Orthodox America

  The Spirit of the Season

       As leaves turn and autumn winds blow, we here in the United States are called in a thousand different ways to concern ourselves with "the holidays.'' In this country these holidays begin with Thanksgiving and end with New Years. The wind-up begins sometime in October, peaks the week before Christmas and peters out with the coming in of the New Year. The “holiday spirit" is then wrapped up in a box and put away with the other seasonal decorations until the following year. At least that is what seems to be the general pattern.

       As Orthodox Christians we know that we should resist the commercial frenzy that each year usurps a greater portion of the traditional holiday spirit, a spirit of thanksgiving to God, of peace on earth, good will toward men. And each year we resolve to break free and not to climb onto the secular treadmill of shopping, entertaining, overeating and other forms of indulgence.

       But for most of us it is a seemingly unavoidable pitfall, year after year. Is there any solution? .......

      Some Orthodox Christians give up on the question altogether; they find it too difficult to resist office parties, pressure from their children, relatives perhaps. Their conscience may prick them, but justifications abound, and besides, it's what society "dictates". Other, more zealous Orthodox separate themselves entirely from the proceedings, seeing them as an abomination, and hide themselves from this "polluted" society, keeping themselves in their own artificially created, "right-believing" world. Obviously, neither of these extremes is a spiritually healthy choice to make. I believe there is a middle path onto which the wise Orthodox Christians will try to steer himself which will be most beneficial not only to himself but also to others.

       Devout Orthodox Christians are often torn on the subject of Thanksgiving, especially converts. What does this American holiday mean to us? How do we celebrate it? Some would argue that it is a Protestant feast instituted by the Puritan Pilgrims and shouldn't be celebrated by Orthodox Christians. Nonsense! The very reason the Pilgrims established this feast was to give thanks to God for having granted them a bountiful harvest after a winter of great privation. "Praise God from Whom all blessings flow..." What could be more Orthodox?

      On the other hand, Thanksgiving should not be used to justify a kind of epicurean Mardi Gras, coming as it usually does just before the Nativity Fast. We must be true to the holiday's original intent. We should try to go to church, or at least have a special time of prayer before sitting down to attack the turkey. The akathist "Glory to God for All Things," written in 1940 by a priest in the Gulag, is particularly appropriate to this occasion.

      Thanksgiving encourages us to stop and 'count our blessings and to give thanks to God for all the good gifts He has bestowed upon us and even for the trials which He has helped us to endure. So often our prayers contain a litany of petitions but very little thanks-giving. Let us not be like the nine lepers in the Gospel, who were healed and left without giving thanks.

      Not long ago Matushka and I returned from a three-month sojoum in Palestine. While there we began to appreciate many of the simplest and most taken-for-granted aspects of life here in the United States. Since our return we have been immersed in a spirit of thanksgiving for what America offers us as citizens of this free country, and for what Our Lord offers us as Orthodox Christians living in America. For us, of course, the distinctions are dramatically defined, having been deprived of some of these benefits for a time. But anyone, even the poorest among us, has much to be thankful for (only take a walk outside and look at the sky), and we should work to make this spirit of Thanksgiving come alive in our hearts not just once a year, but every day.

      What else characterized the first Thanksgiving? The act of sharing. The Pilgrims invited the Indians to share what God had provided. Whom have we invited to share our table? How often does the Gospel remind us to remember the poor and needy. Let us look for our example to the early Christians, described by Aristides in this eyewitness account: 

"Christians love one another. They never fail to help widows and orphans. If a man has something, he gives it freely to the man who has nothing. If they see a stranger, Christians take him home and treat him like a real brother. If someone is poor and there isn't enough food to go around, they fast several days to give him the food he needs. This is really a new kind of person. There is something divine in them." (Quoted in “Hospitality: the Essence of Eastern Christian Lifestyle” by Rev. David Kirk, in Diakonia)

      Something divine. This is what the Orthodox Christian witness should bring to the world. Especially during the holidays which have been stripped of their true meaning by a barbarous secularization in this post Christian era.

      The Feast of our Lord's Nativity--when heaven came down to earth, and divinity took upon itself humanity--has suffered a particularly cruel transformation. It is also the holiday whose secular pressures are most difficult to resist. As Old Calendarist Orthodox, we have the advantage of celebrating the Feast in the quiet aftermath of the world's holiday whirl. But here again we are called upon not to remove ourselves entirely from this world (although this call is given to some) but to witness to the world that "Jesus is the reason for the season." This is not to say that we must forgo having a Christmas tree or eliminate the traditional exchange of gifts, as do some sectarians. It does mean that we should exercise restraint in our gift purchases--it is the thought that counts not the price tag--in order that we might concentrate our means on giving to those less fortunate, and concentrate our minds and hearts on the spirit of the Feast. Expensive gifts or quantities of gifts, which many children have come to expect at this time of year, tend to detract from the quiet joy of Christ's Nativity. To help a child enter into this joy is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give.

      And to carry this joy in our hearts and to share it with our neighbor, not only during this holiday season but throughout the year, to show by words of kindness and acts of love that there is something "different" and not just different but attractively different about Orthodox Christians... this is how our Saviour drew others to Himself, and this is how we will attract others to Him. By more perfectly reflecting His divine image, the image in which we were created, we can participate in the spirit of that first Christmas and help the angels make known God's gift to the world. 

Priest Justin Gross
All Saints of Russia Paris h, Denver

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