Tag Archives: Advent

Advent Reflection – Bishop Mark Lattime

Immanuel

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness–
on them light has shined.
(Isaiah 9:2)

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
(John 1:9)

As an adult, and more so after my ordination, I have always struggled against the cultural norm to start celebrating Christmas the day after Thanksgiving (I would never have thought the struggle would eventually begin the day after Halloween!). I’ve always preached the importance of honoring Advent.

Prepare ye the way!

As an “Adventophile” (I just made-up that word), I have always asserted that preparing for Christmas did NOT mean putting up Christmas Trees, or decking the halls, or fa-la-la-la-laing. Indeed, in my way of thinking, Advent should be just the opposite and marked by an ascetic restraint from all festivities anticipating Christmas Day. In fact, I had always harbored thoughts of not putting up the Christmas Tree until Christmas Eve. Becoming a parish priest with Christmas Eve worship responsibilities that did not get me home until well after 1 o’clock Christmas Morning, disabused me of that little bit of “Adventodox” fantasy. Nevertheless, in my estimation, Advent is supposed to be DARK! Broodingly so.

Advent is a Purple season.

Maybe it’s age; maybe it’s living in Alaska and entering into my 8th winter; or maybe it is my hope that we as the bearers of the Light of Christ become more and more people of that Light–Communities of Recovery that shine light into the darkness that hangs around so persistently in this world and in people’s lives; but I am starting to see that LIGHT is what every season is about—even, or especially, the season of Advent.

Sure, if you turn off all the lights and brood in darkness and despair, any light, even the weakest little flame, will hit your eyes like the brightest flash. But Christmas isn’t about a weak little flame. Christmas is the light of the world! The brightest and best of the stars of the morning! The dawn from on high! The Light of God incarnate: God with us!

A little light is adequate in the dark. Growing light, Holy light, is much better.

Advent is a season to prepare for the dawning of the true light. And while I’m still not ready to give-up entirely my vain claims of “Adventodoxy” (I did it again) and my resistance to getting caught-up in the sweep of the world’s pre-Christmas hype, nevertheless, I do see the light that shines through all of it. Light is a good thing in darkness. And if I am truly to claim the light of Christ as my own, it makes much better sense to spread light rather than to grieve or give honor to the of darkness.

Better to spend Advent being converted to light.

Howard Thurman described conversion as an act of loyalty. What one is loyal to converts that person into a “living for instance” of one’s loyalty. Even in Advent, and most brightly at Christmas, I pray that your loyalty to Christ will convert you and make you a living for instance of the Light of the Gospel. Prepare for the Light by being light, even if only a flickering flame. Trust me, there’s enough darkness out there that yours will not be missed. Embrace the light of Christ in this and every season and send the darkness fumbling away.

“Kindle Thy light within me, O God, that Thy glow may be spread over all of my life; yea indeed, that Thy glow may be spread over all of my life. More and more, may Thy light give radiance to my flickering candle, fresh vigor to my struggling intent, and renewal to my flagging spirit. Without Thy light within me, I must spend my years fumbling in my darkness. Kindle Thy light within me, O God!” (Excerpt from: Thurman, Howard. “Meditations of the Heart.” New York: Harper, 1953

I bid you and yours a Blessed Advent, a Merry Christmas, and a New Year full of Light.

The Rt. Rev. Mark Lattime
Episcopal Bishop of Alaska

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.

Merry Christmas Church Visits Readers

The stores are closing or will be shortly.  Services all over town are starting. Another Christmas/Advent season will soon be a distant memory.  As we close out Advent and begin Christmas, I’d like to share a quote from my favorite theologian, Walter Brueggemann. In his new book, Celebrating Abundance: Devotions for Advent, sharing thoughts about Christmas Eve he writes, “The gift of Christmas contradicts everything we sense about our own life. Our world feels unsavable, and here is the baby named Jesus, “Save.” Our world and our lives often feel abandoned and here is the baby named Immanuel, “God with us.” Be ready to have your sense of the world contradicted by this gift from God. Rest on the new promise from the angel that you may be safe and whole and generous.”

May the blessings of this wonderful gift attend your Christmas celebrations and continue into the new year.

Merry Christmas!

