Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany” and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.”
And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid, for I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.” Luke 2:10
Good morning Prayer Team!
Many years ago, when we lived in Connecticut, we hosted a priest from Africa (Uganda) for Christmas in our home. When I picked him up from his seminary dorm room on December 23, I saw that he didn’t have much in the way of belongings. He told me that most of his property had been lost on the plane coming over from Africa the previous summer. I decided to take him to the mall to get some “things,” like a hot-plate, a watch, a Bible, basic things that we all take for granted that he didn’t have.
It turns out that he had never been to any store other than the CVS drug-store near the seminary. So, going to the mall was an overwhelming experience. We went into the Sears store, where we saw 100 TVs on one wall of the store. He exclaimed “I don’t know if I’ve seen 100 TVs in my whole life and here I am seeing 100 of them at the same time.” He watched everyone scurrying around doing their last minute shopping and asked me “why are these people so stressed out, Christmas is only a couple of days away, they should be filled with joy.” I answered “They are stressed out because they have been trying for months to find the perfect gifts for everyone on their lists and now they have only two days left.” So, we spent some time shopping and some time people watching, as my friend shook his head continuing to wonder how Christmas could be so stressful.
We came upon a long line of children, waiting to see Santa Claus. He asked me “What is this all about?” When I tried to explain the concept of Santa Claus, he said “That is ridiculous. Who could believe such a thing!” To which I answered “Every kid in America under age 10!” He wondered with what right kids go to Santa to demand what they expect for Christmas.
When Christmas came, we celebrated two beautiful liturgies in church. When it was time to open gifts, we had a present for him. It was a black sweater, a safe bet if you are looking for something to buy a priest. We told him “If it doesn’t fit, we can take it back and get you something else.” He answered “You gave it to me, I will treasure it forever.” After dinner, as we called our families for Christmas, we asked him if there was anyone he’d like to call. He said he hadn’t heard from his parents in months, as their village was remote and terrorist “guerillas” were always harming Christians. After a while he came downstairs and was crying. He said he spoke to his parents and was so grateful they were still alive. He said this was the best Christmas present ever.
Father was enamored with Christmas lights. In fact we bought him some lights which he later put up at the church in his village, the only place that had electricity.
That year, 1999, Christmas fell on a Saturday, so we went to church on Friday for Christmas Eve and Saturday for Christmas Day. We got up early and drove to church on Sunday, December 26, and as we drove down the main street of the town at 8:00 a.m. the morning after Christmas, we found it was bumper-to-bumper traffic. My priest-friend was excited. “What great Christians you have here in Connecticut!” he exclaimed. “They went to church on Friday for Christmas Eve and yesterday for Christmas and today again!” I said “Father, the church will be empty today. All of these people are going back to the mall to take their gifts back.” “What?” he asked. “Didn’t you tell me that people spend months shopping for Christmas and now not even hours after Christmas is over they are taking their gifts back?!” That afternoon, we went for a walk around town, a man was throwing out his Christmas tree. My friend shouted to him “Merry Christmas!” The man answered him with a cold “Christmas is over!” My friend said, “No, Christmas just started. I’ve fasted for forty days, and now I’m ready to celebrate.”
I share this story for two reasons. First, because if you take a step back and look at how we’ve come to celebrate Christmas, we’re getting it all wrong. Christmas is filled with stress instead of with joy. And once Christmas comes, instead of celebrating, we’re relieved that it is over. And we’ve commercialized Christmas. It is not a season of holiness but a season of advertising, sales and business transactions.
Second, as the angels told the shepherds, the good news of great joy is for all people. The Greek priest from middle class America and the priest with dark skin from the remote village in Africa looked at Christmas differently. We came from different life experiences. We were far apart on an economic level. But where there was absolute unity was that we both love the Lord, and He loves both of us. We both believe in Him because He died for both of us. And we both celebrated the Nativity in the same way, with joy and gratitude.
Our world is so obsessed with the concept of equality. Yet equality is a fallacy—no two people, no two days, no two of anything are equal. God places infinite value on each person. Rather than obsessing over where we stand as compared to our neighbor, we should always be cognizant of where we stand in the sight of God. He loves us with an infinite love. Is our gratitude just as infinite?
Indeed the good news is for all people—every race, every nation, every color, rich, poor, educated, illiterate, whether you’ve never opened the Bible or read it faithfully, whether you know God well or have never said a prayer—everyone one is invited to share in the Good News, and become an inheritor of God’s heavenly kingdom. ALL are called. All are called to the manger!
Listen, heaven! Give ear, O earth! Let the foundations of the earth be shaken! Let trembling seize the regions beneath the earth, for our God and Creator has clothed Himself in created flesh; He fashioned all creation, yet reveals Himself in the womb of her that He formed. O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How incomprehensible are His judgments; and how unsearchable His ways! (Hymn from the Royal Hours of the Nativity, Trans. Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Have an infinitely blessed day!
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The Orthodox Christian Network (OCN) is an official agency of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops. OCN offers videos, podcasts, blogs and music, to enhance Orthodox Christian life. The Prayer Team is a daily devotion written by Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis, the parish priest at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, Florida. Devotions include a verse from scripture, a commentary from Fr. Stavros, and a short prayer that he writes to match the topic.
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