2016-06-30
Frederica Mathewes-Green and her daughter, Megan, visit a thrift shop a few days before Christmas. Adapted from "At the Corner of East and Now: A Modern Life in Ancient Christian Orthodoxy" (Putnam).

Ken Myers, host of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, once said, "To get an overview of our current culture, stand in a 7-11 and turn around 360 degrees." The "cultural artifacts" visible in such a sweep, he said, would tell us a lot about what we value.

It is a few days before Christmas, and my daughter Megan and I are standing in a thrift shop. I can turn 360 degrees here and see a whole different world from the one at the 7-11, but one no less revealing of our culture. The difference is, everything here is something that somebody didn't want anymore. It's an index of what we no longer value. For this reason I find a thrift shop a sweet place to be, tender and forlorn. Still, it carries a dash of hope. Maybe someone else didn't want it, but I might; I believe in the Resurrection.

We pause just inside the door of the shop, a cavernous place that I suspect was originally a grocery store. The inventory of a thrift shop is unlimited; anything anyone might buy and then discard ends up here. Near us there are used magazines, old vinyl records, children's clothes, and shelves and shelves of books. The windows are framed with lights and plastic greenery, and clothes strung up on hangers alternating red and green. Several bent, denuded Christmas trees stand near the door, leaning like convivial drunks.

We stroll toward the shelves of Christmas decor. She is humming "O Come All Ye Faithful," and it makes me want to rest my head on her shoulder and just listen. We pass boxes of old glass ornaments, artificial wreaths, and a string of plastic popcorn that looks pre-chewed. There are various incompetent Santas: one with pursed lips and narrow eyes glowers from a homemade ceramic cookie jar, and a walking wind-up Santa looks ghoulish with his scalp removed and brainworks revealed. There is a mug shaped like Santa's head, which causes Megan to say, "Can you imagine this? If you had hot chocolate in it, the inside of his head would be brown and steaming."

All this Santa business has nothing to do with St. Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop of Myra whose feast was a few weeks ago. Though St. Nicholas was a kindly man who loved children and rescued prisoners unjustly condemned to death, he was not always mild-tempered. At the church council which considered the theological innovation of Arianism, St. Nicholas got so frustrated with Arius that he struck him. For this outburst the leaders of the council expelled him from the assembly, but later reinstated him following a series of dreams indicating that the Theotokos's sympathies lay with St. Nicholas.

I pick up a paint-by-number rendition of hummingbirds. "I understand these are becoming valuable," I tell Meg. We look at the blocks of hard color, which seem a little somber for the subject, as if base-tinted olive green. It is not lovely.

"Why would this be fashionable?" Meg asks, and I think she's chosen a better word than I have, because this painting could never be valuable.

"I don't think the interest could be sincere," I say. "It must be one of those irony things." I feel a little sorry for the person who tried to make something lovely with this picture, and who will now be collected by people making fun of him. Sometimes I feel like saying, Can we stop being ironic now? Because it's making my face hurt.

A thrift shop is full of what nobody wants any more, and a 360-degree turn here reminds you of the transience of fashion. In this jumble of objects desired and discarded we are moving toward Christmas, that highest of consumer holidays. Today the malls are full of people buying stuff that they hope will impress or thrill, and some of it will be here in this thrift shop in six months. Fashion is a kaleidescope of change, but the compulsion underneath it is anxiety about what others think.

We will celebrate an alternate Christmas at Holy Cross, one where things don't change, but which includes a story about fear of what people will think. These fears did not receive a reassurance that those onlookers would understand. At the service of Royal Hours on the morning of Christmas Eve we will sing Joseph's thoughts. He had found out that his fiancee was pregnant, and he knew he wasn't the dad. How could he bear the shame?

Joseph said to the virgin:
What has happened to you, O Mary?
I am troubled; what can I say to you?
Doubt clouds my mind; depart from me!
What has happened to you, O Mary?
Instead of honor, you bring me shame.
Instead of joy, you fill me with grief.
Men who praised me will blame me.
I cannot bear condemnation from every side.
I received you, a pure virgin in the sight of the Lord.
What is this that I now see?

Later in the service the answer comes:

When Joseph went up to Bethlehem,
His heart was filled with sadness.
But you cried out to him, O Virgin:
Why are you so troubled?
Why are you in misery seeing me with child?
Do you not understand at all?
I bear a fearful mystery!
Cast your fears away, and learn a strange wonder:
God in his mercy descends from heaven to earth.
Within my womb he has taken flesh!
When he is pleased to be born, you will see him.
You will rejoice, and worship him, your creator.
The angels ceaselessly praise him in song,
Glorifying him with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

This explanation is not likely to mollify Joseph's critics, but for those who receive it, it is the best news in history.

Today he who holds the whole creation in his hand is born of a virgin.
He whose essence none can touch is bound in swaddling-clothes as a mortal man.
God, who in the beginning fashioned the heavens, lies in a manger.
He who rained manna on his people in the wilderness is fed on milk from his mother's breast.
The bridegroom of the church summons the wise men;
The son of the virgin accepts their gifts.
We worship thy birth, O Christ.
We worship thy birth, O Christ.
We worship thy birth, O Christ.
Show us also thy holy Theophany!

On a shelf a homemade papier-mache Santa is perched up on one toe as if twirling. He is ineptly painted, and his mouth is not jolly, but stretched in a long oval like a howl. His eyes plead under a tented brow, as if he longs to stop his endless spinning but doesn't know how. Some other hand flung him circling and then turned away. His shoulders are dusty. No one wants him any more.

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