December 19 … Six more days in the Nativity fast. It’s not a fast that I observe, but whenever the Orthodox Church is in the midst of a major fasting season I find myself becoming more aware of the intricacies of my Christian life. Tomorrow, Dec. 20 is also the beginning of the Forefeast of the Nativity. During the Forefeast, the focus of the fast changes from penitential themes to more celebratory themes (the Christmas hymns are chanted in worship throughout the Forefeast and the twelve days of the Nativity Feast proper).
This year I am struck by how little anything actually changes in our society around Christmas. There are certainly the cosmetic changes of the season such as the lights and decorations, the music, the seasonal parties and food, etc. This is also the season of almsgiving and we are typically bombarded with pleas for various charities. And finally it is the season when so many Christians become utterly grinchy and whine incessantly about putting Christ back into Xmas and worrying that Starbucks only observes the season with the color red and fails to put a pine tree or a bauble on their coffee cup. All of this is utterly predictable because it is simply how life goes every year in the Western world.
This isn’t a lament, it’s just an observation. In fact I find a certain comfort that as much as everything changes at lightening speed, nothing has really changed going back to the Old Testament prophets. “Prepare the way of the Lord!” cries the prophet. They didn’t do it then and we don’t do it now – at least in a noticeable way.
The incarnation was (and is) this utterly quiet event which passes with hardly anyone noticing. And let’s consider who didn’t notice. First, there were the professional religionists (the Levites, the Scribes) who simply continued on with temple worship and synagogue teaching as they had always known it. There were the religionists who were either upset or disillusioned with the professionals and went about purifying and deepening religion (the Pharisees, the Zealots). They were too busy standing against religion-as-usual to notice something as quiet as the birth of the Messiah. And then there were the faithful. They were caught up in this new Roman tax which involved this new census and how inconvenient it was going to make their lives. They were busy getting their kids to synagogue school and looking for that perfect goat that they could take to the temple to sacrifice.
In my younger firebrand days I railed against all these people because I thought they missed the birth of Christ because they weren’t paying attention. I now take back most of the things I said because I see the situation in a brand new light. Who would have thought to look for the Messiah in a barn? What God was doing was so new and so different that even the faithful who were paying attention almost certainly missed it. Consider Anna and Simeon, the two prophets who were in the temple the day that Jesus was brought in. They recognized him and proclaimed his true identity. But that was an accident of scheduling. What if Anna would have arrived a half hour late because she was fetching water for another widow who was too ill to go to the well. What if Simeon was asked to teach at the Synagogue School that day. On the flip side, how many people were there in Jerusalem who were prepared and searching for the Messiah as faithfully as Anna and Simeon, but happened not to see Jesus because they weren’t in the temple at that particular hour? Without that “chance” meeting of the Christ-child, even the most prepared and watchful Jew would not have guessed what was coming to pass.
No, the failure of the world to offer the proper hoopla and praise for the Christ-child should not be used as an excuse to condemn the world because they weren’t prepared. How can you possibly prepare for something that has never occurred before. It will never be quite what you expect.
In fact the world was prepared according to St. Paul. “When we were children, we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe. But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:3ff). Granted no one (except about a half dozen people) was looking in that exact spot and that exact manner for the Messiah, but when they saw him, they recognized him and gave him due honor.
This year I’m thinking that this is the very heart of Winter Lent. We prepare for that we know not of, nor where, nor how. For those who want to control their little world, this reality will lead to deep frustration and probably no small bit of railing against God. For those who are preparing in the same manner that Mary was preparing, we are ready to say, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Most of the time I’m pretty sure I’m not a very faithful Christian. I also have little sense that Christ is doing a mysterious work in my life. Why do I think that? Because yesterday was pretty much like today which will almost certainly be like tomorrow. My life has not been transformed. Granted, I’m no spiritual athlete; I’m not faithful at all with the disciplines the church encourages and I’m not as faithful as I should be at worship. But during Winter Lent I come face to face with the God whose ways are so different and so mysterious that we rarely recognize him and his action. I’m confident that just as something mysterious but mostly unnoticed was going on in Bethlehem, so it is going on in me. Thanks be to God.