Orthodox Christian parents (and all Christian parents) are approaching the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ. You would never know this however, by watching secular media. Most in the media see Santa and shopping as the start and end of Christmas, now renamed as the bland and non-descript "Holiday Season" (will it still remain a Holiday when the Holy Day of Christmas is finally forgotten?).
Think back when poems like Clement C. Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (we know it as "Twas the Night Before Christmas") was part of the cultural mainstream. Today political correcteness prohibits any mention of the poem because of its implicit religious tone. Consider just the first few verses:
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there. The children were nestled all snug in their beds, While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
Two sins against politcally correct dogma are already committed in these opening lines. The first is the mention of the word "Christmas," and the second is the word "Saint." "Sugar-plums" passes muster of course.
Sound extreme? It shouldn't. Poll children under fourteen and see how many of them know the Christmas standards like "Joy to the World" or "O Little Town of Bethlehem." You will find that most don't know them at all. They will, however, be able to sing "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," "Jingle Bells," maybe even "Sleigh Ride" with no problem at all. There is nothing inherently wrong with these songs, but Christmas is more than innocuous fun -- or so we once believed.A "Holiday" Quiz
Parents, take this quiz and then give it to your children:
- What are you thinking about, what are the "Holiday visions" dancing in your head?
- What are you really looking forward to as the "Holidays" are approaching?
My experience as a parish priest is that most answers from our children would be: the toys, gadgets or clothes they want to receive. Most adults would answer the family meal and getting together with relatives and close friends.
In the secular world the answers above merit an "A+." If life has no religious dimension, if God is not a part of personal life, then He will be abstracted from the culture as well. What then is left, except the accumulation of more things? From a Christian perspective however, the answers merit an "F." Remember the words of Christ: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also," (Mathew. 6: 21). These words of Christ were actually part of the "Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus expounded on what the Kingdom of God required. "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal," (Matthew 6: 19-20). How far we have strayed from the teachings of Our Lord on His Kingdom!
The Orthodox Christian Domestic Church
In Orthodox teaching, all commitment to Christ must begin in the home. All teaching about what is the essence of the Kingdom of God, must begin in the home. Thus, if the handing over of Tradition begins in the home, so does the breaking with the past that leads to the home becomes secularized. In Orthodox Christianity, the home is called the domestic church, correctly implying that all Christian teaching is first cultivated in the home, and then in the parish community.
The conception of the domestic church arises from home churches of early Christianity. As Christians were no longer welcome in the Jewish temple, they brought vestiges of synagogue worship into their homes along with the early prayers of the church and the Eucharist (the structure of this early worship is still evident in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy today). St. Paul talked about these home churches in his epistle to the Romans, when he said: "Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus ... greet also the church in their house" (Romans 16: 3-5). To the Corinthians he wrote: "The churches of Asia send greetings. Aquila and Prisca together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 16:19).
After the Roman persecution of Christians was lifted and Christianity ceased being an outlaw religion with Constantine's Edict of Milan in 311, Christians were able to build their own churches. Nevertheless, the centrality of family as the center of church life was maintained. Even today the leaders of the domestic church are the husband and wife, mother and father. The words of Christ as recorded by St. Matthew (18:20): "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20), are especially relevant to His presence in the domestic church.
Husbands and wives are uniquely suited and equipped for domestic ministry. The inherent dignity and importance of the Christian parenting is revealed through a prayer read by the priest in the Orthodox wedding service when a couple is first married: "Unite them in one mind and one flesh, and grant unto them fair children for education in the faith and fear ..." This prayer embodies the Christ-centered parental vocation and reveals the theological underpinnings of the domestic church (Morelli, 2005c).
Parents are the Leaders and Teachers in the Domestic Church
Previously I wrote that ideally, a true Orthodox Christian domestic church in our day should look like (but is not limited to) something like this: Jesus Christ is at the center or hub. Husbands, and wives, as such, and as fathers and mothers, should be the leaders of the "church at home" in Christ's name. They should bless one another and their children, bless the food which is partaken, give thanksgiving for all that God has provided (house, furnishings, etc.), thank God for health and talents, and lead by the sanctity of their conduct as well as their words (Morelli, 2005c).
We nurture the spiritual vitality of the domestic church in several ways. For example, parents can remember the Feasts of the Church with prayers, and the recitation of troparia and kontakia (special hymns used in the Orthodox Church that explain the significance of the feast), as well as the Epistle and Gospel readings of the day.
