My last blog post regarding Nietzsche's death of God pronouncement reminded me of a Christmas teaching I did years ago. Early in my desert wanderings, I learned about the Church Calendar and how we, as American Christians, culled much of the feasts and fasts practiced by the Church for centuries on the pretext of being "too catholic". We celebrated only Easter and Christmas--there was very little preparation apart from practicing for cantatas--and secular holidays like Mother's Day and Independence Day. Some may celebrate Advent or Holy Week, but these were usually seen as optional for the overly ambitious, or pejoratively as "dead traditions."
Christmas became the central Christian holiday for many because they could listen to cheesy Christmas music, gluttonously consume refined sugars in the form of cookies, decorate their homes with objects that normally would be considered tacky any other time of year, attend cantatas, and spend way too much money on gifts--and if you didn't get on the bandwagon for this secularized version of a reverent Church feast celebrating the Incarnation, then you're a scrooge. Absurd!
Well, eight Christmases ago I did a teaching titled the "Death of Christmas" where I parodied Nietzsche's madman, substituting Christmas for God. It is true--we've killed Christmas! And as one who attends St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, I'm appalled by how the Wonderworker has been fattened, forced to don a red costume, and given a sleigh to deliver gifts!
Anyway, I digress...This is what happens when we try to secularize a religious holiday.
Yesterday, as I do every Sunday, I picked up a bulletin before entering the nave before Divine Liturgy, and inside this was printed:
by Fr. Hans Jacobse
What happens when we try to secularize Christmas, and why Orthodox Christians need to remain faithful to their traditions.
In the Christian tradition of both east and west, the twelve days of Christmas refer to the period from Christmas Day to Theophany. The days leading up to Christmas were for preparation; a practice affirmed in the Orthodox tradition by the Christmas fast that runs from November 15 to Christmas day. The celebration of Christmas did not begin until the first of the twelve days.
As our culture became more commercialized, the period of celebration shifted from Thanksgiving to Christmas Day. Christmas celebration increasingly conforms to the shopping cycle while the older tradition falls by the wayside. It’s an worrisome shift because as the tradition dims, the knowledge that the period of preparation imparted diminishes with it.
Our Orthodox traditions — from fasting cycles to worship –exist to teach us how to live in Christ. The traditions impart discipline. These disciplines are never an end in themselves but neither can life in Christ be sustained apart from them.
The traditions only make sense only when they have the Gospel as their reference. If we forget that these traditions are given to us to help us lay hold of Christ, then they appear to be superfluous and the disciplines they encourage us to do seem to serve no real purpose. We start to evaluate the discipline by the values of the dominant culture — by a cost-benefit calculus, rather than seeing them as ways to morally reorient ourselves towards Christ.
Instead of preparing for the birth of Christ through inward reorientation, we follow the direction of the dominant culture and skip any preparation altogether. We party instead of fast. We get caught up in the commercial energy of the season rather than wait on the Spirit of God.
It’s a dangerous path. Our culture is becoming increasingly secularized; the sacred dimension of creation is slipping from view. This loss of this sacred sensibility has grave ramifications for society that are expressed in many different ways such as the vulgarization of popular culture or the reduction of an unborn child to a commodity. If this view prevails our culture will inevitably view man as nothing more than an animal or a machine.
But man is more than an animal or a machine. The scriptures reveal man is created in the image and likeness of God, a phrase that means that man is not complete unless he partakes of God — God must be part of man’s life. This longing — this innate knowledge that man is created for God — never leaves man although a person can bury it if he so chooses.
A secularized mind is blind to the inherent holiness of life. Maintaining our traditions is one way to avoid this debilitating malady. Christmas is not just “Jesus’ birthday” (an impoverished notion heard more and more even among Orthodox faithful), but much more.
The birth of Christ and His baptism ought never to be divorced. Both events define the Christmas season. It imparts to the Christian the knowledge that Christ’s coming into the world and Christ’s sanctification of the waters makes our new life possible — a sonship by adoption accomplished through baptism.
When the link between Christmas and Theophany is broken (and by neglecting the proper preparation we break it), the cultural memory of the promise of new birth expresses itself in weakened and ultimately insufficient cultural forms. These forms function as a new tradition.
Religion is not the product of culture; religion is the source, writes philosopher Russell Kirk.
“It’s from an association in a cult, a body of worshipers, that human community grows…when belief in the cult has been wretchedly enfeebled, the culture will decay swiftly. The material order rests on the spiritual order.”
Orthodox Christianity can contribute to the recovery of the moral foundation of American culture by imparting knowledge that can strengthen and deepen that foundation. It won’t happen however, if the Orthodox faithful adopt the practices of the dominant culture in place of their own tradition.
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We like the idea of celebrating a birth, which is why people love Christmas--babies are cute! But Easter (Pascha) people do not appreciate as much, which is why it's not as easy to secularize (it has been but not to the extent as Christmas)--who wants to celebrate a man being nearly beaten to death and then nailed to a cross? The Cross being bloody, horrific, and barbaric reminds us of history, but, Christmas, on the other hand, can easily be removed from the historical event. Catholic theology is centered on the Crucifixion, that Christ's whole earthly life was ordered by the Cross; He lived in the shadow of what was to come. Now, the Orthodox stress the Incarnation more than our Roman brothers and sisters do, so the Cross is viewed in this light, as joyous, and as the Fathers teach, is a catapult to Heaven. But I believe the Catholics are correct in the sense that we can not forget why the Word of God was born of the Virgin. The reason why Christmas has been secularized is because of this separation. This disconnect happens when we discard the next major Church celebration.
Fr. Hans tells us that if the connection between Christmas and Theophany is broken we have a serious problem. Theophany is the bridge from the Birth to the Life of Christ. It reminds us that He came, not just to be born and remain an infant, but to live as the Son of Man. And one of the first stories we have about Jesus is His Baptism and the great revelation (theophany) of the Holy Trinity. The Spirit hovered over the waters like He did during Creation; the waters have been sanctified that we may enter into the Church--the Body of Christ, the Resurrection Community--that we may die and be born anew. That we may be healed.
Jesus Christ is the embodiment of Christmas. So, in a sense, Christmas did die. Christmas died on the Cross, that He may conquer death by His death and live victoriously. If Christmas is celebrated as a isolated holiday, divorced from its intended purpose, then Christmas is truly dead, and the bones lay moldering in its sepulchre. Kyrie Eleison