Christmas Traditions and Our Time of Glad Tidings and Joy
When people ask me what my family Christmas traditions are, and how we are supposed to feel during this season, I take pause. Are we supposed to have some special family traditions? If I don't, am I somehow deficient or wanting? What are we supposed to feel, and what if I don't feel that way? Our family kept the fast; my wife read the children the Gospel nativity accounts; she made a calendar with daily messages for the forty days before the feast; we went with the parish teens to carol for the shut-ins and nursing homes; she made or bought each child a special Christmas tree ornament; and we always went to Church for the festal liturgy (pretty important for the priest). Those asking, however, must be looking for a more special family tradition. The most memorable tradition for me was setting up the video-camera to catch the excitement of the children as they opened their gifts. Waiting for the camera was painful for the children who had been anticipating their gifts for months.
Christmastime is supposed to be a time of joy, yet, because it reminds us of days gone by, it can also be accompanied by some unfinished grieving for loved ones. We all remember past Christmases, when loved ones now asleep in the Lord were still with us. We remember what they did to add to the holidays. Remembering such times leaves us with mixed emotions. We can hardly expect to feel joyous all the time, yet we can take consolation in what this season brings to us. It brings the Resurrected Lord in the infant Jesus. We celebrate Christ's Nativity, knowing that Christ is risen from the dead. By His death is death destroyed, and we are restored to life. Symeon, the righteous old priest, saw the salvation of mankind in the infant Jesus. We can too, even if the representation of Jesus is a plastic figure in a crowded department store.
Feelings have to do with attitude. We can choose to have an attitude of joy and thankfulness, even while we are grieving our losses or are irritated by the secularization of the Feast. Choose to be cheerful, because the Lord likes a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:11). Choose to be thankful, because God has cared so much and loved so much that He chose to send His only begotten Son. With this truth in mind, we can cut through all the noise of the season to discover what there is to be thankful for.
Many parishes celebrate a Compline Service with the Christmas canon two, three or more times a week. This is a way to gather together and pray. Some parishes offer special lecture series or Bible studies for the days before Christmas. Some families make a special point of reading Scripture or a spiritual book together for this time of preparation.
Following the fasting rules for the season help us remember what God has done for us. It reminds us that there is more to the season than cookies and hot chocolate. Fasting sets this season apart from other times of the year. Together with alms-giving, we can be constantly aware of who we are and who God calls us to be. There is more to the season than parties and gifts. We are reminded each year that the One who was born of the Virgin is the Word of God, who took on flesh, suffered, died, rose from the dead and joins Himself to us. He has joined and participated in every aspect of our lives. Because He has done this, we can be saved. Because the Word became flesh, we who hear the Word can flesh it out, so to speak, and reveal it to the world. We can share in witnessing to the truth, praising the Father with Christ, and caring for the Church and for the world. Because we are joined to Christ, or rather because Christ has joined Himself to us, we can put the reason back into the season. We can fulfill our Christian mission as we celebrate Christmas.
Admittedly, there is a lot of noise that accompanies the Christmas season. It is annoying that the marketers begin decorating at the end of October and the commercials urge us to overspend and purchase things that have nothing to do with the Feast. It is offensive that the great ascetic, Saint Nicholas, would be dressed up to be fat and silly, and that the radio plays silly songs about snowmen and sleigh bells. If we are deliberate, however, with a little effort we can get beyond all this silliness to put Christ back into Christmas. We can replace the radio with recordings of the Feast, schedule the parties within our control to after the feast, use our alms-giving and fasting to do good for others, and encounter in everything the Christ who is born to us. We aren't going to change the world's celebration, but we can witness to Christ from within it. Acts of charity bring us closer to the many who are in need.
The liturgical parallels between Christmas and Pascha are noteworthy. The Royal Hours and Pre-feast of Christmas use the same structure and melodies, calling us to see that the cave for the nativity is likened to the cave in which the crucified Lord is buried. The swaddling cloth of the infant and the burial cloth are also connected. These images are evident in the icons as well.
We all feel many powerful feelings during this season. Let us keep sober, be deliberate and use the gifts God has given us, as well as those of the Church, to rededicate ourselves to Christ. In so doing we will witness to each other and the world.
By Bishop JOHN