Tag Archives: Orthodox Advent

Bishop David’s Reflections upon the Nativity

During Advent, many Christians who do not observe Advent practices, go immediately to consumer spending binges, and begin singing Christmas carols as if the nativity was already being observed.  The Rt. Rev. Bishop David (Mahaffey, Orthodox Bishop of Sitka and Alaska has kindly consented to share his thoughts on these practices and what we’re losing in the process.

The Nativity of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ
Rt. Rev. Bishop David (Mahaffey), Bishop of Sitka and Alaska

It seems every year, as we approach the Christmas Holiday, we find it less and less a celebration of the coming of our Savior and more a commercial enterprise. This is not to say that I have a “bah, humbug!” attitude, not at all, but I seek a Spiritual meaning for this time of year.

Aye, there’s the rub! I want to be “Spiritual”, but not religious. But what do I mean by being Spiritual and not being religious? How can I say such a thing, when I am the leader of the largest body of (Orthodox) Christians in Alaska? Aren’t we supposed to be “religious”? Again, it depends on what you mean by religious. Merriam Webster defines it basically as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural (1).” If that is all I was seeking, that is easily completed by attending services, and at Christmas time, there are many. There are Christmas Cantatas, Live Nativity Scenes, Candlelight Vigils, roaming carolers and singers; there’s Midnight Mass for some Faiths, Christmas Eve Vigils and Divine Liturgy for others (I still can’t get over the fact that some churches don’t even have services on Christmas Day unless it falls on a Sunday, but I digress). So, if I want to “satisfy” my religious experience, lots of things will fill the bill. Once done, I can go on with my other “needs” at shopping malls, and all.

There are many people today who say they are “Spiritual” but not “religious”. I want to say here that while I agree with what they are thinking, I disagree that it is something I can fulfill on my own. For me, there is always the need for “the Other” in a spiritual equation. So, whether I am talking about Christmas, or any other major celebration of an event related to Christ, I am always seeking my involvement with the Other.

So being spiritual means that I am meditating or contemplating on what it means to have God become a human being, to be incarnated in the flesh and blood that I am also clothed with, along with every other human being who was, is and ever will exist. I am not just interested in feeding my own soul but with joining in a nourishing “meal” with as many other persons as I can. I want to feed my Spirit and join with others who have the same or a similar understanding of the same motive.

Let me offer a few reasons why this is so important to me. First, very few religions have ever even allowed that God could become a human being, he is simply God qua God, above and beyond everything and anything else that is involved with matter, with “stuff” that exists in our world. It is incomprehensible to those who hold to such an idea (ancient Greek philosophers, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, even some Jewish sects, etc.) that we could associate God with our world because it is a perishing world, finite, and surely God could not be a part of that. But in Christianity, not only to we believe this, we celebrate it and say our Salvation depends on it!

Second, related to the first Christian notion, we Orthodox Christians have no less than
four Major (and three minor Feasts spread throughout the calendar year related to the
Incarnation of Christ (2), not to mention Christmas, itself. In other words, we are preparing
for the coming of Christ throughout the year, not just on December 25. We gather
together in prayer and Liturgy at each event, knowing we are making ready our hearts
for the coming Incarnation.

Third, while many others celebrate the fasting season before Christmas as a “Four-
Sunday Advent” event, this fast for we Orthodox is a full forty days. Beginning on
November 15 (Nov. 28, Julian calendar with Jan. 7 being Christmas) until December 25,
we practice fasting from certain foods, pleasures and entertainment, and increase our
prayer life accordingly. This also helps us direct our attention to the contemplation of the
coming of Christ and of His Theophany as well.

All this is not to find any inadequacy with anyone else’s enjoyment of Christmas, but it is
to say that I need all of these things to enter into my own “Spiritual” celebration of
Christmas. A Spiritual Joy only possible when I join into this celebration with others who
share similar love for the Incarnation of our Lord, and are thankful for His love for us.
I wish all those who are celebrating this Holy Season the Peace of Christ and the Joy of
the Lord!

1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/religion#other-words
2. Major: Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, March 25; Nativity of the Virgin Mary, September 8; Entry of theTheotokos into the Temple, November 21; and Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, February 2 (Nativity ofour Lord – Christmas – is a given). Minor: Conception of St. Anne, December 9; Conception of St John the Baptist by Elizabeth, September 24; Nativity of St John the Baptist, September 23.

