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The Christmas Season as Preparation

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It’s here. It is upon us. Well, actually, it already began probably more than a month ago. Christmas season. I think everyone has noticed that it seems to get longer and longer every year. I’m 34, and I remember in my childhood that Christmas season didn’t begin until after Thanksgiving, and that was just perfect. The whole season was bookended by these two warm, family holidays.

But then, I also remember when I was working at Walmart like ten years ago and they started playing Christmas music on Halloween day. And I stopped stocking bakery items and thought to myself, “What the crap is this?” What an abuse of such a great holiday! Meaning Christmas, not Halloween, of course.

Of course, the Christmas season is being perpetually extended all for the sake of money money money. This is when companies finally get in the black, after all. Unfortunately, America has well-earned its reputation as materialistic. But we all know that’s not what it’s supposed to be about. Now, I’m not knocking the time-honored tradition of Christmas gift giving, but that isn’t the essence of the season. We all know that, but we also know that it’s hard to resist it when basically all of society is behind it.

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And really, if we want to talk about legit Christian society traditions, Christmas season doesn’t even begin until… Christmas! That’s where the whole thing about the twelve days of Christmas comes from—it’s the season from Christmas until the great feast of Theophany, or Christ’s Baptism, on January 6. That’s what’s celebrated in the Orthodox Church, while in the Catholic church it’s more about the Three Wise Men. But either, way, the point is that celebrating didn’t begin until the holiday itself, which makes pretty good sense, does it not?

My good buddy from seminary was always very excited to tell us how in the Slavic household he grew up in, they didn’t even put the Christmas tree up until Christmas Eve—that makes it really about Christ.

Despite our modern beloved tradition of Christmas parties—at work and at school—that are almost invariably before Christmas, really, the time before Christmas is meant to be a time of preparation for celebrating the holiday. When the actual content of the holiday—Christ’s birth—is the actual focus of the holiday for you, and when you believe, as do Orthodox Christians, that we actually encounter and experience God as we celebrate such holidays in Church, then you understand that such celebrations require preparation.

Moses didn’t just saunter up Mt. Sinai to have a casual chat with God, did he? No, there was pretty rigorous preparation, including forty days of fasting. We are infected by sin and death, while God is holiness and Life—mutually exclusive qualities that are overcome only by the holiday of Christmas itself—Christ becoming man, and by God’s grace and condescension. But to meet God and receive this grace, we need to make room within ourselves—again, preparation is needed.

Remember, there was no room for Christ in the manger, but let’s be better than that!

That’s why Christmas, or better—the Nativity of Christ—is traditionally preceded by forty days of fasting. But calm down, this isn’t full-on fasting like Moses did—the Church knows our weakness—but it traditionally means forty days of, essentially, eating like a vegan—no meat, no dairy, and even no oil, except on certain days where the fast is somewhat relaxed. In addition to curbing what we eat, we’re also supposed to curb how much we eat.

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But even this is not an end in and of itself, but rather a means to an end. Who cares about just giving up some delicious food? What good is that? The point is to peel away some of the layers that accrete upon us throughout the year and distract our attention from the one thing needful—God. An empty belly is better for prayer. It’s true.

With this as our goal, of course fasting is about much more than food too—we are encouraged to pray more, to read Scripture more, to go to church more, to indulge in entertainment less. Of course, this is completely antithetical to the Christmas climate that has grown up in America with all the parties, as we said, and the Christmas concerts and all that. Again, I don’t intend to say these things are bad, but let’s try to take the moment we have to refocus ourselves a bit, to try to find something deeper than Christmas cookies and gifts.

God wants to give us His grace, but we first have to turn towards Him, we have to make an effort and a sacrifice and show God that we mean business. Grace isn’t handed out to people watching TV on the couch. If we’re not actively seeking God, why should He turn towards us?

So when we hear the usual line about putting Christ back into Christmas, when we hear about Jesus as the reason for the season, or when the evening news talks about the war on Christmas—which is real, to be sure—well, maybe we can begin to think about these things in terms not of transforming or changing society back to what it once was, but in terms of our own, personal lives.

To be sure, the culture wars in America are very real, and I’m not suggesting that we abandon them, but let’s try to lay a deeper, more stable foundation for them in our own lives!

Put Christ back into Christmas by buckling down, doing the real work of attracting God, and putting Christ back into your own heart. This is what will change society anyways. Movements come and go, but authentic lives touch and change hearts.

And hey, we all know we want those warm and fuzzy feelings in the Christmas season, but I’m trying to point us to a whole ‘nother level of the warm and fuzzies.

So this season, when you’re at that office Christmas party, eat a few less cookies and go talk to the awkward lady who usually sits at her desk by herself. When you get home, crack your Bible. Think more about what you can give someone else than what they can give you.

That’s the best way to spend the pre-Christmas Christmas season.

Author: Jesse Dominick