It’s November, and that means it’s time to get ready for the Nativity Lent – the Advent Fast. In our American culture, we love to pre-celebrate our holidays, especially Christmas. Many stores are already pressing you to purchase your Christmas gifts and ornaments.
As soon as Thanksgiving is out of the way, they’ll be inundating you with Christmas carols and candies. By the time Christmas Eve arrives, how many Christmas parties will you have already attended? By the 25th of December, you may already be worn out from a month of celebrating Christmas, before Christmas even had a chance to arrive.
In the U.S., we hear Christians of all kinds exhorting you to remember the “reason for the season,” or to “put Christ back into Christmas,” because in this country, Christmas is transforming into something else entirely.
It’s often lamented that Christmas has become a consumer event. It’s a retail bonanza. And in fact, you’ll see Christmas shopping numbers tracked closely on the evening news, starting somewhere in November, because this is a huge event for this economy.
It’s not just the excessive focus on gift-giving, and it’s not just the way that Santa Claus and his elves forget their St. Nicholas roots and overshadow Christ in His manger. It’s also about the fact that in the United States that the Christmas Feast begins earlier and earlier.
Whatever time in December is not already taken up by shopping, seems to be spent at parties. Households and companies alike throw their annual Christmas parties throughout the month of December, and people exchange Christmas cookies and baked treats, not just on the holiday itself, but throughout the month that precedes it.
Frankly, by the time the evening of December 25th rolls around, America is tired. By Christmas Day, America has been celebrating this holiday for weeks already. In fact, from Thanksgiving to the long Christmas party to New Year’s Eve, at this time of year, America lunges from one feast to another, until finally in January, our waistlines and our credit card statements bulge with the excesses of the holiday season.
And the truth is, just about everyone in America knows that this is not a healthy system. It’s not physically healthy, financially healthy, or spiritually healthy. And you don’t have to be Orthodox to recognize what a mess these holidays are. This is not a structure designed to help us receive Christ. This does not invite us to marinate in the amazing reality of the Incarnation of God.
Of course, Orthodoxy doesn’t celebrate Feasts like this. We don’t gorge ourselves for months in anticipation of a holiday, only to be worn out and exhausted by the Feast itself. We fast before we feast, preparing our hearts to more fully receive Christ, when finally the anticipated Feast Day arrives.
We Orthodox Christians have a different way to experience Christmas, and we’re passing it on to our children. Not only should we observe the Nativity Fast with them, but we should draw their attention to the ways in which the society around them feasts without ceasing and to how fasting can alter our experience to the Feast.
This would be a great conversation to have with a Sunday School class or at a youth group meeting or around your dinner table. The kids can probably think of more examples than you can of ways in which their seeing Christmas celebrated before December 25th and the ways in which this constant feasting distracts us from the real meaning of Christmas.
As we’re raising kids in an un-Orthodox society, we need to talk about the differences with them, so that they’re not just blindly absorbing whatever input our American culture gives them, but so that they discern what they want to take in and make part of themselves, from what they want to reject and hold at bay.
So how are we presenting the Nativity Fast to our children? Our parish priest, a few years ago, gave our kids a classic image that’s both accessible to children and that beautifully communicates both the struggle and the wonder of Advent. It’s the journey of the Magi who come from distant lands to seek Christ.
Let’s talk with our children about these men who studied the stars. They were astronomers, and they knew that God would send a star to lead them to the Messiah, the King of Kings. How did they know? Well, you remember Daniel. He’s a favorite prophet for children, because they’ve seen him survive the lions’ den. Well, Daniel spent some time in the East, and he left prophecies.
These men worshipped the stars, but Daniel pointed them to the One who had created the stars. And he prophesied a time when God would use a star to announce the birth of the King. They remembered Daniel’s words through the generations, and they watched, and they waited. God knew their language, and He used a star to direct them. He knows how to talk to each and every one of us.
These wise men set out on a journey, traveling a long, hard way through the desert, not unlike the struggle we undertake through our fast. Following the star; believing in its promise; and seeking the Christ child, let’s join the Magi as we make our way through these 40 days to finish by kneeling at the manger, worshiping in wonder at the glorious Incarnation of God Himself. We can teach our children that the fast is not merely about food. It’s about preparation, about the journey which is worth taking, because it leads to a better reception of Christ.
In our youth groups at Transfiguration, one year the children made little mangers out of brown construction paper, and they were given bags of cotton balls. They were challenged to do something especially good every day for the 40 days, marking each good work by adding a cotton ball to the manger.
At the end of the fast, if they had been disciplined and done many good deeds, the manger would be soft and warm and ready to receive Christ. Because when we work to prepare our hearts through fasting, prayer, and good works, our hearts become soft and warm and ready to receive Christ.
Now, this is a beautiful image, and it’s one that children of any age can really understand and make their own. Now of course, whenever we’re fasting, we should also be praying, and we should be studying. This particular fast can be really difficult, because there are so many distractions this time of year. And a great way to stay focused as a group or a family is to read a book together.
Now, I have two great recommendations for you. For preschool and elementary aged children, there’s Mersine Vigopoulou’s From I-ville to You-ville. Narthex Press publishes this neat story, which is based on the teachings of Elder Paisios. Fourteen short chapters lend themselves to bedtime reading, and children from four to fourteen will really benefit spiritually from this book’s wisdom.
Anyone older, who happens to be in earshot, will soon find themselves joining the reading, eager to hear more. This allegorical story has its hero, Stubborn, setting out from his self-centered community of I-ville to discover the land of serenity known as You-ville. Along the way, he’ll find God, and he’ll learn what it takes to transform from a haughty, lonely soul to a loving member of this sweet community.
This story is a gem, especially because it gives us an invaluable vocabulary and frame of reference for talking with kids about humility and unselfish love. We’ve read this beautiful, sweet tale many times in our house. And you’ll often hear us chiding each other, “Boy, that sounds very I-ville to me.” We really never tire of this one, and I hope it will become a favorite in your home as well.
For older kids, I recommend called Crazy John by Dionysios A. Makris. And it’s published by a Greek company out of Athens called Agathos Logos. To find it, call the American distributor, St. John the Forerunner’s Greek Orthodox Monastery out of Goldendale, Washington, or check their website at http://www.stjohnmonastery.org/”>http://www.stjohnmonastery.org/
This book is also about a modern saint. John was a fool for Christ; a man who lived in an urban Athens neighborhood, where neighbors were isolated from one another and from Christ. In his unique and loving way, John, whose holiness was as profound as it was hidden from sight, changed the lives of the various people lucky enough to come into contact with him. Without giving too much away, I can say that he brought them closer to one another and closer to God, creating a beautiful Orthodox community in a place that had been barren and cold.
You could read Crazy John out loud, one chapter at a time, or you could read it book club style with each of the kids reading independently and then coming together with you to discuss it. Either way, it’s not a difficult book, and like John himself, it speaks simply and eloquently, teaching us how exactly we are to live out this Christian faith; how exactly one follows Christ in this modern world. Now, this book has some mature themes, but it will open fruitful conversations with your high schoolers.
May God bless us all as we undertake this Nativity Fast with our youth at our sides. Let’s talk with kids about why we fast, why we join the Magi on our journey to Christ, and how it’s the journey that helps us to appreciate the destination. Let’s pray that they’ll be aware of the difference between the instant gratification our society embraces and the faith-filled Orthodox project of fasting in anticipation of the Lord. From the fast itself, to the wonderful lessons in the books that we’ll read together, let’s do our best to make this Nativity Lent a fruitful time for all of us.