The wonder of Christmas is more than our minds can comprehend. And thus, for Christmas to be understood it must be experienced in our hearts. It is in our hearts that we understand, and it is with our hearts that we share the joy of Christ's Incarnation.
In the modern world, Christmas has been reduced to the sensual pleasures of the flesh. Each year, Christmas becomes less and less an event of spiritual substance. The joy of Christmas is now centered on what we eat, what we hang, and what we receive.
How different the spirit of Orthodox Christianity.
St. Gregory the Theologian explains: "This . . . is this what we are celebrating today: the Coming of God to man, that we might go forth, or rather that we might go back to God, that putting off the old man we might put on the New; and that as we have died in Adam so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ. Therefore, let us keep the feast, not after the manner of a pagan festival, but in a godly way.
"And how shall this be? Let us not decorate our porches, nor arrange dances, nor adorn the streets. . . . These are the ways that lead to evil and are the entrances of sin. Let us leave all these things to the pagans. But let us who are worshipers of the Word of God, if we must in some way have luxury, let us seek it in God's Word and in the law and the scriptural stories . . . ." (Oration 38)
This does not mean that the extras associated with Christmas are inappropriate. There is nothing wrong with decorating Christmas trees, hanging Christmas lights and enjoying wonderful Christmas treats.
Sadly, in our modern era, many of the connections between Temple and home, between faith and life, have been forgotten. We no longer know why we put lights in our windows. It is no longer obvious to us why we hang ornaments on our trees.
It is this division between "sacred" and "secular" that Orthodox Christians must reject. Satan would like us to leave our worship of the Christ Child in the Temple; he would like us to live disjointed lives. Our struggle must be to bring our worship home with us; it must be to connect every aspect of our lives with the Divine Liturgy and the Holy Altar.
Thankfully, we do not have to figure out how to do this on our own. Our tradition is full of wonderful customs that already do it for us.
So, for example, in the Russian tradition the fasting meal that is served on Christmas Eve is eaten only after the first star appears in the sky. It is a joyous experience to watch the children peering out the windows into the sky looking for that first star. The anticipation of the centuries finds its counterpoint in the eyes and hearts of the children as they wait.
The fasting Christmas Eve dinner is also served on a table adorned with straw. We eat our dinner with the cattle and the lambs, in the cave eagerly awaiting the coming of the Messiah. The sights and the smells take us back in time to that first nativity.
Many of the more familiar Western traditions also come to us out of the bosom of the Church. The lights that we put in our windows are signs of hospitality for the Christ child. There is room in our homes and our hearts, we say to a watching world, for Christ to be born. The ornaments remind us of the fruits of the Spirit that Christ's incarnation has brought to us. The tree itself, with its evergreen needles, is a testimony to Christ, the life of the world.
Of course, these things get out of hand. Instead of supporting our spiritual celebration, they can divert our attention. Do we really need to put lights everywhere? Does our tree have to be perfectly adorned? Should we spend less on the "extras" so that we might give more to those who are in need? These questions are very much a part of our Christmas celebrations.
Even the tradition of gift-giving has to be considered. Do our children really need to be given things they don't need? Would they not experience more of the Christmas joy if they were taught to give more and receive less? What is important is that everything surrounding Christmas be judged by the spiritual joy it gives us and our loved ones.
It can and should be fun and enjoyable, but that which is lesser must always serve the greater. Let us keep the Feast, not in the way of the pagans, but in a godly way.