativity Feast

Dear Christian Friends,

About this time of year we post messages of all sorts showing our disapproval of the continuing secularization of the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior.

KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS

JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON

I agree that there is way too much focus on the decorating, materialism, and non-religious attitudes that are condemning this time of year to being the “Winter Holiday.”  But, I think that striving to keep Christ and remember Jesus without some sort of inward spiritual process isn’t doing anyone any good.  In fact, the more we proclaim such slogans aloud without the inward spiritual process, we are probably turning more people off to the Christian faith than we are leading people to salvation, which is our purpose as believers in Jesus Christ.  If all nominal and secular Christians and non-believers hear from us are slogans and they don’t see us striving to better ourselves in preparation for this great holy day, we are (as St. Paul described) clanging brass and tinkling cymbals.  People are justified and right to ignore annoying noises.

An Ethiopian icon of the Nativity of Our Lord

For a couple of thousand years, the original expression of Christianity, the Orthodox Church has observed the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ (later “Christ Mass” by the Roman Catholics) with a 40 day fast in preparation for the feast.  We do not consume meats, dairy products, olive oil, and alcoholic beverages.  According to what jurisdiction we are under (Ethiopian, Greek, Russian, etc), we begin the fast on different days and with different rules concerning fish with backbones (some permit fish on certain days with shellfish throughout the fast). Except for the elderly, young children, pregnant or nursing women, and those under medical supervision; all Orthodox believers are expected to maintain this dietary rule.  Along with the fasting, we have special prayers that we add to our individual disciplines and a special prayer service at the church during the week to help us focus on the meaning of this great and holy feast day.  As the Nativity of our Lord is of great importance, we continue to eat as we wish for 12 days and observe Theophany, the Baptism of our Lord.  Thus, we have 40 days of preparation and over a week of celebration of Jesus Christ coming into the world and the revelation of the Holy Trinity that is the focus of our Christian faith.

I am sure that some of you scoff at the idea of such fasting and the use of ancient written prayers as a “tradition of men” and that no such fast is defined in the Bible.  Yet, there is no scripture that tells us that Jesus was born on December 25th (or January 6th for our “old calendar jurisdictions like Ethiopia and Russia).  So, if we trust the “tradition” of early Christians to give us the date to observe the holy day, why not trust the tradition of prayer and fasting as well?

When one buys a pizza, who scrapes off the cheese, sauce, and toppings just to eat the crust?  Nobody, we eat and enjoy the whole thing.  The same can be said for this season we are entering and the Christian faith.  Protestant reformers and modern Christianity has scraped off the spiritual nutrition of prayer and fasting in preparation for the holy feast and left us with the empty crust of one single Christmas Day.  While many of us Orthodox Christians are guilty of the consumerism and materialism of the age, at least we have the fullness of the tradition of our seasonal fast and prayers to return to.  We have the whole pizza of the Nativity Fast and Feast.  The empty crust of Protestantism has invited Satan to pile on his toppings of covetousness, greed, lack of concern, selfishness, and other elements of our consumerist and materialistic society.  No matter how much good Parmesan, red pepper, and Italian seasonings we sprinkle on in the form of charity; the bad toppings on the empty crust has caused society to ignore the day of giving thanks to God for what we have so that we can go out and spend more money.  No amount of empty slogans will change the toxicity of the once scraped off pizza crust of American Protestant Christmas.  Thankfully, we Christians can start with ourselves and get a whole pizza.

The Nativity of Our Lord

Talk to an Orthodox priest or knowledgeable layperson about what this season means to us.  Look up information about the prayers and fast online or in the library.  Make the time to attend our weekday and Sunday worship whenever possible.  Take small steps by increasing time in personal prayer and use some of our prayers in conjunction with your own.  Also, as it is physically possible, cut back on meat and dairy consumption if but for no other reason but to reward yourself later.  Use this season not to shout mere slogans.  Do something constructive for your spiritual journey as we anticipate the celebration of our Lord’s birth and the revelation of the Holy Trinity.

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Dear Santa, please grow up and become St. Nicholas!

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

I Corinthians 13:11 (emphasis mine)

Not Santa Claus.  St. Nicholas

Not Santa Claus. St. Nicholas

Don’t get me wrong.  I think it is cool for toddlers and pre-school kids to learn about Santa Claus.  It is neat to have them write up their Christmas list and expect to see flying reindeer and all that.  The legend is useful to encourage good behavior (if not but temporary) and can be a stepping stone to teach children about virtues such as kindness, humility, charity, and hope.  Consider Santa, Rudolph, and others as training wheels on a bike.  Every child needs training wheels on a bike as they learn to ride.

