Keeping Christmas

It is not unusual to give thought to how we keep a fast. Will it be in a strict manner? How will my fasting be possible when I’m at work or at school? How will I teach my children to fast?  When we ignore the Fast, we feel guilty and the need to confess. It is strange, however, that we do not give similar thought and time to what it means to keep the Feast. For fasting is about the Feast—not about the Fast. Everything is about the Feast!

Our popular culture has no difficulty keeping its feast of Christmas—and though we complain about how commercial the feast becomes—we live in a commercial culture. Our way of life and economy are grounded in consumerism. If we stop shopping, the nation will collapse (as a consumer nation).

Almost everything in our culture radiates from its consumerist existence. Even how we think of what it means to be human is driven by consumerism. Popular culture thinks of a human being as a center of consciousness with free will. It is a very simplified view of the human—but ideally suited for shopping. We think, we decide, therefore we shop!

Thus, the popular feast of Christmas is kept by doing a lot of what we do best—we shop. It is something of a redemption that at least an aspect of our shopping is buying things for others.

But the Orthodox understanding of the feast is not grounded in consumerism. We do not believe people were created to consume. We are created to commune.

We do not eat in order to live—we eat in order to be in communion with God. When we live rightly, everything we do is done in order to enjoy communion with God and with other human beings. Said quite simply—we exist in order to love.

We keep the feast of Christmas, not by consuming or affirming our place within the world of consumption—we keep the feast by entering more deeply into the life of communion—with God and with others.

We enter into communion with God through prayer and devotion and the keeping of His commandments. We enter into communion with others through forgiveness, acts of kindness and generosity. Communion often consumes things—we eat and drink Christ’s Body and Blood. But we do not eat His Body and Blood as though we were predators or as though His Body and Blood were objects to fill our bellies.

We eat and drink Christ’s Body and Blood in order to share in His life and in order to share our life with Him.

Our use of the things of this world with regard to others can become communion if we treat those things in the same way. If the things in our life are a means of sharing—both our own lives and in the lives of others—then they can become  communion.

A gift, given and received as an act of sharing, and not simply an act of consumption, can quickly rise to the level of communion.  There are gifts I have been given through the years whose value comes not from the market but from the giver and the “life” of the giver that is carried by the object. Such things in our lives bring remembrance and communion with every use.

We approach the feast of God’s greatest gift—His life incarnate in our world. God became man. In so doing He revealed our humanity as itself a great gift. The life of every human being bears the potential of communion with God. Every act of kindness, offered even to the “least of these,” is received as an act of communion with God Himself.

Keep the Feast with care this year!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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16 responses to “Keeping Christmas”

  1. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    For years I struggled against the pressure of our consumer culture at this time of year, not because I wanted to shop and spend money but because culture pressures us too. I wanted to really celebrate and immerse myself into what the incarnation means in life. Now that I am Orthodox I find that need fulfilled in a richer way than I thought possible.

    In your article Father you speak of communion and it occurred to me that true communion with God would be impossible without the Incarnation. He came in a way that we could culturally know Him and commune with Him. Even though many years have passed and culture has changed, we can still commune because He is one of us and we can know Him first in His humanity and be drawn into his divinity. Before the Hebrews could only know Him as divine and therefore distant. After the Incarnation He communed with us so that we might commune more fully with Him.

    Thank you Father for taking me on that meditative journey through your article.

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Thank you Father, you have no idea how this fits my life right now. It is all too easy to “keep the fast” not in joy but in a dour Gnostic manner. A manner which unconsciously denies the Gift.

    God forgive me.

  3. John Avatar

    Would you recommend a book or two that bear some similarity to The Way of a Pilgrim? They could be fiction or nonfiction. I have read Laurus. Thanks.

  4. Nikos Avatar

    John have you read “A night in the desert of the Holy Mountain” by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos ?

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If there were a dozen such books, I would recommend all of them. There are the books by Markides, starting with the Mountain of Silence. There’s an interesting book, Pilgrimage to Dhzvari. I’m reading a very odd Orthodox novel at the moment, that I’ll remain mum about until I’m finished and have digested enough to know if I’ll recommend it.

