Wednesday, December 02, 2009

December reflection

We are in the middle of our time of preparation for Christmas. There are several similarities between this time and Great Lent. First, the preparation period is also forty days (Holy Week is considered a separate period from Great Lent). Second, both fasting periods end in days which were used as baptismal days in the early church. Pascha and Christmas concluded what had been periods of preparation and catechism for those being made ready to enter the Church. Finally, Pascha and Christmas mark births. At Christmas, Christ, the God-man (theanthropos), is born and becomes visible to human eyes for the first time. At Pascha, He is born from the dead—“He became the firstborn from the dead,” as the mode three resurrectional apolytikion tells us.

There are also similarities in the time following these great feasts. At Pascha, the entire week following Resurrection Sunday is a continuation of the Paschal feast. The Vespers, Orthroses, and Liturgies celebrated during Bright Week follow the same pattern as the Paschal services. Bright Week is a non-fasting period. Similarly, the period following Christmas is a non-fasting period. From December 25 to December 31 we are in Christmastide, which then continues with the preparation (still fast-free until January 5) for the feast of the Theophany. The Church rejoices in the birth of the Savior and remembers people and events related to Christmas. The very next day, for example, the Church commemorates St. Joseph the Betrothed and David the king and prophet who had spoken of Christ in his psalms.

Life within the Church has a rhythm focused on these great feasts and the pattern is similar: the preparation period is followed by the feast, which is itself followed by an extended period of resting in the joy of the feast. This rhythm becomes familiar as it is lived year after year. It ebbs and flows, building up to the important events of the year and easing away from the feasts. If it sounds like a training regimen for athletes, it is. This is our training for the Kingdom.

Athletes know that maximum performance can only be obtained a couple of times a year. Track and field athletes and swimmers speak of “building up” to the Olympics or the world championships,
soccer players speak of “building up” to the World Cup. As athletes reach their peak, these build-ups generate better and better results: faster times, longer jumps, more cohesion within the team.

As Orthodox Christians, we, too, are athletes. St. Paul, in admonishing the Galatians for having strayed from the Christian way of life tells them, “You were running a good race. Who cut
in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?” (Gal. 5:7). In writing to Timothy, he speaks of himself as having finished the race (2 Tim. 4:7). As athletes, we build up to our great feasts, with a training program of prayer and fasting, of love and care, of almsgiving and charity. We
begin with prayer because our final goal—salvation—is only achievable if we work together with God. It is through God’s grace that we discover love, care, almsgiving, and charity in
their fullness.

The similarities between the athletic and spiritual life cannot be taken too far, however. In sports, there comes a time when performance starts to decline. In the spiritual life, progress does not depend on a body which withers away like grass (cf. Ps. 102:11). Rather, progress is continual: a journey towards an ever-fuller communion with God.

So let us take from the athlete that which is useful. Let us have the dedication of the athlete in our spiritual lives. Let us use the training program of feasts and fasts that the
Church places in front of us to help us strengthen our faith. Let us strive to live the Christian life to its fullest and so to let the lights of our lives “shine before men, that they may see
[our] good deeds and praise [our] Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).

May the joy of the Lord’s birth dwell in our hearts.