Daily scripture can be read and discussed. Daily prayers, at least at morning and evening should be part of the domestic church activities. All family members should take part in these prayers and readings. Following the Sign of Cross made by the father and/or mother, each family member may take a turn reading a line from the prayers, scripture or reading texts of the day. The leaders of the domestic church should also be theologians and educators of themselves and their children imparting knowledge and practice.
The Feast of the Nativity
How many know the full theological meaning of the Nativity Feast? If we don't, we become susceptible the secularizing energy (fed by a commercial spirit) of the culture. Put another way, one of the most powerful things we can do for our families to counter the slide into the spiritual wasteland of the commercial culture is to deepen our understanding about the Nativity of Christ. Parents must teach themselves first, and then they can teach their children.
It starts way back in Genesis. Adam and Eve were made in God's image and called to be like Him. They start out in Paradise with the potential of full union with God but still experienced testing. They failed the test by the sin of pride. They are cast out of paradise into the world and are disordered -- inclined to sin and destined for death. We are the offspring of Adam and partake of these same maladies.
God responded to this deep existential catastrophe in many ways -- all leading to the Incarnation of His Son. A signature event was the calling of Abraham (then called Abraam) our of a land riddled with paganism and polytheism. God made a covenant with Abraham that made him the leader of God's people -- the people of the First Covenant (Genesis 17) -- and the "father of many nations."
As the people grew in number and over the course of centuries various prophets emerged, among them Isaiah, who said that God would send a Messiah (a deliverer and king):
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good (Isaiah 7: 14-15). The prophet described Immanu-el: "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this (Isaiah 9: 6=7).
The Prophet Jeremiah added:
Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: "The Lord is our righteousness" (Jeremiah 23: 5-6).
The prophet Micah told us the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem: "But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days" (Michah 5:2).
King and Prophet David, in his beautiful Psalm 72 foretolds kings bringing Jesus gifts: "Give the king thy justice, O God, and thy righteousness to the royal son! ... may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! (Psalm 72:1,10).
When Jesus was born, He took on our flesh but remained God thereby enabling us to partake of His nature. In his second epistle St. Peter (1: 2-4) wrote: "May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature."
The whole life of Jesus, His teachings, the Last Supper, Calvary, His Death and the Resurrection is tied to this. Parents, the leaders, and teachers of the domestic church have to work with their children to make these connections between feasts such as the Nativity, all the other feasts of the Church.
Some Practical Suggestions
Practical suggestions are always useful. Eastern Christians are well aware that the Advent Season starts on 15 November (about two weeks longer than Western Christianity). Religious Western Christians have a beautiful Advent practice: the Advent Calendar. This tradition has and can be modified for the longer Eastern pre-Nativity Season. One such Orthodox publication to help in developing an Eastern Advent Calendar is by Speier and Finley (2005). Many domestic church families will find this book helpful in constructing an Eastern Christian Advent Calendar. An alternative and fun project for some families would be to modify an already existing religious Western Advent Calendar themselves, with added quotes, from the Old and New Testament Scriptures such as the ones above, augmented with relevant sections of the Nativity icon. An excellent comprehensive list of general Advent resources can be accessed at: http://www.antiochian.org/1132082814.
Family prayer time and discussion of the passages is a beautiful way to prepare for Christ's birth. The meaning of the gifts of given by the Magi (prophesized by Micah) and the giving and receiving of gifts today could be one topic addressed in the Domestic Church.
The quotes from the Church Fathers on the Feast of the Nativity (and the other feasts of the Church compiled by Manley, 1984), may be especially helpful. Some parents may need a refresher course in making such connections themselves. Ask the religious instruction school staff or the teachers in your parish community, or even your parish priest any questions you may have. They may also be a wonderful source for other discussion topics or projects.
Discussing within the domestic church how to keep the spirit of Christmas alive throughout the year would also be in order. Ask the children how to put into practice the often quoted phrase: "it is better to give than receive". This spirit goes completely against the self-centered and materialistic culture we live in. It will probably be an uphill battle but always point to Christ as our model.
When gifts are received, tie this into being thankful and giving glory to God for all things. In this guise children can also be taught how to share what they have been given. Sharing can start first among family members and then extended to others.
