7 Questions to Reflect on before the Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity

7 Questions to Reflect on before the Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity

Chances are the feeling, meaning, and practices of Christmas have changed for you over time. From childhood to adulthood the way we prepare and understand the Blessed feast of the Nativity has grown. Whatever way we ourselves interpret the season does not change what is at the heart of it! I want to share a portion of St. John Chrysostom’s sermon on the Nativity of Christ:

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness. 

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me. 

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels. 

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. 

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit, we offer all praise, now and forever. Amen.

St. John Chrysostom shows us what the birth of Christ means for the world. It is the redemption of the flesh through God becoming man. By becoming man he “wroughts a clear path out of confusion.” Christ came to be ‘with us’ in a way which was incomprehensible — Our God who surpasses the heavens was humbled to lie in a manger, and became the very flesh He created. 

Emmanuel means “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). In the incarnation, God is now “commingled” with us. Our relationship with him as humans forever changes after this moment, and even after the Ascension, when his physical body no longer remains on earth, this relationship remains.

This is overwhelmingly amazing but where do we go from here? How do we continue to realize this in our lives? Through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, receiving communion, and confession first and foremost of course! The Church has given us ways to participate simply and receive the overwhelmingly amazing meaning of this Feast in these constant practices. 

This year I have also put together a list of 7 questions which I am reflecting on this week (I want to stress that this is just a list of questions that I have heard or asked myself and have been helpful for me personally). These questions have been a great help in recalling this truth that St. John Chrysostom expresses in his sermon. There are many opportunities for lengthy reflections in each of these, so it may be helpful to choose just a few to tackle in one sitting! I heard a few of these come up in an Advent Series program with YES North America as well as a spiritual discussion with Fr. Panagiotis Boznos. 

1. How do we see or talk about ourselves?

Christ’s image has been redeemed in us. Does this understanding guide our perception of ourselves? Are we quick to talk ourselves up or be too harsh on ourselves?

2. How do we see or talk about the people around us?

Every single person who has ever lived or will ever live is made in the image of God. How do we treat the people around us currently? How do we talk about those we are close to and those we don’t know as well, too? 

3. When do we feel God with us?

What is a time when you have been aware that God is with you? Where were you? What was happening? Were you with other people…maybe you were in prayer? What other factors were playing a role in your life at that point in time?

4. When is it hard to feel God with us?

What is a time where it was difficult to feel God was with you? What is one word which you would use to describe how that moment felt? What factors were playing a role in your life at this point? Where was your focus? Christ promised that He would always be with us. Even though it felt as if God was absent, looking back, are you now able to see any ways in which He was with you?

5. When we struggle, what do we focus on?

The place we give our energy and thoughts determines a lot of our experience and takeaways from difficult times. When going through a struggle what do you see yourself focusing on the most?

6. When we succeed what are we focusing on?

Are we using a success to raise ourselves up or to benefit those around us and raise up Christ? 

7. In this very moment where do you see Christ?

Take 2 minutes to sit in silence. Screens out of sight, music paused. Maybe go outside! Ask yourself where you see Christ here at the beginning of the two minutes? What did you find? Did you focus on your surroundings, thinking of the people in your life currently, a personal struggle, turn to prayer? 

Our understanding of this upcoming Holiday grows with us, the meaning is always constant. From the first Christmas (the Nativity of Christ) until that one year when you were 7 (and thought the world would end if you didn’t get Heelys for Christmas), until Christmas 2020 (undergoing the stresses of navigating togetherness in an isolated world), God has become man and will be with us always. 

As we come to the end of 2020, I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas and congratulate all my fellow struggle bus college students for making it through. I love you all! I pray that St. John Chrysostom’s sermon on the Nativity was useful in better understanding the Feast of the Nativity, and that these questions for reflection were helpful!

Andrew Gluntz

Alethia Placencia

Publications Student Leader

I am a senior at the University of Kentucky studying philosophy and microbiology. I love hiking, staying active, and enjoying great books and food! Above all, I love the family OCF has given me. Whatever your story may be, there is a place for you in this community! Reach out to learn more about OCF or if you would like to contribute to the blog! publicationsstudent@ocf.net

Dressing up for Christmas as Christians

Dressing up for Christmas as Christians

Around this time of year, I find myself buying fun decorations and lights. Perhaps I’ll put together a gingerbread house or find some other cute Christmas treats to bake. Let’s not forget the ugly Christmas sweaters, fuzzy socks, and Santa hats. In fact, while writing this blog entry, I’m sitting here in my Christmas themed pajama-pants complete with dogs in scarves skiing down a hill. 

