Advent

Advent is here. As an Anglican, Advent was a time of preparation prior to Christmas. Every Sunday in December, we lit a candle signifying some aspect of the coming saviour. Every day in December, I would open a little window in my Advent calendar, increasing my anticipation of Christmas, not that I needed any help in that area.

Upon marriage, I joined a Baptist Church where my husband and I introduced them to the December Advent wreath.

As Orthodox, Advent is so much more than a wreath.

Advent is known as the Nativity Fast and begins on November 15. It is a full vegan fast where we refrain from all meat and dairy, which makes it really hard trying to do any Christmas baking. The Nativity fast parallels the Paschal Lenten Fast.

During the Nativity fast, we prepare for the birth of Christ, to receive Him as the saviour of the world and then, thirteen days later, on the feast of Theophany, we celebrate His baptism, when He is raised to His full ministry. During Lent, we prepare for Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross and His glorious resurrection ,saving all of creation.

Christ was born in order to die. He was baptized in order to be raised. This season of Nativity is often referred to as the Winter Pascha. The Pascha of Christ’s resurrection was begun at the Pascha of His birth.

The Nativity fast incorporates other meaningful feast days. On November 21, we celebrate the Feast of the Entrance into the Temple of the Theotokos.

The Orthodox know Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, as the Theotokos, meaning God-bearer. Her entrance into the temple is not recorded in the gospels. Much of what we know about Mary, is found in the Book of James, known as the Protevangelion, which dates back to the second century.

Mary was born to an aged couple, Joachim and Anna, who had prayed to God for a child. When she was born, they dedicated her to God. They kept her as their own for three years until the time came to keep their promise, in part because they were nearing death. They formed a procession of the young girls of the neighbourhood to escort Mary. The girls danced in front of Mary, carrying torches. Drawn by the lights and the procession and a sense of destiny, Mary followed them joyfully to the Temple, not crying once as she was parted from her parents.

As she approached the Temple, the holy virgin ran ahead of the other maidens and threw herself into the arms of the High Priest Zacharias, (who was later father to John the Baptist). He had been waiting for her at the gate of the Temple. Zacharias blessed her saying, “It is in you that He has glorified your name in every generation. It is in you that He will reveal the Redemption that He has prepared for His people in the last days.”

Zacharias led Mary into the Temple where the grace of the Lord descended upon her, thus making her the living Holy of Holies, the living sanctuary and temple of God who would take His flesh from her and dwell within her for nine months. Traditionally, the Orthodox Church views this moment as negating the need for the physical temple in Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God, replacing it, instead, with the hearts of all those who love and serve God.

Mary remained in the Temple for nine years. When she was twelve years old, the time when young girls were to marry, Joseph was chosen by God to be her guardian and protector.

The Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple is the beginning of Mary’s total dedication to God and the beginning of her preparation to become Mother of the Incarnate Lord. This is a feast of anticipation and that is why it is celebrated during the Nativity Fast. As we show honour to Mary in her preparation, we are to emulate her dedication and preparations as we anticipate the incarnation of Christ, the saviour of the world who will be born next month on December 25, the Feast of the Nativity.

Tribalism

I was not a sports fan back in high school. Even so, when both the junior and the senior high school football teams ended up in the regional finals, every student felt an obligation to go and support them, especially since it meant the afternoon off school. The school bussed all interested student to Ivor Wynn Stadium, the home of the Hamilton Tiger Cats. Not knowing the rules of the game, for the first half I was constantly asking my friends what was happening. By half time, I was able to follow the plays by myself. As the game progressed so did the emotions of the students on both sides. At one point near the end of the game, an opposing player was running the ball towards our end, and our entire side of the stadium rose as one and roared “Get him!”, “Stop him!” “Kill him!”. When I sat back down, I thought, why was I wanting someone I didn’t even know to be injured? For what? A ball? I realized I was experiencing for the first time, a taste of tribalism and I didn’t like it.

Tribalism, “Us versus the Not-Us”, is what drives racism, sexism, political and religious extremism and war. Cheering for a sports team is, at first glance, a relatively innocent activity, but when passions are aroused to the point where opposing fans fight or riots occur because ‘our’ team lost, then something is very wrong. Tribalism encourages us to take sides, to identify with one group of people over another. Tribalism isolates us from others and to think of them as something less than human. Listening to and participating in the chants and yelled insults at that game, made me realize by dehumanizing the opposing players, I was also dehumanizing myself. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, my actions drew me further away from God.

The Orthodox Church has just celebrated the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ. It commemorates the time when Jesus took Peter, James and John to the mountain top to pray. As He was praying, He was filled with the uncreated light and Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke with Him.

Moses represents the Law and those who are dead, since Moses died before entering the promised land. Elijah represents the Prophets and the living since he was carried up to heaven alive. Jesus, as the fulfillment of all the Law and the Prophets, represents all people. Through His crucifixion and resurrection, He restores of all of creation, the living and the dead, back to God. The disciples were terrified not realizing they were witnessing the potential future of all of humanity; everyone transfigured by the uncreated light and restored to a right relationship with God by love.

