What Christmas is Really About – the Second Coming of the Lord

From the First Prayer of St. Basil the Great:
…and grant us to pass through the night of the whole present life with watchful heart and sober thought, ever expecting the coming of the bright and appointed day of Thine Only-begotten Son, our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, whereon the Judge of all shall come with glory to reward each according to his deeds. May we not be found fallen and idle, but watching, and upright in activity, ready to accompany Him into the joy and divine palace of His glory, where there is the ceaseless sound of those that keep festival, and the unspeakable delight of those that behold the ineffable beauty of Thy countenance. For Thou are the true Light that enlightenest and sanctifiest all, and all creation doth hymn Thee unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Ancient Faith Radio

I’m a little overwhelmed with early winter family issues, and may not post much this week, but I really want to tell you about Ancient Faith Radio. This is broadcast over the internet (ancientfaith.com) and is the most uplifting and meaningful resource for traditonal Christians whose faith is centered in Ancient Orthodoxy – that is, the church as connected to the Church of the Apostles. Nicholas set it up on our computer so that we can listen to it whenever the computer is on. Our bargain table $5 Compaq speakers give great sound, and I am listening to this incredible chant and music right now.

Orthodox music of faith does not use instruments. It is usually chanted in a variety of tones, with either male or female voices, and sometimes both antiphonally. It is prayer, not performance. Ancient Faith often has the chants presented in English rather than in Greek or Russian, although those ancient tongues are so beautiful that not understanding the words does not inhibit the understanding in the heart.

Scripture or quotes from the Early Fathers are interspersed with the chant. It is comforting, challenging, and transcendent.

Right now, I can sit in our little bedroom study, work on my handcraft (as so many of our monastic sisters still do) and gaze upon the icons while hearing the beautiful, traditional expressions of the unbroken faith of the church. It is a monastic experience indeed.

God bless the work of Ancient Faith!

Why Christianity is Different

That is a very blunt title, isn’t it? I do not mean to sound polemic or didactic in this post, but the subject has been on my mind, mostly because a younger relative is struggling to understand why Christianity is not like Hinduism or shamanism or Buddhism. Why is it different? Why do Christians insist on their religion being true?

Many of the faith traditions of the world are ways of explaining how the world works.  In other words, they are philosophical systems, meant to help the follower understand relationships between humanity and nature, between the past and the present, and to justify a particular ethic. Most religions with pantheons fall into this category. Different aspects of the world are under the influence of the different gods. The gods have undertaken actions, and the world came into being, is sustained, and changes. The cultural structure will often reflect this worldview in societies where there is stratification, that is, some have more privileges than others.

Hinduism is chief among these religions. it is complex, somewhat local in practice, and widespread. It justifies the caste system. It explains why some events happen, and how the universe cam into being. Some of the old European faiths are the same, including the Greco-Roman pantheon. Buddhism is a refinement of Hinduism.

Do people really believe (or believed) that these gods existed, and that the stories about them were true? Most likely, many did not and do not today, but faith in its accuracy is not important. Allowing the faith system to influence one’s life is more important. As long as one did what was expected, all would be well with the gods and with one’s neighbours.

So we can call one religious system “philosophical”: It is about wisdom and right practice.

Shamanism is mystical. It proposes that a spiritual world overlays the material world, and that beings can cross from one to the other. Events happen and certain objects exist because of the spiritual world. Humans are often at the mercy of these whimsical spiritual beings, and actions have to be taken to placate and reward the spirits that could harm or help. There seems to be an endless supply of these spiritual beings, some more powerful than others, some universal and some very local, as attached to a certain tree, rock, or body of water. But these spirits can be demanding and dangerous, and the shaman’s position is to determine what the spirits demand so that no harm comes to the humans, or so that help is attained. The shaman has ways of entering the spirit world, just as the spirits sometimes invade the material world.

Christianity (and its predecessor Judaism) is historical. While there are ehtical and spiritual elements to our faith, we believe it principally because we see God not just setting the universe in motion, or answering prayers, but breaking into the world and directing history. Our scripture is mostly history, and the historic truth is very important to Christians. We believe in a real, actual, effective God, a personal God. Our God is not a figment, or a projection, or an anthropomorphic force.

Christians believe in a real God, who acted in the past. We believe in a God of salvation, who truly saves His people from the death of the soul. We believe in an all-powerful, universal God, a singularity – none other can exist. It is not enough for a Christian to go through the motions of the faith and expect favour. It is not enough for a Christian to try to placate God through offerings, for God has no need to receive what is already His. A Christian must believe, must turn his or her heart to God, and accept the historic truth of Jesus Christ as Lord, God and Saviour. We follow a demanding faith, but one that calls for truth.

