Christmas – the Orthodox way


It has begun to freeze outside, brothers and sisters, it’s already snowing here and there, shop signs flashing and luring – yes, Christmas is closing in. Long before Christmas Day, the oversweet, so called Christmas carols start appearing on TV, then they start throwing piles of all kinds of flyers and leaflets at us – all so that people would join in the frenzy of sales and shopping. Suddenly, peace is lost and the Christmas holidays, as far as I can see, come and go with feverish rush and anxiety.

Luckily, our Orthodox feast of the Nativity comes once all the hustle and bustle is over, and when blessed peace takes over.

I am not sure why, but I see that even we, Orthodox Christian Serbs, get sucked into this whirlpool and, just like everyone else, we too, rush out to spend and buy. Thus many of us get so weakened and depleted that not too much energy and joy is left for our Orthodox Christmas.

We must not give into this manic consumerist mainstream way, brothers and sisters, which is why I have taken on this topic for today’s sermon.

Here, the celebration of Christmas – if we can call that a celebration at all – has turned into its very opposite. Everything is commercialized and has turned into consumerism which cannot have anything in common with Christmas. Those who benefit the most from our excitement and excessive spending are the merchants, mainly the ones who could not care less about Christmas as a Christian holiday. Any true Christian for sure is bothered by all the noise and commotion created on the occasion of the birth of Him, whom, in a cold cave, in a manger prepared with straw, was greeted with song only by angels and plain shepherds.

I listen to the children talk to each other during the days before Christmas. The most common question is “What will I get for Christmas this year?”; or an enquiry about what the other child is getting. I hear that eloquent English families keep a record of what presents are received into their homes, whom from, and the exact prices of each individual gift, so that the following year they can send out presents bought for the same amount of money. I give, so that I will receive. This way a meaningful act of giving has turned into something meaningless. If I give as much as I receive and if I return the gifts of the same value, isn’t it wiser not to waste time and effort – everyone can just keep their own gifts.

At Christmas time, God gives mankind His most valuable gift – His own Son. The early, true Christians, used to mimic this great sacrifice and strived to make sacrifices themselves. They chose the neediest among them and gave them gifts. Those contributions had a very deep meaning. Today’s commercialized and consumeristic gift exchange, however, does not have any meaning whatsoever.

I will give you an example of a father who used to introduce Christmas to his children the correct way, from their early age. His son says that on Christmas Eve, as is customary here, the children used to wait impatiently to open the many presents they were getting. Their father asked them to set aside the presents that they liked the most and when they did, gave them some time to decide which children would need them most and give the presents to those children the next day, on Christmas. For sure, there couldn’t have been a better way for the children to realize that God gave his own beloved Son, and that the meaning of Christmas is giving, rather than receiving.

These days, the “experts” have been and will continue to flood us with different ideas for Christmas gifts, appearing to want to help us, but actually looking to top up their accounts. The purpose of these ideas is to enable us to give someone a present without making a sacrifice. All we need to do is give them our credit card number and they will do the rest on our behalf. We do not have to lift a finger. We do not need to see or talk to the person we are giving a present to, but rather only pay for the service.

With no intention to compete with all these “experts”, I wanted to present you with some other, decent, Christian ideas. They will not cost you a nickel, but are more valuable than the most expensive gift.

I have read somewhere about an experience of a young, successful American man. When he was a child, he received a beautifully wrapped parcel. When he opened the box, there was nothing in it other than a note that said: “My dear son, as of today I will give you an hour of my life each day. Every night, after dinner, I will spend time with you, talk to you, laugh, play and jump with you… do anything you want us to do.” The father kept his promise and renewed this present every year. The young man says that he knew he had been getting the most precious present one could ever get. The gift his father gave to him made a strong and unburdened man out of him.

It would be nice if we could have enough strength to promise at least an hour of our lives each day to the ones we care for. Those who do not think much of the things that require some effort are mistaken. Let them try themselves and they will be convinced of the opposite. For all we do nowadays is mainly disconnected from us. We pull out our wallets, pay, take, deliver and it ends with that. Everyone goes their separate ways again and the gifts end up being just means of redemption and washing the guilt away. A son, businessman, running all over the place, not remembering his old parents for the whole year, now, just before Christmas, runs and buys them something. Around Christmas, he goes to their retirement home, gives it to them, exchanges a few words with them and can barely wait to somehow get over with the charade, run to the door and get out, to his busyness and nightmares, convinced that he had fulfilled all his obligations to his parents.

I do not wish to repeat the whole story again, but the parents do the same thing with their children when they are young, so it is no wonder that they get treated the same way when they grow old and frail. Just take a look at these children who disfigure themselves, their faces and hair, wearing dreadful clothes. I think it would be much better if we focused on the message they keep sending us: “Hey, you, old folks, set aside for a moment your businesses and ambitions, notice us, pay attention to us and remember that we exist, too.” My daughter’s friend from school said once that even all that make-up on her face and hair could not help her. Her busy father never noticed the mess she had made out of herself.

And finally, there are those who have everything and will not easily get excited by a gift. A young woman came up with a great idea: instead of giving an expensive dress to her rich friend, who would not even notice her present, she took the dress to the poorest part of the city and gave it to a poor woman, for her friend’s good health and all the best in life.

It would be worthwhile trying some of these ideas.

God gave Himself to people at Christmas time. Let’s give ourselves to each other, too, each and every day that God has given us. Amen.

Toronto, December 9, 1990