  6. John Avatar

    Just bought Riding with the Lion by Markides. Thanks.

  7. Michael Lynch Avatar

    Thank you for this extremely insightful and timely reflection. We hear so much about “keeping Christ in Christmas” these days, but it seems like that is so heavily focused on whether people (or a store’s advertising) says “Merry Christmas” or “Happy holidays.”
    I think this article shows just how ironic it is that so much of our “keep Christ in Christmas” campaign focuses on what stores are doing.

  8. Carol Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for this posting.  This season can be so difficult!  While I would wish this to be a holy and peaceful time, I more frequently find myself filled with resentment and irritation.  Going forward I intend to focus on communion with God and others as you describe above. 

  9. Justin Avatar

    There’s a reason Fr Stephen said “…STARTING WITH the Mountain of Silence.” Markides evolved a lot – a LOT – between Riding the Lion and there. Given what you’re after, you might find yourself in for a bit of a disappointment.
    I would echo the recommendation. Riding the Lion is more Markides own reflections/experiences at the very beginning of his journey (a period of his life in which he was, by his own admission, internally biased against spirituality in general, Christianity in specific, especially Orthodoxy). Mountain of Silence is largely the reflections/experience of an inveterate monk of Mt Athos – a practitioner of the Jesus Prayer – with whom Markides had the blessing to spend considerable exclusive time. This man’s Christlikeness was such that he was ordered to become a bishop against his wishes, leaving the Holy Mountain. WAY closer to Way of a Pilgrim than Riding the Lion.
    Not that Riding the Lion is a bad read, or anything. I enjoyed it. It’s just that it’s likely not quite what you’re after.

  10. Panayiota Avatar

    Your article is truly the perfect Christmas gift.

  11. Dino Avatar

    I would also reaffirm Justin’s exact recommendation.

  12. John Avatar

    Thanks. I’ll get Mountain. I got Lion because he wrote it first.

  13. Nikos Avatar

    Quite right Justin.

    Metropolitan Athanasius of Limassol gives an insightful description of the Christlike elders that he got to know here:

  14. Deacon James Avatar
    Deacon James

    I have been thinking since reading this post to say we should keep Christmas in Christ. The other way round puts the emphasis on the result, not the cause.

    “Thine own of thine own, we offer unto thee in behalf of all and for all.”

  15. Chris Schmidt Avatar
    Chris Schmidt

    Father Bless.

    This reminds me of a Wendell Berry poem; here’s an excerpt:

    Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
    vacation with pay. Want more
    of everything ready-made. Be afraid
    to know your neighbors and to die.
    And you will have a window in your head.
    Not even your future will be a mystery
    any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
    and shut away in a little drawer.
    When they want you to buy something
    they will call you. When they want you
    to die for profit they will let you know.

    So, friends, every day do something
    that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
    Love the world. Work for nothing.
    Take all that you have and be poor.
    Love someone who does not deserve it…

    …Go with your love to the fields.
    Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
    in her lap. Swear allegiance
    to what is nighest your thoughts.
    As soon as the generals and the politicos
    can predict the motions of your mind,
    lose it. Leave it as a sign
    to mark the false trail, the way
    you didn’t go. Be like the fox
    who makes more tracks than necessary,
    some in the wrong direction.
    Practice resurrection.

    Love in Christ and deep gratitude for your labor on this blog and podcast,

  16. Agata Avatar

    Dear Nikos,

    Thank you for sharing the video of Metropolitan Athanasius! It’s absolutely wonderful!

    Every sentence he says is full of wisdom and such beauty…. How blessed are the people who have met these Saints… I know many of the people who post here have, and we are in turn blessed to hear about these experiences.

    But then we ourselves also know, in our lives, a few “very sweet people who embrace everyone”, who are “themselves, balanced, well-adjusted, charitable”, who “don’t put up with the darkness in our souls”. I am so thankful for those I know in my life.

    Glory to God for these examples, and may God grant us also to make a beginning at becoming saints.

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