Fr. Anthony is the rector of St. Michael Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Woonsocket, RI); an assistant dean, adjunct professor, and Vocations Director for St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary; an adjunct professor at the Naval War College; the editor of goodguyswearblack.org; and the host of the OrthoAnalytika podacast and blog. He enjoys studying theology, mythology, social psychology, music, and the supernatural, and spending time with his wife and children.
It is common for us to lament the commercialization of Christmas, complaining that we have lost the “reason for the season.” I think this is true. Many of the parishioners where I serve are thankful that our parish is on the “Old Calendar” so that they can separate “Nativity-as-worship” (celebrated in church on January 7th) from “Christmas-as-crazy” (celebrated in the world on December 25th). While I do not agree that we should cede such a holy day to Ba’al (nor participate in his feasts!), I appreciate the sentiment.
I think that the most troubling effect of the change in how we celebrate Christmas is also one of the subtlest, and it starts when we are very young. Think about it: what is the question that people continually ask children during Advent?
“What do you want for Christmas?”
Now don’t think that I’m a humbug. There are all kinds of things to be said about giving gifts. But where does this question focus the mind of our children? What does it do to their character? Why do they “like Christmas?”
I am sure you understand what I mean: we build up their anticipation and enjoyment of Christmas – a good thing – by stoking their selfishness – a bad thing. In the long run, this can still be very healthy: the positive emotions that children feel for Christmas can create the space for an enjoyment of its deeper glories as they mature. Ditto for receiving gifts: for the child, the focus may be on the toys and games; for the adult, this is replaced by an appreciation of God’s gift of His Son. In a healthy, Christian culture, this can work just fine.
My problem is that some people never get to that next step. They never move from the ice cream to the real meat. The question “what do I want” continues to drive them, and the degree to which they are able to get “what they want” determines their self-worth, their gratitude, and their peace [which they have defined as happiness]. Just as a child’s understanding of Christmas is perverted by his time on Santa’s lap, so is everyone else’s understanding of life perverted by advertisements and artificially created desires and expectations.
“What do you want?” is a question for children, not for serious people. The question for serious people is not “what do you want”, but “who are you?” or “whom are you striving to become?”
The immature person’s identity is determined by what they want; adults don’t allow that to happen: everything else flows from who they are. This is not just semantics. Saints are not affected by whether or not their efforts are rewarded – much less whether or not the results are “enjoyable;” nor does it hurt them when their plans are thwarted. What hurts saints is damage to who they are; what hurts them is when they settle for something less than being holy and good. When saints are hurt [or “unhappy”], the balm for their pain [and discontent] is not a better plan for getting what they want, or even setting more realistic goals; it is confession, kenosis, and a renewal of commitment to Christ (through Holy Orthodoxy) that heals their pain.
This may be too abstract. Let me give you three examples to flesh this out.
The life of a soldier. Not romantic. A lot of drudgery. Time spent – even wasted – in uncomfortable situations. Why do they put up with that? It certainly isn’t because it is what they want! Soldiers may “embrace the s*ck” [pardon my Army]”, but it’s not because they like it. Many of them will even re-enlist knowing there will be more of the same; and it’s not because they have martyrdom complexes. I can assure you that when it really hits the fan, the soldier does not fight for ideas, or his country, or even his family; he fights for the soldiers around him who depend on him. I am sure this is true, but that is the source of courage in the face of danger, not the source of endurance in the midst of suffering. So why does the soldier do it? Why does he persevere? It’s not because it’s fun [i.e. what he “wants” or enjoys] and it’s not from courage. He does it because he is a soldier.
The life of the mother. The life of the mother is not romantic, either. It brings a lot of discomfort. Why does a mother put up with the inconveniences a child brings? Is it because she somehow “likes it”? As if there could ever be anything enjoyable about sleep deprivation and sacrifice! The mother endures discomfort for her children because she is their mother. It’s not about what she wants, it’s about who she is.
The life of marriages. While we are speaking of families, let’s skip the role of fathers as such and look at husbands and wives: they are not married to one another because of their feelings for one another. This may be what got them to the crowning service, but it isn’t why they remain true to one another even when their life together gets hard. Husbands and wives love one another, husbands and wives remain true to their marriage, because they are married. The man is husband to his wife and the woman is wife to her husband. God has made them one flesh “and let no man,” not even themselves, sunder their union. Grown-up children do not grok this. They still think it’s about what they want. Hence so many unhappy marriages and divorces.
[One last example: the life of the priest. Your priest is not your pastor because he loves you; he loves you because he is your priest. He did not give up more lucrative opportunities, move away from his family and friends, and accept a position in your parish because he wants to live in your community and spend time with you. Such feelings might or might not come later. He doesn’t love being in your community because it gives him “what he wants” or because it makes him happy (although that is a nice fringe benefit, when it happens), but because that is where he serves. He is in your midst, loving you, because he is your priest. This may sound offensive, but it shouldn’t; his dedication to you has nothing to do with his feelings for you, or how much he likes life in your community; his dedication to you flows inexorably from who he is. Parish life built upon this reality – as with a marriage built on the same – is much more reliable, more sustainable, and more joyful than one that is hostage to feelings!]
If someone asks you what you want, they are either trying to sell something you don’t need, or they are condescendingly treating you like a child. And let’s be honest: if you are more concerned about what you want than what is good and right, then you have earned their condescension because you are spiritually immature.
One of our problems here in America is that we are a nation of children, more concerned with getting what we want than in doing what is right.
Christ the Messiah did not think of what He wanted when He sacrificed Himself. He did not think of the adoration of the angels and everything that He was due as God as something to be exploited or “wanted.” He is the God who loves, the great I Am; and so He deigned to be born in a manger for us and for our salvation.
And He has given the power to work this salvation to His Church and to its saints. He has given this power to us. As Christians, we are Christ to this world. That is who we are.
Because I love you, I don’t care what you want. I will not treat you like children – unless you act that way. What I do care about is firstly, “Who are you?” and secondly, “what are you willing to do to bring salvation to the suffering people here and now in your family, your parish, and your community?” If you are mature, if you are serious about your life in Christ, then you won’t care about what you want any more than I do … and good deeds [and sacrifice] will flow from you as surely and strongly as living water from the fount of righteousness. The delicious irony is that the ones who follows Christ in this kenotic way will grow from joy to joy forever…just as the Nativity services bring more pleasure and enjoyment to the Christian than the greatest feasts of Ba’al.
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