Chris Thompson
churchvisits@gmail.com
churchvisits.com

The value of Christmas is deep and remarkable

When many of you read this, Christmas Eve preparations will have been made. Churches will be ready for you with multiple services; this annual event will be celebrated with great joy. Music, candles, pageantry, sermons and goodwill will herald the end of Advent and entry into Christmas.

Because Christmas falls on Sunday this year, some churches will not hold Sunday services. But, according to Christianity Today, “Eighty-nine percent of pastors say their church will hold services on Christmas Day. Leaders of Lutheran (94 percent), Church of Christ (93 percent), Baptist (91 percent), Presbyterian/Reformed (91 percent), and Holiness (92 percent) churches are most likely to say their church will hold Christmas Day services. Pentecostals (79 percent) are less likely. Small churches and large churches are slightly less likely to be open for Christmas.”

Some argue against churches having Christmas Day services, especially when Christmas falls on Sunday, because Christmas Day is a family day. Presents need to be opened and family Christmas traditions need to be observed and perpetuated.

The purpose of Christmas Eve services is to celebrate the birth of Jesus in imaginative and multiple glorious ways. For many churches, these services are their most heavily attended of the year. Many evangelical churches now actively use them for evangelism, i.e., attracting new adherents. And what better way to use them. But for many, Christmas Day is an afterthought.

Be sure to check with your church to ensure it is holding Christmas Day services before going. Last week, over coffee with a pastor, he revealed he’d made the mistake some years ago of going to a church retreat during a weekend assuming all members would be there.

Unfortunately, no notice got posted on the church door. Upon his return, he discovered some people did come for a Sunday service and left with the impression the church was no longer in business. This also happened to me when visiting a local church. It turns out they were away at a camp meeting but the door had no notice of it.

Most Catholic and Orthodox churches hold both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. As always, it’s best to check church websites or call to ensure when services will be held. I fondly remember, as a then-member of the Anchorage Concert Chorus, singing for the Christmas Eve Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral several years ago.

It’s truly a beautiful service with brass, choir, organ, timpani and piano focused squarely on the birth of Christ and culminating with the partaking of Eucharist. To be able to participate in this “extracurricular” event was an honor I’ll always remember. This might be a good year to experience this beautiful Mass along with this elite musical group.

As a choir singer for most of my life, I can personally attest to the amount of effort church music directors put into the preparation of music for Christmas services. In some churches with large choirs, the choir itself can represent a sizeable portion of those present for services. Choir members invest significant amounts of time preparing for this special music, and enjoy the participative efforts of their singing.

Regardless of your faith tradition, I urge you to experience Christmas celebrations of other faith traditions. It always amazes me how rarely Christians allow themselves permission to experience Christmas through the eyes of another faith.

Maybe they are fearful of eternal damnation if they do so, or are so tied to their personal congregation that they feel nothing could be better. I’ve experienced Christmas in various areas of the world, and through the eyes of various cultures. It’s fascinating to do so, and gave me new insights and appreciation for practicing my own faith in ways that were enriching.

Growing up in a Christian family, even if we did not go to Christmas Eve service, we always commenced Christmas Eve festivities with a Gospel reading of the Nativity story. It’s an enriching story and needs to be read in its entirety to catch its fullness.

I like Luke’s version the best, and Luke 2 is the place to start. Matthew’s version of the Nativity starts at Matthew 1:18 and is preceded by the genealogy of Jesus. Try reading with some different translations to capture the scope and sway of the text. The King James Version, even with the Elizabethan English, still captures the imagination. These days I often enjoy the English Standard Version for its translation accuracy and beauty of language.

My experiences with Anchorage Christmas services have always been an enjoyable part of my church year. No matter where I go, churches seem to be on their best behavior during this time. Many years, I’ve gone to multiple churches to experience their Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services.

I’ve been particularly blessed when churches offer “Lessons and Carols” services during Advent or at Christmastime. I see that First Congregational Church is offering such a service at 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning. Also, Holy Family Cathedral will be offering this type of service on Christmas Eve at 11 p.m. Zion Lutheran offers its own Christmas Eve service of “Lessons and Carols” at 7:30 p.m. These types of services are beautifully rendered with readings, carols and special musical presentations.

As I wind up my writing year, this will be my next to last column for the Alaska Dispatch News. Next week I’ll present my “10 Things I’d Like to See Anchorage Churches Address in 2017” column. My “10 things” columns at year’s end have been something I look forward to writing and will continue to do as I confine my church writing to my website, churchvisits.com. The site also contains all of my ADN blog posts and columns for the past eight and a half years, approximately 530 articles.