Now, imagine how foolish a healthy teenager looks on a top class mountain bike with training wheels.  Or, how about an adult athlete high tech racing bicycle with such supports.  Except for those who have severe problems with balance or some other health issues, it is foolish older people to rely on training wheels.  And this is the problem with teens an adults who continue with a Santa Claus spirituality with no desire to grow up to one of St. Nicholas.

http://www.piousfabrications.com/2010/12/st-nicholas-of-myra.html

http://oca.org/FeastSaintsViewer.asp?SID=4&ID=1&FSID=103484

Who was St. Nicholas?  Read and listen to the links.  He was a Bishop (who could trace his ordination back to the Twelve Apostles) who served at the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea.   Here are a few highlights of lessons we can all learn from this great saint:

  • protect the honor of women
  • aid the poor
  • humbly avoid recognition for good deeds
  • do not act violently, even against falsehood
  • Christ and the Theotokos restores those who are faithful

Now, perhaps three and four year olds are better off not hearing about how a kind bishop kept three daughters of a poor man from becoming prostitutes.  But, why shouldn’t our 13 and 14 year olds hear this story?  Why is there a problem to recognize that the first “Secret Santa” helped to form Christian doctrine?  Is it that embarrassing to admit that even kind people have occasional anger management issues?  And why is it ungodly to talk about his story of redemp… .  Oh yeah.  We Protestants can’t quite seem to accept that “mother of God” thing.

We get upset when our little kids act like spoiled brats as their minds are so stuck on Santa Claus.  But, they will grow out of it.  Or will they?  Not if they aren’t taught to have a St. Nicholas spiritual outlook.  By constantly recycling an immature fantasy image of this good man that really did exist, we are producing 15 to 95 year old spoiled brats who still want stuff from an elf who lives in the North Pole.  “Keep Christ in Christmas?”  How can we when we make a mockery of one of his devout early followers and refuse to grow up in faith?

Let your kid send a letter to the fat guy in the red suit.  Be sure to leave some cookies and eggnog on a little table near the tree.  But, we who are of age need to ditch the training wheels of childhood fantasy.  This season (feast day is Thursday, December 6th), it would be a good idea for those of us of age to measure our lives to that of the real man of God.

 

Nativity Fast: My Baptist Foundations

The Lord has given us this day for repentance.  Do not waste it on vain pursuits.

St. Isaac the Syrian

Fasting is not a part of the Baptist faith.  Although some of us are willing to give up a couple of foods for Lent, getting us to observe the Nativity Fast of the Orthodox Church is like expecting the Chicago Cubs to win the FIFA World Cup of Football.  Thanksgiving is here and we will be attending Christmas parties, feast, and dinners until New Year’s Day.  There are way too many food temptations around to swear off deserts or red meat, to say the least about going vegan.  Yet in my upbringing, I find a foundation to observe the fast.

Deacon and Deaconess John R. Gresham, Sr. (© John Gresham)

Deacon John R. Gresham, Sr., who loves Christmas more than any other holiday, deeply believes in selflessness.  Daddy does not buy anything for himself from Thanksgiving Day until Christmas.  If his rain coat were to tear on December 12th, he’d patch it up the best he could.  Or if his axe handle was broken on November 30th, he would borrow his neighbor’s if need be.  Other than gas for his vehicle, and perhaps a small sandwich, it was selfish to give to one’s self.  God gave his Son to us.  So, this season, we must focus on giving to others.

Deaconess Mickey Gresham is committed to sharing the special meal.  Each year, mom will buy inexpensive, little gifts and have them on our breakfast plates on Christmas morning.  Presents under a tree from Santa are nice.  But, the first meal of the day is symbolized with a present.  Among the breakfast items, she serves chitterlings (chittlins).  They are a reminder of the humble origins of African-Americans and, some of us, still consider them a seasonal delicacy (I think they are delicious).

During this fast, I will make the effort to following the example of my parents.  Chances are they will not convert to Orthodoxy (daddy was curious, yet unimpressed with my living room icon corner).  But, they have prepared me to follow the practices of Orthodox spirituality.  If and when I do convert, these practices of my Baptist parents will be a part of me.

The Nativity Fast: St. Isaac The Syrian’s Perscription

This life has been given to you for repentance.  Do not waste it in vain pursuits.

St. Isaac the Syrian

The fast that I kinda dreaded is here.  And, oddly enough, I don’t dread this.  In fact, I am embracing this year’s Nativity Fast.  No meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, and limited fish until December 25th.  Why would I, still a Baptist pastor who loves all of the seasonal feasting this time of year, submit to endure such an act of self-denial?  To identify and end all of the vain pursuits of my actions, words, and thoughts.

