1. This is the festival of the virgin birth! Our address must be exalted therefore in accordance with the greatness of the feast, and enter into the mystery, as far as this is accessible and permissible, and time allows, that something of its inner power might be revealed even to us. Please strive, brethren, to lift up your minds as well, that they may better perceive the light of divine knowledge, as though brightly illumined by a holy star. For today I see equality of honour between heaven and earth, and a way up for all those below to things above, matching the condescension of those on high. However great the heaven of heavens may be, or the upper waters which form a roof over the celestial regions, or any heavenly place, state or order, they are no more marvellous or honourable than the cave, the manger, the water sprinkled on the infant and His swaddling clothes. For nothing done by God from the beginning of time was more beneficial to all or more divine than Christ’s nativity, which we celebrate today. — St. Gregory Palamas, Homily Fifty-Eight on the Saving Nativity According to the Flesh of Our Lord and God and Savior
I must be frank, I am in awe when I read this. This one paragraph is the reason I felt that I could mine enough blog posts to fulfill the 30(40) Days of Blogging Challenge. There is so much within these few words that move me, I will be staying here for a few days to digest them all.
FIrstly, how refreshing it is to see the enthusiasm that St. Gregory has for Christmas?! Just the other day I was talking to a neighbor and friend of mine who was lamenting the coming Christmas season. He was flailing about trying to find a way in which to make Christmas meaningful again. We were trading war stories of decorating for Christmas — wrestling with stringed lights, trying to fix the ones that were burnt out and the inevitable fight that would follow from the stress and frustration that hanging lights can bring. When we focus on the worldly aspects of the Christmas season — all the materialism of the decorations, the presents, the commercials, the food, etc. — it can get oppressive.
Believe it or not, I am reminded of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Seriously. Read it again (or read it for the first time). At the core of this book is the reality that we are all Grinches at heart. We focus so much on the material aspects of Christmas that we forget the reason why we celebrate — a reason, by the way, that St. Gregory so passionately reminds us of: This is the festival of the virgin birth! When we accept this reality, as does the Grinch in the end, do we really need to spend so much time worrying about the lights, the trees, the presents, the food, the shopping, the commercials, etc.?
In this sense, the Orthodox rhythm of life becomes extremely useful. One way to understand this rhythm is to boil down the life of the Church into two basic modes of being: anticipation and celebration. This is most easily observed with Pascha (Easter). Lent is the season of anticipation. We fast and we change the mode of our prayer in anticipation of the celebration of the Resurrection, which we then celebrate for 40 days. Right now, the Church is in a mode of anticipation. We have begun our Nativity Fast, the prayers of the Church begin to anticipate the coming of Christ’s Nativity and we have the opportunity to focus our life on this reality.
This is in direct opposition to the way the American culture wants to celebrate Christmas. Instead of anticipating, it insists upon celebrating. We have Christmas parties, food, carols, decorations, commercials, etc. months out before the actual feast. The end result is disappointment and disgust by the time Christmas finally arrives.
In contrast, if we are busy denying ourselves and focusing on our spiritual life for 40 days prior to the actual feast, Christmas gets transformed. It is possible to see the exaltation and the greatness. It becomes possible for us to give God and His Nativity their due. Suddenly, we are able to truly celebrate. Amen.