The Joy of Christmas
In no way do I want to take away the joy of Christmas, especially for children. The cheer and glee on the faces of children, when they first look at the Christmas tree and the presents is so precious. The words of Our Lord who so loved children, comes to mind:
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people; but Jesus said, "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven." And he laid his hands on them and went away" (Matthew 19: 13-15).
The important thing is to Christify all things. Keep Christ in Christmas. It adds to the joy.
The My-Way Secular Holiday
Unfortunately, as aggressive secularism takes hold in the culture, families leave off the important spiritual dimensions of family life. There are to be no mention of Christ, no blessings or prayer, worship, praise or thanksgiving. Names are changed ("Holiday Season" for example) to purposely eradicated the holiness of ancient Holy Days like Christmas from the cultural memory.
I wonder how many secularists know that the United States has an official legal holiday called "Christmas." (U.S. Code TITLE 5 > PART III > Subpart E > CHAPTER 61 > SUBCHAPTER I > § 6103 [http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/5/6103.html]). I fear a spate of apoplexy may break among secularist if they realized it. They would try to change Christmas to the Winter Solstice or some such neo-pagan celebration. Ever notice how neo-pagan terminology is perfectly fine for public use but references to anything Christian is met with vituperation? The evil one is alive and well.
A Courageous Christian Response
Not too many years ago any public display of commitment to Christ was considered to be spiritually inappropriate. Reticence was prescribed and any behavior short of it was seen as hypocritical and pharisaical. This practice was based Christ's indictment of the Pharisees: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness" (Matthew 23: 27).
Our Holy Spiritual Father St. Peter of Damaskos warned:
Approval and gratitude, however, are due not to the man who receives the gifts but to Him who bestows them. ... Should such a person thank the Giver, he does so in the same way as the Pharisee in the Gospel, and ways to himself, 'I thank Thee, O God that I am not like other men' (Luke 18: 11). The Evangelist -- or, rather, God, who know men's hearts -- was right to say that he spoke "to himself," for the Pharisee was not speaking to God .. God knew his self-applauding soul...(Philokalia, III).
Today, publicly acknowledging being a follower of Christ is considered socially and politically despicable. While martyrdom in today's society is not physical, to witness Christ is to suffer psychological and social torture. True Christians are assailed, laughed at, mocked, reviled, verbally defied, and the brunt of scatological humor.
The root of the word "witness" is from the Greek word martaria. Thus to be a modern martyr for Christ is simply to declare oneself to be His follower and stand up for His teaching.
How do we witness for Christ? We can put a Nativity Scene on lawns or windows, as to be able to be seen by passersby. We could wear a Christ-birth centered pin on our clothes. When someone greets us with "Happy Holidays" we could answer: "Indeed Christ is Born -- Glorify Him (the standard greeting in Orthodox countries). We could start out a meeting with others with a similar statement: Have a glorious Feast of Christ's-birth (some may not know the meaning of the word 'Nativity' -- 'Christ's birth' is a phrase that should be understood by all). Children could be greeted with a phrase like: "Happy birthday Jesus." Finally, let's bring back "Merry Christmas!"
During a meal with family, friends, or acquaintances, one can say I would like to say prayer or blessing (this can be done throughout the year). Among non-Christians, or un-Churched people a simple statement can be very powerful: "I would just like to call to mind the birth of my Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ -- blessings to all." Among those who are committed Christians, of course, recall of one of the scriptural passages referring to Our Lord's birth can be recited and a more direct prayer can be prayed.
A personal rule of life I have adopted during this Nativity season is that I let no secular greeting by anyone go unanswered. My responses to secular greetings are given in charity but I too want to witness to Our Lord's Birth: CHRIST IS BORN! GLORIFY HIM!
Manley, J. (Ed.) (1984). The Bible and the Holy Fathers for Orthodox Christians. Menlo Park, CA: Monastery Books.
Morelli, G. (2005c, September, 22). What Do You Know: The Score Or The Saint? http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliScore.php.
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds.). (1986). The Philokalia, Volume 3: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.
Speier, K. & Finley, J. (2005). How About Advent: An Advent Calendar for the Orthodox Christian Family. Syracuse, NY: Orthodox Christian Education Commission.
i. Eastern Christians do not have the same type of Advent Season as Western Christians. Western Christians celebrate Advent as a distinct liturgical period. Properly speaking Eastern Christians prepare for the arrival or coming (advent) of Christ by the 'Christmas Fast.. Much spiritual benefit, however can occur for Eastern Christians by developing family Christ-centered traditions in their domestic churches.