Orthodox Advent Underway – Fr Vasili Hillhouse Reflects on this Journey

November 15, most Orthodox Christians began their Advent journey to the Feast of the Nativity. In contrast, Western Christianity begins its Advent journey on December 2 this year.  A nativity fast is observed by Orthodox, but is less severe than that of Lent. I’ve asked several pastors in our community to share their reflections about  Advent. Fr Vasili Hillhouse, pastor of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, has graciously agreed to take the lead this year with his thoughts about Advent.

Advent: Preparing to Receive the King of Glory
Fr. Vasili Hillhouse

In this season of Advent, which is our preparation before the Feast of the Nativity of
Christ, it is helpful for us to take the time to consider what we are truly preparing to
celebrate in the first place. If you are reading this, I would imagine that you have already
decided that what you will be celebrating has little to do with the rampant consumerism
that can taint this time of year. I would imagine that you, as a reader of a religion blog,
are preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ. So what do we know about this Child and
the reason for His coming into the world? This Child is the Son and Word of God – the
very same Word of God Who was revealed in the Old Testament. This is the same Divine
Logos Who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and who wrestled with Jacob. This
Second Person of the Holy Trinity was revealed in the Old Testament without flesh,
without human nature; He appeared sometimes as an angel and other times as fire. He
Who’s voice was heard by the righteous prophets now comes to earth, clothed in flesh.
This child is the very same God; the very same Divine Logos Who is begotten of the
Father before all time. There never was a time when He did not exist, but He was always
with the Father, eternally begotten of Him and sharing His one essence, together with the
Holy Spirit. This Child that we are preparing to behold – so defenseless, and so dependent
on others to care for Him – is the same Person Who was transfigured in Divine glory on
Mt Tabor. When we speak of “the baby Jesus,” This is Who we are referring to: The
eternal and divine Logos of God, and it is His birth into this world that we will celebrate
on Christmas.
If the Twelve Days of Christmas (originally the days between the birth of Christ and
Epiphany) has been given to us in order to celebrate the birth of Christ, then the forty
days of Advent that come before it are meant to prepare us to celebrate properly. Think of
it this way, if it was announced that a king was coming to your house for dinner in a
month’s time, wouldn’t you begin right away with all of the preparations to receive such
a guest? And wouldn’t you even complain that one month was not enough time to do all
that would need to be done? Well, on Christmas, in a spiritual manner of speaking, we
will be receiving a king – the King of Glory. How much more should we prepare the
room of our heart to receive the Master of All? This is what Advent is: a time to prepare
the “cave” or “manger” of our heart to receive the Savior. To do this we abstain from
certain foods, while increasing our prayer life and almsgiving – not because God needs it
– but because we do! These practices are pleasing to God, when they are done in His
Name, and collectively they purify our hearts of self-centeredness, pride, and all the other
things that separate us from Him. So I wish you all a good and profitable Advent! May
the King of Glory, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity and Son of God, make each of
us worthy to receive Him into our heart and celebrate His birth in a manner that is worthy of His Glory. Amen.

Orthodox Advent is almost here

Advent in the various Orthodox traditions is observed somewhat differently and at different times than Western Christianity. One significant difference is that Advent for Antiochian and Greek Orthodox begins Nov. 15, two weeks earlier than non-Orthodox faiths. Orthodox practice is to begin Advent 40 days before Christmas; this period is called the “Nativity Fast,” and comes before the “Nativity Feast” of Christmas.

Another significant difference is that the focus of Orthodox Advent is the incarnation of Jesus, while Western Christianity focuses on the first and second coming of Christ. Also, Orthodox ecclesiastical years begin Sept. 1, while in the West, the religious year for Christians begins at Advent, four Sundays before Christmas.

The Nativity Fast is not as strict as the fast of Great Lent and follows the Orthodox principle of fasting to prepare the body physically and spiritually for the coming feast. The practices of fasting include simplifying life, curbing appetite, controlling desires, and intensifying prayer.

Thanksgiving comes during this period and I wondered how Orthodox Christians handle it.