It is tradition to adorn our homes and even ourselves festively this season. In doing so, we are communicating a piece of the joy of the Nativity. But these adornments, even some silly pajamas, might point to something more profound. We feel the warmth, cheer, and joy of the holiday season when hearing Christmas music or seeing beautiful lights and we want to spread this cheer into the world. 

This joy flows from the knowledge that Christ is Born! Glorify Him! Our Nativity feast reminds us that through the birth of Christ the image of God in us was restored. As the Canon of the Nativity of Our Lord says:

Man was made in the image of God, but he sinned and lost immortality. He fell from the divine and better life, enslaved completely by corruption. Now the wise Creator fashions him again, for He has been glorified!

Our adornments spread the feeling of joy of this wonderful season. These traditions are beautiful, fun, and are part of the awe-some experience of our lives on earth. Although they are associated with Christmas and connect us back to this holiday they may actually cause us to forget the harder work we must do to truly adorn ourselves to celebrate Nativity–to truly adorn ourselves and the world around us in response to the redemption of the image of God within us.

 Christ is the true image of God. Christ is true humanity. In him, we find the kind of human life we were meant to live. As Christians we put on this life as a garment, “For all of you that have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27).

So instead of only dressing-up and decorating our world with physical reminders of Christmas, in following Christ, God prepares us for the true festivities: “See, I have taken your guilt away from you and will clothe you with festive robes” (Zach 3:4).

To adorn ourselves with these festive clothes is to become Christ-like –to serve the world with sacrificial love –to care for the poor, feed those who are hungry, seek those who are lost, care for the sick, and love our enemy.

There is much suffering at this time. It will be one of the hardest and loneliest Christmases for so many. Let us remember that we who are made in the image of God are called to put on Christ. We are called to clothe ourselves in the true garments of Christmas (this can be in addition to our ugly Christmas sweaters of course) and go into the world to serve with Christ’s sacrificial love. This is how we can truly adorn this holiday and spread the joy of the Christmas season. 

Andrew Gluntz

Alethia Placencia (in collaboration with Nathan Placencia)

Publications Student Leader

I am a senior at the University of Kentucky studying philosophy and microbiology. I love hiking, staying active, and enjoying great books and food! Above all, I love the family OCF has given me. Whatever your story may be, there is a place for you in this community! Reach out to learn more about OCF or if you would like to contribute to the blog! publicationsstudent@ocf.net

10 Signs You Celebrate Christmas the Orthodox Way

10 Signs You Celebrate Christmas the Orthodox Way

Christmas, for most Orthodox Christians, is a time of fasting, prayer, worship, sacraments, spiritual renewal, and philanthropy. It is a more religious celebration that is not as commercial as in some cultures. It is a time where we also have many traditions that help make it the beautiful holiday it is.

#1 Fasting before Christmas is harder than fasting for Lent

All those Christmas cookies really do you in on the days leading up to Christmas, also why does everything Christmas have to be made with MILK? Also fair warning—whilst eating Greek kourambiedes do not inhale because you WILL choke on the powdered sugar, nothing like a little danger in a cookie I suppose.

#2 If your name is Chris/Christina you feel a little petty for having your namesday be on Christmas day 

Yes, you get to celebrate being named after Christ but unfortunately the presents are usually grouped together, nothing like a 2 for 1 deal, am I right?

 

 

 

#3 You get to watch your friends exchange gifts on December 25th but you have to wait until January 7th.

Some jurisdictions are still on the Old ‘Julian’ Calendar and have to wait an extra 13 days for Christmas to happen… patience is a virtue!

 

 

 

#4 Part of decorating the Christmas tree (Badnjak) includes burning it in on Christmas Eve and then baking it into bread.

Look up this cool Serbian Tradition! Just don’t stand too close to the fire because you might lose an eyebrow or two. 

 

 

 

 

#5 You kind of know where the 12 days of Christmas really comes from.

It’s the amount of days between His birth and Epiphany! A lot of people even keep their decorations up until then. Why do you need 11 pipers piping for that?

 

 

 

 

#6 You’re really confused about who Santa really is.

Is he St. Nicholas of Myra? Is he St. Basil? And when are you going to exchange gifts? Greek Orthodox Christians in Greece traditionally exchange presents on New Year’s Day, the feast day of St. Basil the Great

 

 

 

 

 

#7 Christmas Eve ham? Try a 12-part vegetarian extravaganza including perogies, cabbage rolls, beets, borscht, and potatoes that symbolize the 12 Apostles. 

