"Merry Christmas — Later not Sooner"
by Fr. James C. Meena
When I was a little boy, as with all children, I used to anticipate the coming of Christmas weeks in advance. I'd get excited and start thinking about the good food that was going to be shared and the gifts that would be forthcoming, decorating the Christmas tree, putting lights in the window, presents under the tree, waiting for Santa. I used to wonder for weeks what I was going to get for Christmas and I would go scrounging around the house in all of the cupboards and the closets looking for anything that looked like a Christmas present and surreptitiously I would find these gifts and I would play with the toys that had been purchased explicitly for gift-giving at Christmas time. Then when Christmas day actually came and the gifts were given to me and I had to open them, I had to pretend to be so excited and surprised because I didn't want anybody to know that I had been celebrating Christmas before Christmas came.
Now that was a practice of a child and our society is very much like that child, even though our society does not recognize, to a great extent, the religious significance, the spiritual value of this Holy Season. It has gotten into the habit of celebrating a secular Christmas by anticipation. The commercial segment of our society begins readying itself to this holiday, even before Thanksgiving is over. I am still stunned to see Christmas decorations in the middle of the streets and in store fronts and everyplace where we can look so early in the year. The signs of the secular Christmas, parties at school, office parties, club parties have become a natural thing for our society in anticipation of Christmas. I have tried to evaluate this and I wondered whether it's because people really are so filled with the joy of the season that they just can't wait to celebrate, or that this Holy Feast has no real meaning for them at all and that they will take advantage of any excuse to escape the hum-drum routine of their daily way of living.
I'm afraid that based on an evaluation of many years, I must come to the conclusion that the latter is true. The reason that I make these comments to you is that we have become infected by the maladies of society. We of the Church also celebrate Christmas by anticipation. We celebrate the coming of our Lord before He has come. When we should be fasting, we are feasting, and when we should be feasting, we are so overstuffed from our anticipatory celebrations that we fast involuntarily. Isn't that ironic? Many of us have taken for ourselves the societal custom of inviting friends and family to our homes to feast on the Eve of the Nativity of Christ, when we should be fasting and preparing ourselves spiritually for the Liturgical Celebration of the Birth of our Lord, when we should be meditating and contemplating our lives so that we can present them at the altar with the newborn Christ and partake of the Chalice which He has given to us in order that we might be born again with Him. Many of us have neglectfully lapsed into the traps which society has laid for us. Christmas becomes a social time of the year to be celebrated from late November until December 25th and then to be forgotten about immediately and as quickly as possible. How many of us have said, "I'm so glad it's over" when it really has only begun.
Once one of our brothers in Christ picked up the telephone when I called his home, and said "Happy New Year", and I said, "No, Merry Christmas", because Christmas is not ended. It is the sacred tradition of the Church that the Nativity of Christ be observed as a festal time until we celebrate His Theophany, His Baptism on the sixth of January. You've all heard the carol, "The Twelve Days of Christmas". Well the Twelve Days of Christmas are a Spiritual and Liturgical reality to the practicing Orthodox Christian. Of course we don't worry about gold rings, and partridges and pear trees but everyday of the Twelve Days of Christmas is a celebration of something concerning the Birth of Christ. The day after Christmas is the celebration of the Feast of the Theotokos. We honor Mary, who was the temple through which Christ was born into the world. And the following days we commemorate such personages as David the ancestor of Christ, and Joseph His step-father, and events such as Christ's Circumcision.
We remember 40,000 faithful Christians who died for the faith and the 14,000 infants who were slain at the command of Herod because he didn't want this Christ Child to grow into manhood. Everyday for the Twelve Days of Christmas until we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, is a Celebration of the Nativity of Christ, therefore, it is a contradiction of terms for us, like that little child that I described at the onset of this sermon, to look for the toys and the pleasures of Christmas in anticipation of the Birth of Christ. For us, as Christians, those six weeks before the actual day of the Nativity, is supposed to be a period of introspection, of self-study, of meditation, so that we might transcend ourselves. Talk about transcendental meditation, Christians have been practicing it for hundreds of years. It is not a time for us to participate in secular celebration. The true Orthodox Christian will refuse to celebrate Christmas before the Lord has been born, and will insist that the Twelve Days of Christmas be the time when he celebrates. Every day should be a Christmas Party from the 25th of December till the 5th of January. Every day is an excuse for feasting and rejoicing because Christ Is Born and we are called upon to Glorify Him.
It is for this reason that we, as your spiritual Fathers, have asked all of the organizations of our churches to celebrate the Birth of the Lord after Christmas and not during the Christmas Fast. It's not because we're such disciplinarians, it's just that we like to put things in their proper order. We will continue calling upon each of you to prepare yourselves for the Coming of our Lord by imposing upon yourselves the proper spiritual disciplines of prayer, repentance, and fasting. We will continue to urge you to stand up like adult men and women in the eyes of God to sing His praises in the midst of the congregation as those who are worthy of His blessings and of the love which He showers upon us. Let us not be victimized by the pleasures and temptations of the society which has been condemned by the words of Christ as being the domain of the prince of this world, who is the prince of Darkness. Let us, rather, as citizens of His Kingdom manifest the glory and the beauty of righteousness and piety that are exemplified in His Birth, in His Ministry, in His Teachings, and in His Example. Then we can bid each other a "Merry Christmas".
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
pp. 19, 21