“Because we are American, and Thanksgiving is a national holiday, and a special time of gathering friends and family for thanking God for all our blessings, we have a pastoral allowance to stop our fast and celebrate Thanksgiving Day with the usual turkey and all the sides,” said Lesa Morrison, a member of St. John Orthodox Cathedral. “We do try to still remember that we are in Advent, and to not stuff ourselves completely.”

“During Advent, even though we live and move in a world that has highly commercialized Christmas, we can partake to some degree in the fun activities surrounding the Birth of Christ, while staying Christ-centered through it all,” says Rev. Vasili Hillhouse of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. “We are able to do this,” he continues, “because we willingly adopt certain dietary restrictions as a way of keeping us vigilant and aware of God’s presence at every moment.

“This is the point of prayer and fasting, and it is why Advent for the Orthodox Christians is a time of increased spiritual discipline — it helps keeps us centered in the midst of the craziness of the season.”

Echoing those thoughts, the Rev. Mark Dunaway of St. John Orthodox Cathedral says, “The usefulness of Advent depends on your perspective of Christmas. If the aim of a ‘holiday season’ is simply to seek cheer in winter through gift exchanges, office parties, and family gatherings, then Advent really has little place. The holiday celebrations can begin as soon as Thanksgiving is over and end in a party on New Year’s Eve.

“However, if Christmas Day itself is first of all a ‘holy day’ to remember the birth of Jesus Christ as God becoming one of us, then the grandeur and wonder of that singular event summons those who believe to prepare themselves through prayer, fasting, and acts of kindness, so that they might properly esteem and celebrate this day and let it change their lives. This preparation is the ancient purpose of Advent. Granted, it is difficult to go against the current tide in this regard, but perhaps even a modest effort to renew Advent among Christians could make the difference between a holiday that for many rings hollow and sad, and a celebration that brings true joy in the revelation of God’s great love for the world. If that is the case, it should be an effort worth making.”

Nearly all congregations in the Alaska diocese of the Orthodox Church of America (formerly Russian Orthodox) will commence the Nativity Fast on Nov. 28, and end it on Jan. 6, celebrating the Nativity of Christ on Jan. 7 according to Bishop David Mahaffey.

“The reason is the Julian Calendar’s timing being 13 days behind the Western/Gregorian Calendar,” he says.

This presents some difficulties for Alaska Orthodox, Mahaffey states. “In general, in our country, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is one of family and company gatherings in celebration of the coming (what the word Advent actually means) of Christ. In Orthodoxy, periods prior to such a feast as Christmas are meant to be contemplative and inner-focusing on the significance of what is going to be observed. It is hard to do that when one is feasting and going to parties at the office or neighbors, or with family. This is why it is very difficult for the Orthodox Christian to keep true to his conviction of faith and still maintain good relations with those around him who are not observing the Advent season as he/she desires. This has led to a false dichotomy in which those on the Julian Calendar call Dec. 25 a secular holiday and Jan. 7 a religious one.”

Many Christians can learn much from Orthodox practices and observances. For me, it is pleasing to look at this early entry to Advent as an important antidote to the crass commercialism of Christmas.

Thanksgiving Blessing time is here for Anchorage and Mat-su

The local community really rallies to provide Thanksgiving meals for those without the ability or financial resources to obtain them.

“Food Bank of Alaska and the volunteer Thanksgiving Blessing leadership teams in Anchorage and the Valley are preparing to provide groceries for a complete Thanksgiving meal to 10,000 families this year,” says Karla Jutzi of the Food Bank. “A small army of volunteers will be handing out food at six locations in the Valley and six in Anchorage. Last year we served over 9,200 families.”

More than 1,000 Alaskans will prepare and distribute turkey and all the fixings  to the 10,000 families Karla mentioned at two Thanksgiving Blessing events in Anchorage and the Mat-su region: from 10 a.m. to  4 p.m. Nov. 19, at six locations in the Valley, and at six locations in Anchorage and Eagle River from 3 to 8 p.m. (at most locations) on Nov. 21. The locations for pickup of the turkey and fixins’ are zip code dependent, so recipients should know that first.

For the past month, local food distribution programs such as Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, New Hope, St. Francis House, Salvation Army and others, have placed fliers with this information in food boxes they distribute. Call 211 with questions about hours and locations. You can also find detailed information available at the Food Bank of Alaska’s website or my site, Church Visits.