Monday, December 21, 2015

Holidays: Get ready, you won't recognize anything!

Reflections by Brother Luke

            Celebrating Christmas in America is so familiar to all of us that we can easily be swept up by all the fanfare. With Christmas carols on the radio and TV specials filled with warm and romantic images of holiday cheer, we are hard-wired to respond to all these influences without even thinking about it. Even in church, that 19th-century British creation of “Lessons and Carols” has become a standard for Christmas liturgy in many churches and a staple of radio broadcasting.

When I first came to New Skete in 1995, Brother James used to joke with newcomers that our celebration of Christmas would not have any of the familiar carols, so, “Get ready, you won’t recognize anything!”  For me that wasn’t totally true, since I had been going to the Orthodox Church for my entire adult life, and I was familiar with many of the traditional Christmas hymns used in the Orthodox Church. But for some, this time that is filled with memories of childhood expectations and family gatherings may leave one with a feeling of being at sea with the unfamiliar.

In the face of this somewhat disorienting reality, New Skete has a long tradition of bringing our entire monastic community together for a festive Christmas feast. In fact, we stretched out this festal meal concept to cover not just Christmas but Thanksgiving and the January 6th feast of Theophany. For many years all three of these meals were held at the monks’ monastery. However, at the turn of the new century we decided to revision these events and have each of our three communities host one of them. At first we rotated, so one year we might have Thanksgiving at the nuns, Christmas at the companions, and Theophany at the monks. The next year we might start at the monks with Thanksgiving, proceed to the nuns for Christmas, and go to the companions for Theophany. However, one year when we had scheduled the Christmas meal at the monks, we had a blizzard and the nuns could not get up our road in their vehicle for the meal, so the monks drove down to the nuns’ monastery and picked up the sisters and brought them up to the monks’ monastery.  After that experience we decided that the safest arrangement, considering the vagaries of the weather, was to always have Thanksgiving at the monks, Christmas at the nuns, and Theophany at the companions.

            As time passed the companions’ community was no longer able to manage a big community festal meal at their monastery, so we decided to schedule the Theophany meal as an occasion for the communities to go out to a restaurant. The last few times we did this, we went to the West Mountain Inn in Arlington, Vermont.  It was a wonderful outing and the restaurant was still decked out in Christmas decorations even on January 6th. It was a great opportunity to enjoy a meal without having to also do the cooking and clean-up.

But it wasn’t home, and some of our members found it increasingly difficult to travel to restaurants on dark winter nights that could be snowy. So we decided to try something different. With Thanksgiving the meal the monks prepared and hosted, and Christmas the meal the nuns prepared and hosted, we thought we would share the responsibilities for the Theophany meal. So we divided up the menu between the monks and the nuns and decided to hold the meal at the nuns’ monastery.  This meant that neither house had to shoulder the entire burden of preparing and cleaning up after the meal. We did this until a few years ago when a friend of the community offered to donate that meal. She had eaten at a local restaurant and enjoyed her meal so much that she wanted us to have a similar experience. It was up to us decide when to take her up on her offer, and we decided to have that meal for our Theophany feast day.  As we had been doing for several years, this meal is hosted by the nuns, but the food is all from a local restaurant: Foggy Notions. And we are looking forward to doing this again in 2016.

So we have moved a long way from having all three of these fall and winter feasts at the monks’ monastery. We have found new ways to accommodate our new circumstances and to live out the Christmas message of new birth and renewed hope for the future. And we do recognize in this something that is truly part of the Christmas tradition: a celebration of new life and new possibilities. Although our hymns may not be well known across America, the theme is still the same. One of my favorite texts:

“What can we offer you, O Christ, for coming to earth as a man because of us? The creatures you fashioned offer you their grateful thanks: the angels bring their hymns of praise, while the heavens offer you a star; the magi present gifts and the shepherds, amazement; the earth offers a cave, and the wilderness, a manger, while we present you with your virgin mother. O God who are before the ages have mercy on us.”

The Challenge of Thanksgiving

 By Brother Christopher

“Always be joyful, pray always, give thanks to God for all things...” 1 Thessalonians 5:17

            Thanksgiving is a national holiday, one we collectively celebrate to give thanks for all of God’s blessings. But in thinking about the deeper significance of what we celebrate, I wonder if we often don’t keep the holiday on a superficial level: God gives us good things—blessings—and these are the things that we are grateful for. From a Christian perspective, however, the meaning of thanksgiving goes so much deeper, and it carries with it a profound challenge: we are to give thanks to God for all things. All things. How do we do that precisely? honestly? In a like manner, when Jesus tells us in the Gospel “do not worry,” how do we do that? Is it really possible? At face value, it can sound simplistic, pie-in-sky, naive. We know that we live in a dangerous world. All we have to do is think of the recent shootings in Paris and San Bernardino, the bombing of the Russian jet, the terrorism being fomented by ISIS. Or we could consider all the possible medical trials we could face: cancer, heart disease, the complications of diabetes. Then there is the economy and the economic pressures we face. Recently I was speaking with someone who said that his financial advisor had told him the alarming news that at the rate he was going, he would be broke in two years. Consequently he was facing serious decisions that would radically alter his living situation. Or what about the plight of the homeless? Have we ever considered what it would be like to be on the street... or even a refugee? Are they to be blamed for their plight? In the face of these and many other potential dangers, how do we not fall into anxiety and worry? Because Jesus’ instruction to us in the Gospel is in the imperative: Do not worry. It is a command. How can we do that?

            I believe the answer comes in realizing and owning the radical nature of our faith. Christianity is the most profoundly counter-cultural of religions. It stares down life in all its complexity: the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the tragic, and it trusts that each moment of life can bring us into ever deeper knowledge and communion with God, who is ever present in all that we go through. That is what is most fundamental. We simply need to train ourselves to be mindful of this reality. This is the work of our spiritual practice, and it takes place throughout our life. 

            True faith is profoundly counter-cultural. It has no room for cynicism because it is planted in a continual act of trusting God, in trusting that God will be present with us in the vast expanse of life’s experiences, always leading us into deeper and deeper relationship. There is never an experience in life that is totally without meaning, for God is always present, always leading us forward. I think of a passage from Psalm 122: “I lift my eyes to the mountains, from where shall come my help? My help comes only from the presence of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”  The real question is not whether God is present to us, but whether we are present to God?

            The Greek word for thanksgiving is eucharistia, from which we get our eucharist. What we do every time we celebrate the Divine Liturgy is to thank God for all things, to express through its mystery our total trust in God’s provident care, and to allow God to bring us into an ever deepening communion, both with God and with each other.