This particular tradition is called Sochevnik in Russian. Good thing we’ve been fasting for so long because that dinner sounds delicious.

 

 

 

 

 

#8 Your family is a Christmas Eve church family or a Christmas Day one, either way you celebrate the Nativity in a prayerful way and with communion of course!

A picture from the church of the nativity. According to Holy Tradition, that spot is where the star indicated the place of Christ’s birth!

 

 

 

 

#9 Your Christmas music has been playing on repeat since November.

“The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear” –Elf

The hymns of the church for the Nativity are filled with so much beauty and joy! My church has had the tradition where our youth group would go and sing carols to sick and elderly parishioners, and the joy they experienced when we would come sing makes your entire week .

#10 You’re genuinely excited for the coming of the Christ. You have been praying, and you keep the true meaning of Christmas, the Nativity of our Savior, close to your heart. 

He came to save us! Let us rejoice!

“‘She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).” -Matthew 1:21-23

 

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Ultimately Christmas is a time for families and friends to get together. There is so much beauty that we all share in our ‘traditions’ that everyone celebrates Christmas in their own special way. Orthodoxy, being a part of history for centuries, has molded some beautiful festivities that bring us together because of our mutual love for Christ. 

Merry Christmas!

The Fast

The Fast

In this space, I speak a lot about the limits and constraints that college life puts on our participation of the faith.

I’ve written about prayer, confession, service, almsgiving–all through the lens of our limits as poor, busy, terrified-for-our-future college students.

The intention there is clear–and, I believe, justified. As a ministry oriented towards college students and the Orthodox faith, it is appropriate that we would create resources to help college students address the obstacles between them and the ideal practice of their faith. It is also appropriate that we would share stories of success, of the aspects of our collegiate life that help us grow in our faith (see: reflections on OCF retreats/programs).

Of all of the sacraments and practices of the Church, however, I don’t think any one is as clearly helped by our college life than fasting.

Those are my two cents–they’re worth exactly two pennies. If your experience is different, which is entirely possible, then you may disagree. Furthermore, I am in no way saying that fasting is easy. It is not. I will struggle with it, whine (waaay too much) about it, and fail at it inevitable this season.

But my experience of fasting at college has always boiled down to pure, undiluted, individual choice.

Of course, most everything boils down to choice. Pray before you go to sleep? That’s a choice. Get up for church on Sunday mornings? That’s a choice. But in so many of these life choices, we can feel constrained and steered by many other external factors. We feel that these motivations and limitations rob us of our choice.

But fasting–the exclusion of meat and/or dairy from the diet–more easily distances itself from these limiting factors. Why? Because, at college, you have significant control over what you eat.

Let’s say you’re on a meal plan. Well, you typically walk into a large cafeteria that has many food options–and there’s going to inevitably be at least a vegetarian option, if not two or three. In that moment in which you hold the empty tray in your hands, there is nothing impeding your path to the pepperoni pizza, and there is nothing impeding your path to the salads. The call is yours.

Let’s say you aren’t on a meal plan–then you buy your own food. Yeah, if you have roommates who cook for the whole apartment, now you’re in a bit of a bind. You have to strike a balance between asking them to keep your dietary restrictions in mind for 40 days (less, because you won’t even be at college for some of them) and cooking your own food. But I believe that’s possible.

Especially because OCF has a fasting cookbook for you!

New OCF College Lenten Cookbook

Boom-shakalaka!

As I said at the beginning of this post, OCF helps address the obstacles between the college student and the full realization of their faith. Despite the extent to which I personally find fasting to boil down to a choice, you may not. That’s where the cookbook comes in. It’s full of recipes to help you make it through the fast, recipes that are so simple you can make many of them with nothing but a plate and a microwave.

Often, we leapfrog choice with willful ignorance. Because choice is hard–it forces us to evaluate what we truly value–and often leads to less instantly gratifying decisions, we attempt to circumvent it by denying its existence. We ignore the information that gives us the power to choose. We don’t learn the strategies, listen to the sermons, read the books, so we can pretend we did the best we could–because that was all we knew.

If you’ve arrived here–at the end of the post–then your choice in fasting has hopefully been exposed. If your mind, instinctively seeking an out, whispered an insistence that you didn’t have the means to cook fasting food for yourself, hopefully the cookbook proves a counter-punching resource for you.

