Throughout Scripture, as far back as Genesis, we have been taught that the Evil One is a liar and the father of lies. He distorts and he deceives, but he often does it in a subtle way, taking a partial truth and absolutizing it. This is exactly what the devil did in the Garden with Eve. He deceived her by taking bits of the truth and distorting them. It is true that Eve did not die as a direct result of eating the forbidden fruit. It was also true that God wanted Eve to become like Him, but the distortions in what he said were difficult to see clearly. Eve experienced physical death at a slower pace due to her fall from God’s grace. She also experienced the taste of “spiritual death” through disobedience. In addition, God never meant Adam and Eve to become like Him apart from Him; rather, growing from God’s image to His likeness was only possible in and through Him. These lies were only the beginning of Satan’s strategy to distort the truth whenever and wherever possible throughout human history.
We see the same strategy at work today in many and various ways. One example of this is the way in which American society approaches the Christmas Season. We know that historically and traditionally ancient Christian societies viewed the days and weeks preceding our Lord’s Nativity as a season of preparation. Intensified prayer, fasting and almsgiving were the primary means of this preparation. As modern society has moved further away from its Christian roots, these distinctive Christian practices have been removed from the season. To be sure, there are many in our society who offer their time and talents in service of others. Many organizations solicit our help at this time of year in clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and offering a helping hand to those in need. Despite the evil one’s intent to divorce the season from the feast, these activities bear witness to the Christian roots of our nation.
Paradoxically, other Christian practices have been replaced by their opposites. Instead of fasting, many Americans get into the “Christmas spirit” by throwing parties. Instead of prayer and quiet reflection on the significance of our Lord’s incarnation, people find themselves busier than ever shopping, decorating, sending out cards, baking, cooking, and generally stressing over the endless list of to-do’s. Instead of looking around and taking care of the hungry, thirsty, naked, lonely, imprisoned and sick, many are caught up in consumerism and gift exchanges that have little if anything to do with almsgiving, charity and mercy. Sadly, too many Americans arrive at the feast of Christmas already burned out with celebrations and filled with an emptiness and longing for something deeper and transcendent.
Let us examine how we, “who have received the Light” can benefit from this season instead of missing out on the great gift it offers us. Many of the activities of today’s “Christmas Season” have their roots in the traditional celebration of our Lord’s Nativity. They have simply been distorted to slowly and subtly become the focus rather than a means of preparation. In the Orthodox Church, preparation leads to fulfillment. The fulfillment is always more joyous and satisfying when it is the consummation of our anticipation and expectations. For example, after the forty-day Nativity fast, the Church blesses the days following Christmas to be fast-free. These are the days the Church intends us to celebrate our Lord’s birth and enjoy festive fellowship with one another. Similarly, the Church embraces the decoration of our homes, churches and work places as a reminder of how all creation, including nature (the Christmas tree) and the celestial bodies (the star) participated in and benefitted from Christ’s nativity. Christmas decorations today are beautiful, at best, or more often, a distraction from The tradition of gift-giving has its roots in the imitation of the faithful toward God Who bestows upon us the greatest Gift of all: His Only-begotten Son.
The key to making sure all these Christmas traditions remain a positive part of our preparation for the Nativity is in centering ourselves in the life of the Church. Certainly, participating in the Forty Liturgies is helpful. In addition, keeping the Fast, a consistent rule of prayer and a focus on those in need of mercy and alms are necessary if we are going to successfully tie in the other popular activities connected with the Christmas Season in a God-pleasing manner. Apart from the life of the Church, it is impossible not to distort the Christmas season. Let us be sure to approach all our Christmas preparations asking ourselves whether what we are doing will help us to better receive our Lord. Will it help us to remember the great gift of the Incarnation, and will these activities help us to be filled with joy, thanksgiving and love for God and our neighbor? May the remainder of these days leading up to the feast of the Nativity be all God desires for us.