An hour before heading out the door for the Matins of Nativity service, I seriously considered hand stitching a big scarlet “H” to my Christmas sweater - “Hypocrite” it would stand for, so unholy were my thoughts the three days previous. There is something about the final week of any Church prescribed Fast that can knock, crush, pummel one down to size with the speed and efficiency of a wrecking ball in motion.
Casual passing comments I normally wouldn’t think twice about suddenly felt all sharp-edged, malignant, and irritating. Last minute wrapping, packing and meal planning played their holiday part (though I swore up and down that they wouldn’t) in relegating the birth of Christ to an overlooked eighth item on my to-do list. The mothering role I normally don with gracious acceptance, this past week felt tight and overly restrictive. Prayer was all but banished from my frantic schedule. “No room!” I cried most ashamedly, most helplessly, like a house packed over-full with obnoxious boarders. “No room,” I whispered gravely upon entering my local parish on Monday evening, already lit and cloudy with candles and incense.
I know better I really do, but discarded theories have a tendency to rise again from out of my mental ashes when I’m too distracted to shred to pieces their faulty conclusions. A pious existence, I so erroneously convinced myself, is built cautiously piece by piece from the outside in. First I look the part, sound the part, claim the part as my own - then, and only then, will I be blessed with the authenticity that will truly set me aside as a spiritual force to reckoned with. In this state of mind, I don’t make use of the Fast as much as I try to conquer it. It’s not an opportunity so much as a challenge that will prove to Christ and to everyone else on earth that I am serious about my Faith. “How can we be an encouragement to others?” I will ask my teammate, God, while munching on lentils and flipping through the pages of Father Hopko’s Winter Pascha. I‘ll be sincere in my desire to promote Christianity but I’ll forget that the playing field is level. There is a secret, prideful piece of me that subconsciously supposes I have less to be redeemed of than my peers.
How badly I wanted to play the part of the subservient shepherds, turning my attention from the work at hand to worship and fall down before the Christ child. I was oh so very sure that this was the year I had it in me. But then one peripheral thing led seamlessly to another and the Fasting foods ran low, the kids were out of school, we traveled back and forth from here to there and back home again. I neglected to secure the precariously layered attributes designed to make me look like, feel like, morph into the real deal and so they crumbled at my feet like the concrete victim of a violent demolition. Rather than verifying my commitment, the Nativity Fast would highlight beyond what I was capable of denying, my limitations, my unworthiness, my just as desperate need as every other flagrant sinner for a savior.
An hour before heading out the door for the Matins of Nativity service, I seriously wondered if I would even be welcome, so undisciplined were my choices, reactions, inner ramblings the three days previous. My role, evidently, in our Lord’s incarnation would neither be that of the bright shining star leading wise, searching men to the King of Righteousness. “No room,” I had said, more than once, more than twice, sealing my humbling fate as the infamous innkeeper. I didn’t march through the doors of St. Elizabeth’s with triumph, elation, a sense of tranquility. I more like crawled on my hands and knees, dragging my growling belly eager for some scraps to relieve the hunger. I came to Jesus like a beggar offering only the flimsy hope that he would see me as I am and love me anyway.
The pure untainted reverence of the Orthodox Christian Church is incomparable in its theological depth and ethereal beauty, and the Matins and Liturgy of Nativity were no exception. It is disorienting, if you’re not used to it, the solid line She sacramentally draws between the divinity of God and the humanity of us who are the recipients of His mercy. The services are formal, lengthy enough to challenge your ability to stay focused, but if you’re starving for the savory Truth, unsweetened, there is plenty available to sink your bared jaws into. Come ravenous and be filled; come empty of assumptions about yourself, your neighbor, about Christ and His unknowable, unfathomable ways and feel your mind and heart explode with the magnitude of His glory. I came, I repented, I left anchored to that manger and all the more grateful for the gift God placed inside it of His Son. The guest of honor has arrived because of, not despite, my miserable failures; I am nothing, He is everything to me.
“Christ is Born!” I sang the Troparion, I participated in the penitential prayers. “Glorify Him!” I screwed up as usual, but I’m reminded of my rightful place because of it - as one indebted fully, one so glaringly ill equipped for Fasting, talking, or rule obeying my way into Christ’s good graces. Even lousy innkeepers are offered the sacred chance to house the Prince of Peace within their souls - If I accept, If I believe, If I admit I need His help to clear the clutter and deny the impulses to think any more or less of myself than necessary. Off of me, eyes, off of me! Fill your sight with Goodness and Heaven, with Forgiveness, with Holiness, with the inextinguishable Light of the birth and resurrection of the God who cared enough to become a man.