Benjamin, my four year old, is trying to slip on his jacket without unclenching his fist. This morning he found five, crisp one-dollar bills in a card tucked away in my desk, leftover money from his birthday two weeks ago. I get the feeling that his expectations aren’t lining up with reality, so I am packing us up for a trip to the one place I know where five dollars can be stretched to twice it’s worth in value and excitement: our local, neighborhood resale shop.
Still clutching his loot, Benji jumps from the van and dances with impatience beside me. “C’mon Mommy!” he whines. Finally, I have the stroller unfolded and his baby sister buckled in. The three of us pull open the door to our own little version of paradise. The shelves, stacked tightly with toys, games, books, and stuffed animals will likely keep my son occupied for quite some time, so I take advantage of his distraction to meander through some aisles myself. The Christmas decorations are in full effect. A hodge-podge of bells, wreathes, angels, and tinsel send waves of melancholy mixed with anxiety coursing through my overtaxed mind. The amount of details I am already trying to stay on top of occupy every available brain cell, sometimes overflowing out my ears and on to the kitchen floor. I am definitely not ready for this.
Hanging by a nail between picture frames and scrapbook supplies, is a square, felt Advent Calendar in muted red, cream, and forest green. In its middle is a large pocket filled with a Christmas tree three inches high, and attached to the top by a long piece of yarn. Surrounding the bigger pocket, marked by the number “24”, are twenty-three smaller pockets in numeric order. The Christmas tree is to be moved each day, starting December 1st, from pocket to pocket culminating in the final move to its place in the center, signaling the onset of Christmas. My fingers brush lightly over the soft fabric. “My kids would love this!” I think. But even with a $3.00 price tag, the calendar will not work for our family.
Before December 1st, before even Thanksgiving, Orthodox Christians enter into their own Advent with the onset of the Nativity Fast. This kicks off on November 15th, following by one day, the Feast of St. Philip. Philip was one of the first to be called as an apostle. Having met with excitement this Jesus of Nazareth, he went to his friend Nathaniel and invited him to join them. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” asks Nathaniel. “Come and See!” is Philip’s reply.
I admit, in the past I have looked at this Fast as kind of a drag. Just as everyone else is gearing up for office parties, secret santas, and shopping sprees, we as Orthodox are expected to wind things down, and show some restraint in a time of year famous for its excess. Currently, however, I do not feel very celebratory. I have been particularly troubled by current events shaping a global outlook that, to me, looks disastrous. Nuclear testing, school violence, cut-throat elections, terrorist attacks, and the gradual acceptance of immorality once shunned not only by Christians but secular culture as well, have more than once caused me to question, “Can anything good come out of this seemingly godless world?”
Sometimes my kids get so wound up they are incapable of hearing my voice. This can be dangerous because without my guidance they are susceptible to making poor choices. With my hands, I must physically stop their movement, coming down to their level to secure their attention. “No touch!” I say firmly, pointing to the fire under the burner on my stove. I understand their inability to focus. I too, can get out of control, trying to wrap my mind around the constant barrage of stimuli being blasted in my face. Like the fascination luring gapers to a car crash, the destruction caused by nihilism, materialism and hatred is entrancing. “Come and See!” redirects the Church. Physically, through a prescription of fasting and prayer, She offers the ultimate cure; belief in the undefeatable good that destroyed death by birth, bringing hope to all who would listen.
It is ironic that the frantic pace of preparing for a Christian holiday leaves so little time for reflection on Christ. As much as I would like to believe I have it in me to block out the noise and narrow in on the “one thing needful”, I know in reality I am not that disciplined. The Church has mercifully stopped my movement, coming down to my all too human level. As a community, stronger in numbers, we enter with spiritual camaraderie into this time of preparation. By fasting, we acknowledge our dependence, and become more in tune with the sustaining power of our faith. Some days throughout this journey we’ll feel spiritually nourished, and others disappointingly dry. The determination to keep at it, however, to the best of our ability under the guidance of our Spiritual Fathers, is our physical act of knocking at the door Christ has promised to open.
I know firsthand that labor is a natural pre-cursor to birth. The two have been inexorably linked since the beginning of time. To suffer without any hope of future joy is damnation. Joy without struggle is incomplete. This theme is woven throughout the Christmas story beginning with Mary, who locked up the secret of God in her womb for nine long months, despite being tarnished as promiscuous and impure. Jesus was not to be born in Joseph’s hometown of Nazareth. This godly couple bundled up for a difficult voyage to Bethlehem before they could meet their Savior. St. Simeon waited a lifetime to finally hold the promised Christ in his arms, and the wise men traveled day and night to at last worship, with reverence, the incarnate King.
It might not seem festive to start preparing now by purging my soul of sinful tendencies. But how much more glorious is a feast when I come hungry, than when I am already full upon arriving? Our observance of Nativity does not wrap itself up the day after the birth of Christ. His arrival is just the beginning of our celebration! The post-Christmas malaise commonly associated with December 26th is incompatible with a heart filled to overflowing with the knowledge that light has invaded the darkness, and hope for the human race restored through the miracle of the Incarnation. “Christ is Born!” we’ll shout for the next 40 days, “Glorify Him!”
Benjamin’s arms can scarcely contain the bounty he has bought for himself. “I don’t need a bag!” he announces, precariously carrying his stuffed Mickey Mouse, plastic Robin action figure, and Buzz Light-Year book, while laying his now crumpled dollars on the counter. Oblivious to the peril, he bounds out the exit and into the busy parking lot. “Benjamin, wait!” I call out. “You have to stay with mommy.” The urgency of my voice brings him back to his senses and for moment he is paralyzed by his position. “Over here!” I shout, and with relief in his eyes he runs back to find me, wrapping his small sticky fingers in the folds of my sweater. “O.K. mom, I ‘m ready!” he announces, and together we head for the safety of home.