Sunday, February 10, 2008

Jan 7, 2008 - Taking down the Christmas Tree

I un-decorated our first Christmas tree last night; un-hooked all our pretty (and not-so-pretty) ornaments from the drying-up branches, took our new angel off the top and boxed her carefully away. I took the garland off and slowly un-twined the lights; leaving just an ordinary, bare, dark, no-longer-fragrant douglas fir tree, shedding its needles onto our floor as it slowly dies. If that sounds sad, it's supposed to. Un-decorating our tree (or darkening it, to put it another way) got me thinking about the liturgical year and how it all flows so naturally, so cyclically... The liturgical year (for the Byzantines) begins September 1st, just before the Nativity of the Theotokos, the God-Bearer. Fall is a season of abundance, of collecting and storing up. Advent arrives: the joyful, excited anticipation of a beautiful Birth which spells our salvation; the gifts, the shining lights and bright colors; the goodies and parties and family and friends. The liturgies! laying out prophecies and bolstering our hope for new life! Then there's Christmas itself--that holy, hushed, hallowed holiday where the world is wrapped in winter, sleeping.. waiting for the spring. There, in that cold time, is the warm welcoming of the Christ Child. In the midst of our darkness, He came to give us life and light. Why do Christmas trees have lights on them in the first place? don't they shine to symbolize Christ? The feast of Christmas builds and builds until Epiphany, when wise men from the East do homage to the humble and glorious Child. (In the Byzantine rite, this is also the feast of the Theophany of our Lord: Christ's baptism in the Jordan where God is revealed as Trinity. It is the beginning of Jesus' public ministry and the end of his sheltered (normal, comfortable, family-oriented) life in Nazareth.) But after Christmas, after the goodies are gone and people go back to work (and to school), the world is still shrouded in winter. There are no approaching holidays to warm our hearts as we feel the weather grow colder and colder. There is another season of preparation approaching and we do not remain in our Christmas-y festivity for very long. The Byzantine tradition is to use the trunk of the Christmas tree to fashion a cross, which will be used during the 6 weeks of Lent (similar to an Advent Wreath). From the Birth of Christ to the Death of Christ... Lent arrives. This season of fasting and prayer, in the Byzantine rite, is very austere. Strict fasts include abstaining from all meat and dairy for the full 6 weeks (occasionally eating fish) (there are less-strict fasts, of course, and pregnant or nursing mothers are always excused from fasting). The Church is un-decorated, the songs are sadder, and Divine Liturgy is not celebrated during the week (it's called the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts). There is lots of kneeling, bowing, and prostration. And so, although the feast we are preparing for during Lent is a greater feast than Christmas, the preparation is all the more harsh because of Our Lord's Passion--without which we would not have the Resurrection. That, for me, is the major difference between Advent and Lent. Advent is a small child with shining eyes, looking forward to a grand celebration; a beautiful young mother swelling with life waiting with awe-full anticipation for her time of delivery. Lent is a penitent with ashes on his face. Lent is someone who knows he must die with Christ in order to rise with Him. But there IS Easter!! There IS life after death! Every time I think about Easter I get excited and my heart flutters a little bit. If Lent is especially austere in its preparatory spirit, Easter is especially joyous for that preparation and for the glory of God in Christ! Lent is 6 weeks long, but the Easter Season is 7 weeks. Life has conquered death.
"O death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory? Christ is risen and you are abolished. Christ is risen and the demons are cast down. Christ is risen and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen and life is freed. Christ is risen and the tomb is emptied of the dead: for Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the Leader and Reviver of those who had fallen asleep. To Him be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen." St. John Chrysostom Easter Homily
And the year begins again... waiting for Christ to be born into our hearts and live in our midst to save us from our sins so that we may rise with Him on the last day.

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