On the Use of Images

I know I cribbed this title from St. John of Damascus, but the subject is the same. One of the reasons I have stayed in the Anglican church is because of the legitimate acceptance of icons. Many Anabaptist and Protestant churches reject the use of icons, and regard them either with suspicion or abhorrence. I grew up with that attitude, and I can not sincerely hold it.

Yesterday we finally got the icons on the walls of our bedroom (which also serves as home office – it’s a very small house.) My husband came home, looked at the icons, crossed himself and said,”Now I really feel like this is home.”

Why is that? For us, the icons are the family portraits, and the focus of many prayers. They are a lesson in humility and faithfulness. Our icons are carefully chosen; they are not mere decoration. And when we have the icons in the room, no other ornament is adequate. We have no paintings or decorations. We have two small family photos on the desk, and nothing more. The room is plain blue, the window coverings wooden slat blinds.  The bedcover is as simple as we could get.

Why? Our home has been furnished this way for a reason. Functionality is all important. The furniture needs to be good quality so it will last. It needs to be plain because we do not flatter ourselves that we are important people who can afford to buy fancy stuff. We don’t want to think about the household furnishings, or try to impress anyone. And most of all, we do not want to insult the humility and simplicity of the saints, who gave all for God.

I had icons in the past, but until I began to have a prayerful presence with them (that is, praying with the communion of saints) I did not have that humble spirit. I had a possessive spirit, despite my outward simplicity. Once I acknowledged the icons as exemplars and spiritual elders, I found a new humility. All other household ornaments were as grass, once beautiful but now withered. I had no need for the paintings and wood and porcelain and crystal.  The saints of God were too beautiful for these earthly inadequacies, these paltry treasures.

We have many icons, and we don’t have room for all of them. Over the door we hung a primitive iron crucifix, and the incredible St. Catherine Pantokrator; on the other side of the cross is the famous and miraculous Valdimirskaya, the Theotokos of St. Vladimir’s monastery. (Mind thee, these are reproductions, but the power in them is apparent.) An olivewood crucifix hangs alone over the bookcase, flanked by beeswax candles, and a tiny Guadalupita (our Lady of Guadalupe) carved in cedar sits on top of the case. I placed a diptych of the Theotokos and the Pantocrator on the desk, on top of the consecrated elements. It was a gift from a dear friend years ago. The head of the bed is blessed with a simple wooden cross and an icon in beeswax of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Beeswax has a long history of iconic use, and is mentioned as such in the Paedalion, the canons of the Orthodox Church. (And a reminder to Anglicans – they still apply to thee.)

Our main focus is the the array of icons on the wall opposite the bed. At the top is the Rublev Trinity, which must have precedence; below that is an icon of the Crucifixion. Under that is a cast concrete cross with three aspen leaves in relief. It is heavy but small. On either side of the Crucifixion is, to the left, another icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and beside that, an early Greek icon of the Archangel St. Michael. To the right of the Crucifixion is Christ Pantokrator, and outside that, slightly below, is an icon of Saints Peter and Paul, holding up a model of an Orthodox sanctuary. Below them is  St. Mary Magdalene, my patron, in a modern icon that shows her with the flask of oil for anointing the dead and a red egg, a symbol of the tomb. She is the Apostle to the Apostles, bearing the news of the Resurrection. Below that is a Russian icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov, a great mystic and monastic. On the left of the cross is St. Columba of Iona, my friend and guide, and outside that is a large modern icon of St. Athanasius, confessor of the Church. In special place of prominence below the cross is my husband’s patron, the stern and otherworldly St. Nicholas of Myra.

To regard the icons is to pray without words. It is to enter the throne room of heaven, and stand among the Body of Christ, gathered in perpetual adoration. The icons remind us that in Christ we do not die, but live. The icons teach us to pray with our eyes and with our bodies and with our hearts, as well as with our minds and mouths.

Pray without ceasing, said the Apostle, and in the presence of the icons, we can do so.

New puppies and other traumas

I love animals, especially dogs. I’m not sure why; we did not have pets when I was a child. There were enough human mouths to feed without adding anymore. Not all my sisters are like this. Only one is a genuine dog-lovin’ freak. (It’s just true, Jill.)

Quite a few dogs have come through my life. Almost all my dogs have been rescues, usually older dogs. I have had one puppy out of  all the menagerie of animals I have raised or trained. So it was quite a surprise when a puppy came into our lives suddenly.

We were not expecting a puppy. It was a snap decision by one member of the household, and the rest of us reacted in various ways to the little black and white bundle of joy. Stony silence, lukewarm acknowledgement and some screaming. I was the lukewarm one, since I’m the one who is home all day, and the one with the dog-training experience. That told me who would be making sure pupster got out when he needed, and that he learned to chew the dog toys and not the workboots, table legs and antique spinning wheel. But I really like dogs, and ended up in that ambivalent response. Nice dog – but do I need this?

