Posted by: Shawn Ragan | December 12, 2008

Christmas Struggles

During my pastorate over the last eight years, Christmas was a fairly de-emphasized event in our home.  As I believe I have mentioned before, I grew up in the Methodist Church, and for us, Christmas was a really big deal.  I still think back with fond memories of the Christmas programs we put on and Christmas caroling we did.  Some of my favorite songs were Christmas songs (and still are – I love “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” and “O Holy Night”).

When I was challenged in my Methodist thinking by someone I knew about some doctrines, that began a journey for me – one that would eventually lead to Orthodoxy – but first would take a detour through the Seventh Day Sabbath churches I was part of for the last fifteen or so years.  While I have now left many of the peculiar teachings of those groups, they did instill in me a desire for the Truth and to really know and be part of the first century Church.  In that tradition, I learned to question things and it was there that I really set out in my quest for the Truth.  It is that quest that has now been fulfilled in the Ancient Christian Orthodox Faith.  It is that journey that brought me home.  For that I am thankful.

One of the things, though, that was part of these Seventh Day Sabbath church traditions that I was part of was the idea that Christmas was a pagan holiday and should not be celebrated by Christians.  This was also true for Easter.  Some of this was really just poor scholarship, some of it was not understanding the power of God, but then again, I am not hear to make theological points about these holidays – I am just trying to share some of my experience and struggle.

So, during that part of my journey, I, at least intellectually, left Christmas.  This was an important holiday for my mom and my grandparents, and was a very big deal for us as a family, so I still went and attended.  In my mind, though, I was going out of respect for my family, not to celebrate Christmas.  When I married, my wife was pushed into this idea that Christmas was somehow bad – an idea she never would accept and would cause a little tension in our relationship.

We still went to my mom’s for Christmas, but I always tried to make it clear to my wife and kids we were only doing this out of respect for my mom.

Now I am going to digress a little, and in doing so I am going to change my mind and introduce a little bit of theology.  After all, it’s my blog – I can change my mind if I want, can’t I?  Christmas is intrinsically linked to the Incarnation.  God became man.  Christ is fully God and fully man.  This is one of the central teachings of the Christian Faith – Christ came in the flesh.  We recognize that throughout the year, but Christmas – or the Nativity of Christ – His birth, is a profound celebration of this event.  In the Nativity, there is so much of what the Church practices and believes.  Much of the theology of Mary is found in the Nativity narratives, especially in Luke.  But even more so, we see in the Nativity the virgin birth – we see Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Mary.  This truth – Christ as fully God and fully man – is seen no where else more clearly than in the Nativity.  This truth is paramount to our proper understanding of who Christ is and what He accomplished for us in the totality of His life and ministry – beginning with the Incarnation and culminating with the Resurrection and Ascension.  In losing sight of the Nativity, it is easy to lose sight of much of the Christian Truth.

And so it was for me.  The Nativity was there, but it was relegated to a lesser value in the Scriptures.  We did not talk much about the Nativity, because to do so was to imply Christmas – and Christmas was “bad.”

This always presented a struggle for me, because deep down something stirred in me for the Christian Christmas.  Sadly, the world’s view of Christmas made it easier for me to reject.  The world’s Christmas is a secular holiday and much more a celebration of capitalism and the American dream than it is about Christ.  Where does Christ fit in to a crazy mob trampling and killing a store employee so they can get the best deals on Christmas presents.  Lord have mercy.

As I journeyed into Orthodoxy, though, I began to see how the Church sees Christmas – and why it is such an important celebration.  Not too accumulate more stuff, but because of the great mysteries and work of God that took place in the Nativity.

Seeing Thy strange and all-glorious nativity which took place in the cave, let us all the more spurn the vanities of the world, for the divine Mind appeared on earth as a humble man, that He might lead up to the heavens those who cry out to Him: Alleluia!  (Kontakion VIII, Akathist to the Nativity of Christ)

This was one of the great feasts of the Church – Fr. Thomas Hopko has referred to it as the “Winter Pascha.”  And, in the Ancient Christian Faith, times of feasting and celebration are preceded by times of fasting.  Last year was one of the first years I really fully embraced Christmas  in many years.  By then, all of my objections and concerns had been dissolved.  The reasoning I carried from the more anti-Christmas tradition I had been part of had been explained and nullified.  My questions and concerns had been answered – and in the answers I found a far greater Truth and much greater God than I ever imagined.  Praise be to God.

Annunciation Icon

Annunciation Icon

So last year I set out to celebrate Christmas.  In Orthodoxy, we celebrate Christmas once Christmas arrives.  The “twelve days of Christmas” are the twelve days spanning Christmas and Epiphany on the sixth of January, celebrating the baptism of our Lord.  Those twelve days are fast-free, and are very joyful.  The world celebrates before Christmas, and once Christ arrives, they pack up their things and go home – the celebration having ceased.  December 26th, and it’s all over, and for many it is time to start worrying about how they are going to pay their credit card debt.

