Thursday, December 22, 2011

American Christmas

American Christmas
From "Living in the Eighth Day"
By Rev. Fr. John-Brian Paprock
Available at most internet bookstores
And at

My Dear Ones,

American Christmas-time is a bazaar annual mix of secular capitalistic
enthusiasm with business social parties and colored with religious
trappings. There is also an underlying excitement of American children,
young and adult, anticipating the possibility of special toys, favorite
movies/music, as well as the obligatory clothes from grandmother. There are
festive foods and sweets that may have had their start in other countries
but are uniquely American - from candy canes to fruit cakes to egg nog.

As one of the most religious nations among what are called industrialized
nations (although this antiquated term will need to be revised soon) - 86%
believe in God here compared to 70% in Europe and England. The problem is
that with a base-line freedom of religion and religious expression, the
theological differences hardly make Christians of different traditions
friends. So, the secular occasion dominates. This lowest common denominator
that has reduced the common American greeting "Merry Christmas" when I was
child to "Happy Holidays." The same secularization that has made Christmas
Trees into holiday trees and the lights and decorations into "Holiday"
rather than the overtly religious "Christmas." Even Santa Claus, Good Old
Saint Nick, can hardly even see the shadow of the beloved Syrian Bishop
Saint Nicholas of Myra. I doubt that few, if any, of the costumed jolly men
that sit in shopping malls listening to childhood wishes this time of year
even know why "Saint Nick" is celebrated so widely among the various
Christian churches - how he was a saint before the major divisions a shared
saint of all the historic apostolic church. Beyond the Apostles, the
numbers of these shared guides to Christian living are few enough - at least
captures the creative eye of a secular society once a year.

Nevertheless, I can't help seeing the love of God working through all this.
Despite the obvious blame games of churches to use this season to scare
children and ignorant believers, American Christmas-time can be quite
wondrous. With every parental fight over the last popular toy there is at
least one huge outpouring of generosity - usually amazing in its breadth and
depth. The fight against the secular distortions so common place is
actually a bit of a red herring. Some of these distortions are so obviously
drawn from mythological stories. Yes, Virginia even Rudolph is not entirely
the marketing genius of Macy's. Notice I didn't say pagan. Because this
too is distracting from the real issues.

The problems of secular capitalism with religious are not only during this
time of year. Theses distractions are year round. People do not all of the
sudden abandon their beliefs at this time of year. They live them out! As
they live them out throughout the year. Many of the naysayers of American
Christmas, right here in America, who throw away the lights and the trees
and even the gift giving - would be happy if the secular capitalism offer
exclusive sales on their merchandise to propagate their versions of what
every household should have and believe. Religious and bible stores also
count on holiday sales to stay in business.

So, instead of a singular message during this time of year, Americans (and
now many places in the world) get to have a variety of expressions and
diverse beliefs all appearing in the midst of this festive time. How can
any Christian complain when lights are shining at the darkest time of the
year in America - resembling shepherd's fires and pieces of heaven (like
angels) held close? How can we complain when a common saint of Holy
Orthodoxy is represented is ANY fashion during ANY time of the year - and
marketed as a generous "giver" not a criminal? How can we complain when
even a portion of the world around us decorates their yards and homes with
scenes of the nativity of Christ - no matter how gaudy or idol-resembling
they are - as they remain reminders of what we know and celebrate?

So all around us, through good wishes of annual cards, the thrill of light
decorations, Santa Claus (St. Nicholaus) for a whole month, and all of the
American versions of Christmas expressions, we can be reminded that "God is
with us" for He is called Emmanuel. Christ God became man for our
salvation, for hope in God's love for us - that He has not abandoned us -
that He was, is and will be with until the end of the world. We know that
out of a lowly, humble birth God brought forth His only begotten Son into
the world for the sake of the world. The Creator dwells among the created
as one of His creatures, yet remaining fully God, showing us the way to
God's loving embrace even in His birth in the flesh. In other words, He
walked among us and still is with us - so isn't it appropriate that even
non-believers would celebrate His birth. Even if they euphemistically say
"Happy Holidays," I still hear their wish for a "Merry Christmas." And, in
every lit display - I see the light shining in the darkness and my hope in
the Lord's love for us is increased.

This year in our mission, we will be celebrating Christmas through the New
Year until all of our Orthodox Tewahedo brethren celebrate with us. We
look at the wisdom of the Armenian tradition of keeping the Epiphany and
Christmas attached as they were in the early church. We will be having the
sunrise fire in the Nazranie tradition on December 25 and the Blessing of
Water on January 8.

Fr. Nareg of St. John's Armenian Church in Milwaukee included us in their
seasonal mailing and invitation to their festal services. In the letter, he
talks about "Yughakin" - which I always thought was a Russian practice. I
am sure it can be applied in every church and parish; every mission and
ministry of Holy Orthodoxy.

"It is customary in the Armenian Church to provide Yughakin around the
feasts of Christmas and Easter. This practice dates back as far as the time
of Moses in the Old Testament.

"Yughakin in Armenian means "price of oil" - Yugh meaning oil and kin
meaning price. Donations were earmarked towards the purchase of oil, which
in turn would keep the lanterns burning. Today we do no have oil-burning
lamps, however, we have utilities and other essential operating expenses,
which your donations help defray the cost of the church.

"As we share with you the good news of the birth of Christ the Lord, we urge
you to travel from the "fields and reach Bethlehem" to witness, celebrate,
and actually enjoy the birth of the King. And, as we celebrate the Holy
Season, let us remember those who are desperate and dependent on our care.
Let us make the Christmas celebration meaningful with our gifts to the
Lord's Work."

So, let us be inspired to give, not just to our home churches - but to
mission and ministries that always need your support. Besides our own
mission and ministry, Kochamma chose additional local charitable activities
for our family this year.

All of us in this mission continue to be honored by the benefits of your
prayers that have brought many blessings during a difficult year. Please
continue your support in prayer for us and for the furtherance of Christ's
blessing in His mission in Madison, Wisconsin (and around the world). If
you are inclined, a financial contribution will also assist us in this work.

On behalf of Holy Transfiguration Malankara Orthodox Mission and my family,
I wish you a Merry Christmas season. May God's love fill you in your
gift-giving and in your gift-receiving. May you and all your loved ones
know His peace this season and may His peace be known throughout the world.

your servant,

John-Brian Achen
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Syrian Mission
P.O.Box 5207, Madison, Wisconsin 53705 ~
(608) 242-4244

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