As a member of the body of Christ, this is my tribe, the tribe of humankind. But it’s not an “us and not-us” tribalism, it’s “Us and Not-Yet-Us”. There should be no division between me and anyone else, even if they do play for the opposing team. God loves me, and them, and we are to love each other.

Christ calls all to salvation. He supplied me with all I need to build my mansion in heaven but I can’t build my mansion by myself. I need everyone around me, all the ‘us’ and the ‘not-yet-us’, to help.

Every heavenly mansion built is like an old-fashioned barn-raising event where the whole community would gather and build a barn in a day. In twenty days, twenty barns could be built. If each farmer tried to build his own barn by himself, probably no barns would be built. (And I speak from experience after having assisted my father build a 20 foot long shed/barn.)

Salvation is a community event. The more barns I help build, the sooner my own barn will be completed. The more people I choose to love in Christ, whether they know Him or not, the closer I draw to God and to transfiguration.

This is true tribalism, inviting those on the outside to come inside, to share life with the dying, to free the captives from bondage. This is the tribe of Christ, the tribe of love.

Confidence

I spoke to my daughter the other night, the one who is trying to make it in the music industry. She said after years of hard work and struggle, she has reached the point where she feels entitled to call herself ‘a musician who has a part-time job to make ends meet’ instead of someone who only plays around with music as a hobby.

I think she is very wise. She has reached a point in her young life that it has taken me over three decades. If I could write a letter to my younger self, I think I would say ‘relax, believe in yourself and don’t worry what others think of you.’

My parents were nomads. I attended six schools in locations from Vancouver to Montreal. As an introverted nerd, I did not fit into readily established cliques of kids who had been together since kindergarten. Rather then blend into the background, I drew attention to myself by asking questions in class, and by my complete and total lack of fashion sense in high school having up to then attended schools requiring uniforms. I was totally confused as to what was expected of me and tried to blend chameleon-like with whatever group I was with. As I floated from group to group trying to belong, I suppressed more of who I really was and what I should have been doing all along.

I was in math and sciences but I loved English, especially legally reading books in class. But best of all was working on a creative writing assignment. Unfortunately, I never called myself a writer nor did anyone else. According to others, I was destined to be employed in the math and science field, so writing was just my hobby.

As an adult, I attempted to conform despite my non-conformist true self. I bit my lip and tried to avoid rocking the boat, even though I knew the boat needed to be rocked or better still,capsized.

I wrote dry technical reports in my job. Occasionally I had an opportunity to work on an outside, unofficial creative writing project. But they still didn’t make me a writer.

Unfortunately, over the years, I became very good at sabotaging myself. When I tried to please others, I would stress and worry, afraid of doing something wrong. When I tried to please myself, I felt I was wasting my time by doing something insignificant or not worth the effort. This type of thinking led to mediocre performances in both areas.

Since I was apparently living someone else’s life, I really wasn’t sure of what I was doing and my lack of confidence became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more I felt I was missing the mark, the more I missed it, the more I cared about doing things to please others, the more I screwed up. It wasn’t until I left the formal workplace and entered the informal, fly-by-the-seat-of-your- pants world of wife and motherhood that I was actually able to explore who I really was with the full support of my husband and children.

“Lead me, O Lord, in thy righteousness because of mine enemies; make Thy way straight before my face.” Psalm 5:8

My husband underlined this for me. I realized I’d been asking God to bless my plans rather than joining in with His. My prayer was ‘make my way straight before Your face. I would ask God to bless something I had already decided rather than asking what He wanted me to do. “Do everything with a blessing” is not the same as “bless everything I do.” I realized daily I should ask God to direct my path. I should live every moment prayerfully, to see what He is doing so I can faithfully do my part. So I asked God what He wanted me to do, and He provided me with the opportunities to write…and I did.

Now I call myself a writer who works part-time to make ends meet.

So, let me amend my advice to my younger self; ‘Relax, believe in God, follow His lead and you will discover who you are.’

Fasting

At St. Aidan’s we are well and truly into the Advent Fast which began November 15. This means we generally refrain from eating animal products right up until midnight December 24 when we feast.

I never really knew about fasting before becoming Orthodox. I had participated in some cleansing fasts and 30-Hour-Famine fasts. These were short term, completely abstaining from food and not accompanied by prayer. My knowledge has definitely increased over the past fifteen years.

The Orthodox church has scheduled church fasting periods for about half the year. Until the modern era, these fasting periods would also include more services, giving participants more opportunity for alms-giving and communal prayer. Unfortunately, given the nature of our 21 century lives, Canadian geography and lack of priests, communal services are not as frequent as they could be. We can still give to charity outside of the church, but prayer is vitally important, so more private or family prayer is encouraged. Fasting and alms-giving without prayer can make us proud instead of humble. Prayer also keeps us focused on the purpose of the fast. The focus of the Advent fast is the anticipation and preparation for the time when God entered into His creation by being born as the saviour of the world.