It would be too easy for me to fast this time of year and get on some sort of self-righteous kick about how Orthodoxy is superior to the absolute foolishness of western Christendom’s Christ-Mass.  But, self-righteousness is as vain of a pursuit as substance abuse or addiction.  This is an opportunity to seek greater humility not only by saying “no” to the foods that I enjoy (my mother-in-law makes a delicious turkey hash).  I will also use this time to reflect on spiritual growth without boasting to myself (or anyone else) that I am growing. 

This is a departure from what we see in many corners of Christianity.  We do quite a bit of declaring about how “Blessed and Highly Favored” we are.  Watching TBN’s “Praise-a-Thon,” blessings, favor, and promises are being sold to people for seed offerings of over a thousand dollars.  We want “stuff” from God, will pay top dollar for it, and will tell all the world that we got it and who gave it to us. 

Isaac the Syrian gives us a better direction in the Christian life.  Each day we have the chance to repent and bear the fruit of repentance as Jesus and John the Baptist called us to do.  This is not to say that God never satisfies our material needs.  But, the blessings, favor, and promises are not the main reasons for our existence.  We are corrupt creatures of the flesh.  We are called to turn from corruption and live as incorruptible children of God.  Repentance is the direction we take to receive a gift far more meaningful than the stuff of earth.  We become more like our Father. 

And if this is the true aim of our earthly existence, we should be on guard of the things we do, say, and put our minds on.  Even if a man does not rape, isn’t lust for a woman he knows he can’t have a foolish line of thinking?  Or a woman not slandering her neighbor, what good does it do for her to wish something harmful to her rival?  Not only the obviously wicked, sometimes we have to rise above secular pursuits that keep us from fully seeking and embracing the Lord’s mercy and love.  Favorite sports teams should not lead us into an obsession.  Fine wines ought not cause us to become forgetful. 

Fasting is a choice.  The humble pursuit of God is not.  Let us use these days wisely.

A Diary of the Apostle’s Fast (First Monday): Why?

Question:  Why does Christianity have such a bad name today?

Archbishop Puhalo:  The hypocrisy and bigotry of Christians.  The hypocrisy and bigotry we have is, first of all, to think that we have a special righteousness or holiness as Christians automatically simply because we are Christians without any real sincere work to transform our hearts and to transform our inner persons, to transform our being so that we come into accord with the moral imperatives of Jesus Christ rather than the moral laws that people have super-imposed on Christ.

From the documentary, “A Pilgrim’s Way” (0:32-1:10)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhQ98qolWTE

How sincere is the work we do to “transform our being?”  Do we simply look forward to baby Jesus on Christmas and observe the resurrection on Easter Sunday?  Or, does the Christian calendar have other special observances and practices to help guide us in our pursuit of God? The Apostle Paul taught that whether or not we observe particular days of worship is a matter of conscience and faith.  We Baptist observe the well-known holidays of Christmas and Holy Week.  Other than that, we feel the individual believer should be led by the Holy Spirit daily and that calendar observances are not required of anyone.

It is good to know where you are (© John Gresham)

As an avid hiker, I know the value of a good guide and well-marked trail.  Sure, GPS coordinates accurately give starting and destination points.  But, most units don’t include maps.  Maps point out scenic views, switchbacks, stream crossings, and other features on the trail.  Well written guides give info about wildlife, seasonal conditions, photos, and advice from those who have hiked the trail before.  Trail markers let you know that you are still on the right path.  Some indicate distance and if there are any other paths nearby.  Combine the guide and markers and the hiker has a better sense of where he is, what to expect, how to deal with it, and is better prepared to handle the unexpected.

I am using the prayers, feast, and fast of Orthodox Christianity with the Holy Spirit as my guide and trail markers.  I am not abandoning the church I was brought up in and serve as a pastor.  But, I recognize my need for clearer directions in my life’s journey.  The Orthodox calendar gives me greater indication of the value of the days and weeks of the year.  Fast are like those gruelling switchbacks along a mountain.  We’d rather not deal with them.  But, they help keep us from the risk of steep slopes of gluttony and over-indulgence.  Feast are like those wonderful summit views or valley streams to rejoice in the God that leads us in the journey of life.  Yes, I do lift up my own prayers.  It is also good to read those of saints who have successfully made the same journey.  It is also good to read the shared prayers of those who are also walking the same path.

I am embracing the Apostle’s Fast remembering the faith they spread throughout the world despite the horrific persecution and death that they suffered.  While God does give blessings, we should keep in mind that there can be no crown of glory without a cross of great suffering.  We should also note that the Gospel of our Lord is to be spread beyond our own communities and comfort zones.  The Holy Ghost empowers us to speak “someone else’s language.”  I pray that my fellow non-Orthodox Christians will join our brothers and sisters of the ancient faith and ether give follow the fast or pray for us who are on this leg of the journey as we all seek the same waters and summit.