Some went from “oh, oh, oh, what a sweet puppy” to “how dare you do this without asking everyone first?” Because we do live in intentional community, something as demanding as a new dog really needs group consent. We did not have that for about five hours. The seniors went into a huddle, and things were said, arguments boiled, tears were shed, and we reached a conclusion. The puppy could stay.

It was a huge learning process, and I’m glad it was over a puppy and not a baby. Puppies are infinitely easier. And the SPCA won’t send the police if you keep a puppy in a crate for a couple of hours while you go to church. The police will come if you try that with a baby.

I think we all learned something about the stresses of our particular interactions. What I learned about myself is that I am demanding respect for what I am, even when that has nothing to do with the issue at hand. I am asserting authority when I don’t hold that authority for that occasion. I look back to yesterday, and sort of laugh at myself, because pomposity is always funny. Something had to be the snowball hitting my tall black opera hat. The others learned other things, and it’s not my place to say what, but even though we were completely disrupted for half the day, we soon settled down and came to a reasonable accommodation.

I think one thing we really learned is that we can get upset, raise our voices, argue and cry and it won’t tear us up. We are, in just a short period of time, finding out that we are stronger than our conflicts. How could that happen but by the grace of God, who gives us true peace?

Desperate Festivity

Nicholas and I have been discussing secular Christmas a lot. We usually do in Twelfth Month, because it annoys us so much. I have to admit this. We are Plain by nature as well as by leading, I think, and the tacky celebration that Christmas has become is just not to our taste. We aren’t really denying ourselves anything by not participating – we wouldn’t do it anyway. When we had to in our previous life-roles, we weren’t happy about it.

And I think most people aren’t truly happy about it, because it seems so forced and desperate. “We are going to have a good Christmas this year,” someone will say to the family, “and you’re damned well going to like it!” And that’s how the family feels -damned, damned to Christmas Hell for about six weeks.

Oh, I sound Scroogy. I’m not. I am delighted with our Lord, with the great gift of restoration to the full love and life of God. I want to “keep Christmas in my heart all year round.” But Scrooge, once enlightened, keeps Christmas all year by generosity, and love, and genuine kindness. He doesn’t buy tinsel and expensive chocolate, but a turkey for a poor family and medicine for a dying boy. Read A Christmas Carol, not just watch the Muppet version.

I am being blunt here: If we eat more than we need, we are taking food from the mouths of others. Really. We are well-fed, even overfed, and so many in the rest of the world are starving. And please don’t give me a line about how-do-we-get-it-there and political problems. I’m not the national leader. I’m not the United Nations. What are we paying these people for? Get to it, public servants! Serve the public! Go figure it out! If the military can get billions of dollars worth of personnel, equipment and resources to a war in a distant place, then they can bloody well get food, medicine, skilled caregivers and shelter to Africa, India, or wherever it is needed! I am smarter than they think, and I can see through the lies they are telling us.

Because when we put up the party lights and feast, feast, feast, for a month and a half, spending what’s left of our income and credit on useless trinkets, we are dancing on the dying and the dead. We are not keeping Christmas even at Christmas. We are just indulging and pampering.

Why do we need to be placated? Is it just bread and circuses? (For those unfamiliar with that term, it means the government is keeping the populace quiet with cheap, plentiful food and mindless, gory amusements. Think Doritos, Big Gulps, television and video games.) Or is it because we are living lives of quiet desperation, as Henry David Thoreau said?

Time to sober up and settle down. Have I said this before? I will keep saying it, too, until I can no longer draw breath or something radically changes. I expect the radical change will be forced on our culture, rather than be a genuine movement of the heart.

If you are not keeping the fast, start. No meat, fish, eggs. Minimal dairy and fats. No chocolate or treats. Cook everything from scratch, as much as possible. And if you’ve already bought a bunch of useless gifts and ornaments, return them. Give what people need. If they need nothing, then give a charitable gift in their name. Preachers say these things every year, and every year the congregation says, “Yes, you are so right,” and then they charge the Visa up to the sky buying Barbies and sweaters with reindeer patterns. 

I am very anti-culture at this time of year. It’s the principal reason for keeping the Advent fast. It is a stand against consumerism and hedonism. It’s why most gifts I give are made by my own hands, at Christmas or at other times. I am literally NOT buying into culture. (But note this: I am not being polemic about this. Our own little household is recently formed, and the others are used to cultural Christmas. I am not forcing this on them. Teach by example.)

My husband, Nicholas, has written an excellent and educational post on the winter solstice and festivities on his blog, “Anglican, Mostly Anabaptist.” (http://fathernicholas.wordpress.com) and you can link from this page.

Maranatha.