It’s my favorite Bible quote–it seems to always apply–so let’s drop it right here to end this post. In the 13th chapter of John, Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet, reminded them that they view him as the Teacher, reminded them of all of the examples he has given them. He’s preparing to be Crucified. He then says:

If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. – John 13:17

Note: If you have any cool fasting recipes/easy fasting treats or anything in between, the 2018 Lenten Cookbook is currently being compiled. Go here for a recipe submission form!

The Nativity of Our Lord | Be Active

The Nativity of Our Lord | Be Active

Image from Ted on Flickr

Well, here we are! Less than one week away from the Nativity of our Lord.

Hopefully, you’ve all finished finals–if you’re still in school right now, keep fighting strong–I promise it’ll be over soon. You should check out our post on finals to get an added boost.

But most of us are at home, and the full brunt of the season has dawned upon us. Last-minute gifts are being acquired and wrapped at a breakneck pace; wild Santas roam every red-and-green shopping center; another artist has come out with another Christmas album.

This, I hope, will not become a typical post bemoaning the secularization of Christmas–that is not to say that the secularization of Christmas isn’t happening in a very tangible way, because it is. But I would not like to succumb to the temptation, to derail everything the world has thrown at us. That is, quite simply, not fair. There is great merit to Mariah Carey and well-dressed carolers, to finely-decorated houses, and, most especially, the proliferation of candy canes. It is tricky ground, to comprehensively condemn secular Christmas. All things with balance.

So, instead of a condemnation, I’d like to simply mention today, as I did in the aforementioned finals post, where our focus should lie.

I cannot, for the life of me, remember who precisely gave the sermon which I’m currently recalling–I’ve been preached to by three different priests/bishops in the past three weeks. I hope you can forgive me. If I had to say, I think it was Fr. John Baker of Christ the Savior in Chicago who reminded me of this (edit: upon further review, the call on the field is reversed. It was Fr. Michael Butler of Holy Transfiguration in Livonia):

When the wise men went to Herod and said: “Hey, that newborn king? Yeah, the Messiah, that one…uh, where is he?” Herod immediately turned to his scribes and the Pharisees and said, “What are these guys talking about?” The scribes and the learned men responded, “Oh yeah, there’s supposed to be a Messiah born in Bethlehem right now.” So the wise men went on their way, and Herod began plotting to kill this newborn king.

That inaccurate recollection likely tells you nothing new. It’s part of the Christmas story that you’ve heard many times before. However, something so crucial is missed in there, and that’s what Fr. John (probably? maybe? edit: Fr. Michael) pointed out in this sermon:

The scribes knew.

The scribes knew. The wise men from the east asked, and the wise men that Herod had–for that’s for whom Herod called, he called for his wise men, the men he expected to understand the prophets–the wise men that Herod had, answered. And they knew! They were aware that this was going down, that the Messiah may have just come into the world. They figured it out! They knew!

And they stayed with Herod. They did nothing. They aren’t really even heard from again.

This crucial point reminds me of the days leading up to the crucifixion of Christ, when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Jesus washes his disciples’ feet in John 13–it’s an extraordinary read, and I suggest you give it time today. However, there is one verse–verse 17–that is of paramount importance. Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet, reminded them that they view him as the Teacher, reminded them of all of the examples he has given them, and then he says:

 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. – John 13:17

It’s not enough to know things. And that simple, obvious little phrase changes the whole game.

Because it’s not enough–it simply isn’t enough–to know that Christmas is so easily made secular, is so easily stripped of its spiritual meaning. It’s not even enough to know that the Messiah has come–like Herod’s scribes did. They knew! But if you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. Blessed are you if you act off of your knowledge. The enlightened aren’t blessed; the enlightened and active are.

This is wildly important. It isn’t enough to go to church on Sunday, when you know there is church during the week–the pre-feast and post-feast celebrations. It isn’t enough to know the Christmas story, when you don’t spend time taking in and supplying for the travelling, poor, and cold Marys and Josephs of the world. It simply isn’t enough to know, and it isn’t even enough to know and talk, to know and bemoan the secularization of this world, as this post endeavored to avoid doing.

The enlightened aren’t blessed; the enlightened and active are.

My encouragement to you, my friends, is to go to your church website, to text your priest, to ask your parents–something–and figure out what’s going on this Christmas season. Do a thing–any thing–that is indicative of this wonderful knowledge you’ve been blessed to receive, the knowledge of salvation and rejoicing and victory that doesn’t make it to many in this world. Be active this Christmas season.

-B

The OCF Blog will take Christmas break with the rest of you, as an opportunity to recuperate, evaluate, and grow. We will return after the New Year–and of course, all of the College Conferences–on Monday, January 9th.

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!