Well, they tell me some of the radio stations have already started playing Christmas music. It seems like everyone I know loves to complain about this. I mean really across the spectrum of ideologies and denominations, people love to complain about this. Secular friends and coworkers sigh derisively and roll their eyes at the sound of “Silver Bells” in November, saying, “It’s not even Thanksgiving yet!” Meanwhile, our Roman Catholic friends complain, “It’s not even Advent yet!”
Of course, to us Byzantines, that sounds a little odd because, well, it is. Our Nativity Fast began on November 15th after the feast of Saint Philip. Our altar covers are already red. The secular and commercial world has nothing on us when it comes to getting ready early.
But the way and the spirit with which we prepare to welcome the Lord and to celebrate his birth in a cave in Bethlehem is very different. Or, it ought to be. How ought we to prepare?
It is interesting to compare our Byzantine approach to this season with the approaches taken by the world and even by the other Churches.
It may surprise some to learn that our lectionary has no readings particularly associated with the coming feast of the Nativity – until the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers, which, at the earliest, can fall on December 11th. This year, it falls on December 17th – its latest possible date. (By the way, it is traditional to intensify our fasting around this time – either on December 10th or December 20th). So, there’s always about a full month of the Nativity Fast – and that’s the majority of the fast – during which our lectionary does not directly intimate the Nativity of our Lord.
There are some liturgical changes that do occur. For example, starting on November 21st, we sing the katavasiai from the Canon of the Birth of the Lord at Matins. There are also throughout this season occasional Days of Alleluia. These are particularly penitential days during which the Divine Liturgy may not be celebrated and the other services become longer and more penitential, with prostrations, the beautiful and convicting Prayer of Saint Ephrem, and other features you would expect, actually, from a liturgical service during the Great Fast.
Also, of course, in addition to these increased prayers, we are to be actually fasting – each of us to the extent that we are able – and we are to renew and intensify our practice of almsgiving – of sacrificial giving to those in need, to the poor, and to the real needs of the Church.
But, despite all of these changes to our way of prayer and life during the Nativity fast, our lectionary, as I say, for a time makes no direct mention of the particular reason we are doing this in this season. The changes that do occur in our liturgical life often make it look more like Lent than Advent.
Now, some perceive this as a deficiency in need of correction. And maybe people do need more explicit reminders of what this season is all about. Perhaps to help with this, our own Eparchy’s Archpriest David Petras has written a book of meditations for the Nativity fast, which I look forward to reading, but it draws on the lectionary of the Maronite Church for inspiration because, as I say, the Byzantine lectionary is silent at this time.
On the other hand, it’s not so silent as it used to be, because now we celebrate beautiful services like the Emmanuel Moleben during the Nativity fast, which includes readings chosen for their relevance to the coming Nativity of the Lord. However, it should be known and remembered that this is no ancient Byzantine service. Its form and its original texts are the work of the Right Reverend Mitered Archpriest Conrad Dachuk, who just recently celebrated his 40th year of priesthood in the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Toronto. So, we have a great Byzantine hymnographer here in the West and among the living. Our tradition is not dead nor static. There is room for new prayers.
But before we go too far in filling up the absences we perceive in this fasting season, let’s pause for a moment and considered whether or not the silence itself might be meaningful for us. Perhaps it’s only an accident of history that the Feast of Christmas developed first in the West and so other Churches have more to say about it. Or, perhaps, as I say, our relative silence is meaningful. But what could it mean?
Well, our understanding of the mystery of Christ grows better in the silence than in the noise. The noise of “Jingle Bells” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” is one thing – seemingly bent precisely on distracting us – but even the sacred sound of hymnody and holy words do not teach us what silence does. The mystery of Christ – his incarnation and his birth – is so great that one wonders whether every word we speak about it draws us nearer to it or moves us further from it. So perhaps a time of silence – a fast from too many words about the mystery – joined with quiet contemplation of that mystery – would do us good. It could help to empty us.
This is a fast – and a fast empties our bellies.
This is a time of almsgiving, which empties our wallets.
And this is a time of prayer – without readings about the very inspiration for our fasting and our almsgiving and our praying – the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps this kind of prayer could help empty our hearts of earthly cares so that they may receive the king of all.
Fr. Jack Custer says that this is a “period of fasting by which we prepare an empty place for God to fill with joy, and by which we cleanse our lives of sin and selfishness so as to welcome our Savior.” This kind of holy emptiness creates in us a receptivity to the Lord that we lack when we are overfull with food and possessions and self-satisfaction, like the rich man in today’s parable, who pulls down his barns to build larger ones and there store all his grain and his goods (Luke 12:18).
It is especially in this season of the year with its pre-emptive holiday parties and rampant consumerism that we – especially those of us who are rich – are tempted to say to our soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19). Let us remember that at any moment God may say to us, as he does to the rich man, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20).
When the Lord comes to us, as he comes to the world in his Nativity, may he find us hungry, empty, and yearning for him rather than satisfied, full, and taking thought of no one but ourselves and our own families. Then, he will be the one to satisfy us eternally.
Instead of stuffing ourselves full with rich foods and stuffing our barns full with needless possessions, let us empty ourselves and our barns by fasting and almsgiving. And with the help of prayer, let us become rich in the things of God, rather than the things of the world, whatever avarice the worldly celebration of the holidays may seem to justify.
Instead of laying up treasure for ourselves, let us be rich toward God (Luke 12:21). Let us be rich in what matters to God. The Lord requires of us only to do right, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). The way is simple, really, though at times difficult. Now is the time to simplify our lives not complexify them, whatever the world may say.