We are now a week or so into the season of “Winter Lent,” Fr. Thomas Hopko’s felicitous name for the Nativity fast. For Eastern Christians (Orthodox, Oriental, and Eastern Catholics), the Nativity Fast is pretty much the same thing as Great Lent: forty days of fasting leading up to the Nativity Feast (Christmas). I am enough of a romantic (and born and raised northerner) that it doesn’t feel like the Nativity Fast until it looks like winter outside. Today is our first real snow of the season. (The picture accompanying this essay is from the window I look out while typing away.) With snow on the ground, my mind is finally beginning to turn toward Winter Lent.
In the Latin and Protestant West, Advent focuses on preparation for the coming of Christ. The Sunday before Advent is all fire and fury, with the readings about the Second Coming, the Judgment, and the end of the world. The four Sundays of Advent then focus on preparation for Christ coming into the world as we prepare to celebrate his First Coming.
While this sense of preparation for Christ’s coming is certainly present in the Nativity Fast, there is another element that plays a major role: giving. The theme of giving certainly centers around the gift of Jesus Christ, offered to us by the Father. But while Christ is central, the imagery and thematic content is then rounded out with a focus on the gifts of the Magi, which are also celebrated at Nativity. (The Magi are not celebrated until Epiphany—twelve days later—in the West.)
Watching a schmaltzy and saccharine seasonal advert foisted upon the television watching public by Apple, I was reminded how the whole concept of giving has been largely emptied of content in contemporary culture. It is a promotion of the god of consumerism, all dressed up in a Christmas-y costume that I find to be at best banal, but in my secret heart of hearts, to be rather repulsive. The advert is a metaphor for how God’s chrism of grace (that quietly insists on a response!) has been transmogrified into a world of presents, decorations, parties, and no doubt a bit of wassail or rum punch consumed to dull the ache of emptiness that lingers in this dark and cold season. … But enough Grinch-iness, let’s ponder what giving truly means in these darkening and joyous days of Winter Lent.
The Magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. All three give us glimpses into the true meaning of giving. Gold relates most closely to our contemporary practice of giving gifts. Giving gold costs the giver something significant. Such a gift requires a commitment the giver has to the receiver. Just as the incarnation was terribly costly to God, so our response back to God is costly to us. Gold also represents permanence. It’s a reminder that Christian giving (not just of wealth, but of time, and emotional sharing) is not just a Christmas thing, but something defines who we are and ought to be year round as Christians.
Frankincense (a particularly expensive form of incense) symbolizes prayer. “Let my prayer arise before you as incense” (Ps. 141:2). If gold is a symbol of giving, then incense is a symbol of fellowship or communion. I remember my father inviting a drunk to dinner one night. My mother was furious. The dinner was uncomfortable. The guy spent all of his money on booze and needed something to eat. Dad could have bought him a hamburger and sent him on his way. Instead he brought him into our home. Buying him a hamburger would fall under the category of gold. And that would be a worthy gift. Bringing him into our home took that act of charity up to the level of incense. It was an attempt, not only to give, but to connect in the very act of giving. Authentic giving almost always has facets of this sort of connection and fellowship and Frankincense is a reminder that we need to be intentional about this connections.
Myrrh was used, among other things, for anointing the dead. It is both a fragrance and a preservative. The Magi’s gift of myrrh pointed toward Jesus Christ’s death. And this is truly where the rub is when it comes to giving. Authentic giving is not only costly, it empties us. Other people resent givers. Other people take advantage of givers. Give too much without protections in place and it leads to death.
But this last gift is not a call for purposeless martyrdom, it is rather a snapshot of the deepest mystery of the Christian life. Just as Christ sacrificed his life on our behalf so that we could enter into fellowship with God, so we are called to to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God (Rom 12:1-2). The mystery of giving is that if it is halfhearted, it is all for naught. Giving is an all-in sort of proposition. And as unpleasant as that sounds, it turns our that when we do this, true fulfillment and joy results.
Presents under the tree, secret santas, dropping a few coins in the bell ringers kettle can all point us in the direction of authentic Christian giving and the essence of Winter Lent. But those things can also become substitutes, giving us a momentary sense of goodwill, but helping us avoid the bigger question of giving. So during this season, the challenge is not to settle for the trinkets, but use them as a springboard to the real thing: kneeling before God’s gift to us with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.