Fasting periods were implemented within the Christian Church by the apostles. The fasts are a form of discipline to help us enter into the event occurring during that time. They are a spiritual prescription, so to speak. Ultimately, the fasts can draw us closer to Christ because we believe when we discipline the body by refraining from certain foods, we are also disciplining the soul and spirit. We believe creation first sinned through an act of eating in pride, so we begin to undo that when we humble our bodies by not eating, by fasting. Combining the fast with prayer enables us to also humble our souls. As we humble our souls, we become more like Christ, more able to see God in all of His creation including His people. This ascetic reminder is particularly needed at Advent, during this first world, 21st century season of excess and pride.

Fasting during Advent reminds us that our happiness should not be dependent upon obtaining stuff whether for ourselves or others, having the most beautifully decorated house or angrily winning the ‘War against Christmas’. These things take our focus off what is actually important, drawing closer to God. The relentless promotion of capitalism and over-indulgence during December wages more of a war on Christmas than any non-believer ever could.

When we fast, we can consciously say no to over-indulgence and pride. When we fast, we may be more inclined to give to others. When we fast, we may be more willing to live the spirit of Christmas; giving recognition and respect to every other person around us.

Despite the self-indulgence, or possibly because of it, during this season food banks are stuffed, soup kitchens overflow, and the charity coffers are full. Christians and non-Christians alike are drunk with the Spirit of Christmas and feel the need to share. But when January rolls around, the over-indulgence hangover arrives with the bills, chasing away the inclination to give. Unfortunately, people need assistance not just one day, one week or even one month of the year, but all year round.

And this is where the fast can help.

Ideally, the money we save in food bills can be given to those who need it more. The time we save by not preparing elaborate meals can be spent in prayer. As we draw closer to God, drawing closer to others should become foremost in our minds as we fast throughout the year and not just in December.

During the Advent fast, we can avoid the over-indulgence hangover and maintain the message of the Christmas season year-round, the message that Christ was born to save all of creation. Prayer and fasting helps us to overcome pride and enables us to love and help all people, to treat them as important to God and to us, not just once a year but every day of every year, forever and ever. Amen.

Thanksgiving

As a child, I don’t recall Thanksgiving being overly special, we just ate more. At school, the walls displayed rainbow-tailed turkeys, black hats, silver buckles, and a regular cornucopia of paper fruits and vegetables to which we added black cats and jack ‘o lanterns a week later. (I was thankful for Halloween, especially the candy.)

We learned about American pilgrims, I think because they had such a defining one-time back story for their Thanksgiving. It wasn’t until I was older, that I discovered the rich history of Canadian Thanksgiving.

In 1578, Martin Frobisher and his crew celebrated a thanksgiving service to God for bringing them home after another failed attempt to discover the Northwest Passage.

In 1604 Samuel de Champlain and the Order of Good Cheer regularly thanked God for surviving another Canadian winter.

National Thanksgiving celebrations in Canada commemorated many things; the end of wars, recovery of a monarch and of course, the harvest. It wasn’t until 1957 that a fixed day of Thanksgiving was set; the second Monday in October.

Canadian Thanksgiving evolved out of religious traditions. Giving thanks to God is something the churches still do.

For instance, every Sunday in the Orthodox church we celebrate the Eucharist, which literally means ‘Thanksgiving’. Every Sunday, we thank God for Christ’s resurrection, an event which reunites us with God and with each other. Every Sunday, as I look around the sanctuary, I know each and every person there is a valuable member of the Christ’s resurrected body; the church. Since I am also a member, every person, every part of Christ’s body has directly influenced me in some manner. As I pondered this, I realized, it wasn’t just the church but every single person with whom I’ve had any type of contact have all helped shape me into who I am today. If nothing else, the Orthodox Church has taught me the value of community.

I used to think I could live as an individual and be wholly responsible for who I was, who I am and who I will be. I realize now, I am not an isolated individual. Every person with whom I have come into contact has infected me with a portion of who they are while, I, in turn, have infected them with me. I am, in some way, connected to every single person on this planet whether for good or for ill.

If I had ever fulfilled my childhood dream of becoming a hermit with no contact with any other person whatsoever, I never would have grown as much I have now. If somehow, I could have eliminated all books, radio, TV, INTERNET, shopping for supplies or anything made by someone else like clothing, cookware, tools, I would have stagnated.

Every person around me gives me a reason to be thankful, not just once a year but every day, every hour, every minute, every second.

We have shaped and influenced each other teaching us about ourselves and that is something to give thanks for.

Thanks for my parents who gave me birth and looked after me and taught me how to think.

Thanks for my younger sisters who made my anger visible.

Thanks for all the friends and adversaries I had growing up who taught me loyalty, frustration and forgiveness.

Thanks for the sexist boss who angered me to no end, but taught me to trust myself.

Thanks for the telemarketer who reveals the thin veneer of patience over my irritation.

Thanks for the stranger who smiles at me on the street, lifting my spirits a little.

Thanks for the husband who, more than anyone shows me who I am yet still loves me despite it all.

Thanks for the children who took the knowledge I gave them, built on it and in turn, teach me.

This weekend, I will look around the table and be thankful for every person there. I will be thankful for those thousands of miles away and those who have fallen asleep. I will try to hug someone every day, to phone someone weekly and to pray always. To quote that great sea-going philosopher; “I yam what I yam” because of them and for that I am thankful.