Around this time of year, I get many requests from faithful Orthodox Christians, those who may not be in Church often, but recognize that something is special about this time of year, for some sort of “something” they can do special to prepare for Christmas. Often this is in response to their coming into contact with a western advent calendar, or a variety of Christian holiday countdown activities. The same, of course, is true during Great Lent, but for some reason I tend to get extra frustrated this time of year. At least during Great Lent, there aren’t holidays parties and festivities in advance of Pascha. The manner in which our secular world spends the weeks before Christmas creates a unique struggle for Orthodox Christians.
Now let me be clear. I’m NOT saying everything we find in the secular world is of no value to us. As Saint Basil advised us, we must be like the bee and take the good in everything we encounter, but a bee understands the dangers of certain flowers and avoids them, leaving them for other pollinators. As Orthodox Christians, we must also be more cautious when turning to the non-Orthodox world for activities and especially readings. Not everything that bears a Christian title is beneficial to us as Orthodox.
So I thought I would remind us today, as we still have a few weeks before the Feast of the Nativity, that the Orthodox Church DOES have a way to prepare for Christmas, and that way is much harder than we might imagine, living in a non-Orthodox environment. I’ve listed them in no particular order.
First, we fast. The Nativity Fast began on November 15th and will last up until Christmas. While it is not as strict as the Great Fast for Pascha, it IS a time for us to include our physical life in our spiritual struggle. If you want to “do something” to prepare for Christmas, meet with your spiritual father (or local priest if you don’t have a spiritual father) and ask him to guide you on how to fast this year. It is important that we do not choose our own fast, but instead follow the guidance of our spiritual father when we fast. Fasting teaches us many things, but one central theme to fasting is learning how “not to want” which cannot be learned if we fast AS WE WANT.
Second, we read the Holy Scriptures. One of the most common requests I hear is about daily devotionals. It is true that Orthodox Church in America does not produce a series of daily devotionals like our western brothers and sisters, but that is because we already have a daily devotional. Our daily devotional has been in use for more than 1700 years. If you are looking for a list of readings for each day, turn to the Church and she has already produced for you a list for each day of the year, not just for the Christmas season.
Third, we pray. That might seem like an obvious one, but I’m always surprised just how many Orthodox Christians pray “randomly” rather than following a “daily prayer rule” given to them by their spiritual father. Having a daily prayer rule given to us, again like fasting rather than our own choice, is because our choices tend to be selfish. If left to our own will, we tend to choose what WE WANT rather than what GOD WANTS. When we allow our spiritual father guide our prayer life, we can trust in the words of holy men and women, the saints of our Church, rather than in our fallen reason.
Fourth, we confess. Confession is a crucial part of every Christian life, even expressed in the Holy Scriptures. As part of your preparation for Christmas, make an appointment for Holy Confession, not to check a box off, but because Holy Confession is a Mystery of God given to the Church for our salvation. While we can confess privately in our daily prayers, and we should, the Church has been given the authority by Christ to ACTUALLY forgive sins. Wouldn’t you want to know FOR SURE your sins were forgiven? I do.
Finally, we attend Church. I’m not talking about JUST the Sunday Divine Liturgy. There are other services schedule for this time of year, especially as we get closer to Christmas. This year, PLAN to attend the Royal Hours of Christmas, normally scheduled in the morning of Christmas Eve. This service is similar to the service on Holy Friday morning, but is focused on the birth of Christ, rather than His death. The more Church you can attend during this time of preparation the easier it will be to fight the secular temptations for holiday parties. There will time enough to celebrate AFTER Christmas, I promise.
So, forget about looking for gimmicks to prepare your family for Christmas. The Church already has plenty of “things to do” to prepare our souls. We just have to trust them and use them. Have a blessed preparation.