In Orthodoxy, from mid November until Christmas is a time of fasting, a time of preparation.  Then, when Christ arrives – it is then that the celebration really begins.  We celebrate for those whole twelve days.

Christ is born!  Glorify Him!

Last year, it was this time of preparation that really hung me up, though.  During that fasting period, I really did not want to do anything “joyful” regarding Christmas, because that was for “after.”  I did not want to decorate a tree until really close to Christmas, and I reluctantly put some lights up on our house.  “Let’s not be celebrative at all – this is a time of fasting” I thought.  I kind of felt that I really should not have anything Christmas-y until Christmas day, then we would have our celebration.

Again, that left a struggle for me last year.  I did not understand some of the more celebratory things that the Church did, or some of the wording in the liturgical services of the Church.

In November of this year, though, as I was beginning the Nativity Fast, I was blessed to listen to a podcast by Fr. Thomas Hopko, on of my favorite people to listen to, about the Nativity Fast.  This is available to listen to from Ancient Faith Radio.

Fr. Thomas Hopko: “The Nativity Fast”

One of the things Fr. Tom brought up that really helped clarify this time for me and alleviate last years struggle was this:  The Church does not act like it does not know what is coming.  This period of time – the Nativity Fast – is in anticipation of the coming event.  Part of my struggle was that I felt we should be acting almost like we did not know what was coming.  This was the dark time – the penitent time – the fasting time.  But that idea fell short of just how glorious the Incarnation is.  Fr. Tom’s teaching on this helped me not only understand the “Winter Pascha,” but also Pascha itself.  We begin to talk about the resurrection during Lent.  In the historic Church, we also begin to talk about the Nativity before it is celebrated.

Then suddenly, as usual in this journey, the plain sense of these things became apparent.  When we were expecting our children, during the time of my wife’s pregnancy, we anticipated their birth.  We knew it was coming, and we knew about when.  So we prepared.  Part of that preparation was in ourselves.  My wife tried to take care of herself and eat right.  The Nativity of Christ is a great event – so we prepare ourselves for that spiritual event in the spiritual way prescribed by our Lord and in the Scriptures – by fasting.  Fasting is part of our preparation.  But in that preparation, which is surrounded by anticipation, we also, as we waited for our children, bought their cribs – bought baby clothes – decorated the nursery.  I bought my daughter’s first toy when my wife was less than 20 weeks pregnant with her.  We did not act like we did not know it was coming, nor did we wait until our children arrived to decorate the nursery.

We did all of these things in anticipation and preparation for their arrival.  Nor did we, though, do all of the celebrating of their birth before they arrived, then once they did show up, cease the celebrating.  Once our children arrived – that was when it really became joyful.  It was then that we pulled out the cigars and celebrated.  And the time following their birth was the time we celebrated the most – our beautiful children are here with us.  They have been born.  Glorify God!

So it is with Christmas.  This time before the Nativity is a time of anticipation and preparation.  We know what is coming, and we are looking forward to it.  I joyfully decorated my house, because I know the upcoming event is one of the most joyful events there is.

Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.  For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11, NKJV)

And we also struggle to fast and prepare ourselves spiritually for the coming of our Lord and for this great event.  We look forward to the feast, but we know it has not yet arrived.  Today, we fast…but then, we will feast.

This year, I do not forget what it is I am looking forward to, and why I celebrate it with great conviction and joy.  I do not try to forget what is coming – one of the greatest and most joyful events known to man – the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ!

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, NKJV)

Have a Blessed Nativity Season!

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Responses

  1. What a wonderful post! This is my first Christmas season as an Orthodox and I admit, up until I read this post I too was thinking “why celebrate now? The event hasn’t come yet!” Your analogy to the birth of your children was eye opening though and I want to thank God and you for posting this.

    Still, I cannot wait until period after Christmas. There is a sense of satisfaction in knowing that after the world has packed up their things and left, we Christians really be just beginning to celebrate.

    God bless!

  2. A very nice post, which outlines a very important fact of orthodox worship. The most shining analog to this is the Burial Hymns of Great Friday, just before Easter Sunday.

    During that evening’s service, when the Burial of Christ and His descent to Hell is remembered, when his Body lies lifeless on the flower-decorated tomb, the cantor sing the Engomia, literally the “Appraisal” Hymns. And though the day is solemn and full of sorrow, these Hymns are sung in plagal 1st and in 3rd tones, the two thriumpic tones. And while the words remind us of the Death and Burial of Christ, they also speak of the Resurrection which is shortly at hand, and the eternal freedom from death’s power.

    Just a small correction, the Epiphany is on January 6th, January 1st is the Circumcision (a lesser feast, as circumcision is not practiced in Christianity)


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