As we complete Advent and transition into Christmas, I wish each of you warm Christmas greetings. May the peace and hope brought by the birth of Jesus’ attend your ways at this time, and into the coming year.

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Advent Music Here

Too many churches fail to recognize Advent by jumping into Christmas right after Thanksgiving and continuing the pattern of Advent and Christmas carols until New Year’s celebrations. Anchorage’s local classical music station KLEF-FM, 98.1, presents a wonderful sacred music program Sundays, from 6 – 9 a.m.  Host Jon Sharpe always seems to find sacred music for every mood and taste.

During Advent, Jon’s focusing on Sacred Advent and Christmas music. For 15 years he’s been producing a program on KLEF-FM 98.1 called “Sacred Concert”.  It airs every Sunday morning from 6 to 9.

His remaining December lineup includes:

European Advent and Christmas music will be featured on December 4.

Early American Advent and Christmas music will be featured on December 11.

An English Christmas Celebration will be featured December 18.

Christmas Day, “Christmas in New York”, is the special feature.

KLEF’s website is at http://www.klef98.com/. They also provide an internet streaming experience over the internet. (http://www.klef98.com/listen-live) If you are outside of Alaska, remember the time zone differences from your locality.

Thanks to KLEF, it’s sponsors, and Jon Sharpe for fine sacred concerts Sunday mornings. I’ve been listening for years and have never been disappointed.

Is Advent all that important?

I grew up as an evangelical Protestant and my early years provided little exposure to the concept of Advent. Gradually, over time, I was introduced to it and now realize I’d missed much during those years.

I didn’t think Advent was important in those early years. In fact, I saw that Advent gave some evangelicals, who pointed to its absence from Scripture and its association with Catholicism, further reason to distance themselves from faith traditions that observed it. Now I believe Advent, properly observed, provides a buffer from the Christmas-driven consumerism that plagues so much of Christianity.

The term Advent is derived from the Latin word “adventus,” which means “arrival” or “approach.” It’s a term anticipating the coming of Christ at Christmas and marks the beginning of the liturgical church year in many faiths. Advent for Western Christianity starts with the Sunday closest to Nov. 30 and ends on Christmas Eve. This year, Advent begins this coming Sunday, Nov. 27. Several weeks ago, I described Orthodox  Advent, which began for most Orthodox traditions on Nov. 15.

With the beginning of the liturgical church year, new lectionaries are used. Lectionaries are preformatted readings for the liturgical year and are released in three-year cycles: year A, year B and year C. Many liturgical denominations use the Revised Common Lectionary, which begins year A in a new cycle this Sunday with these Scripture readings: Old Testament (Isaiah 2:1-5), Psalm (Psalm 122), New Testament (Romans 13:11-14) and Gospel (Matthew 24:36-44). (The Catholic Church lectionary may vary from the Revised Common Lectionary, especially with regard to feast days.)

The beginnings of Advent are traceable to the fourth century as seen in some church writings around 380 A.D. Later, the Councils of Tours (563 A.D.) and of Macon (581 A.D.) laid out specific guidelines for observing Advent.

Today, Advent is observed somewhat differently in Eastern (or Orthodox) Christianity and Western Christianity. The Advent focus for Eastern Christianity is the Nativity Fast and the incarnation of Jesus, while Western Christianity is focused on the first and second coming of Jesus. During the four Sundays of Advent, Western Christianity uses a different theme each Sunday: hope, peace, joy and love. Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Anglicans, Lutheran and a few other denominations observe Advent.

Another Advent distinction is an Advent wreath in the sanctuary containing five candles. The encircling wreath represents the eternal nature of God, while the candles represent the light Jesus brought to the world. Each Sunday a new candle is lit according to that day’s theme, and the central white candle, representing Jesus, is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. I look forward to each Advent Sunday and the lighting of the candle.

Some local churches have a family lighting the candles and providing the reading. Others have clergy doing the lighting and the reading. I’ve found both symbolically important but have been less than impressed when a priest or clergy merely lights the candles as an afterthought. If anything, the candles represent the light to the world that Christ brings and require an appropriately spoken word to encourage people to share that light.

Advent, traditionally observed, uses music that is distinct from Christmas carols. Advent songs are hopeful, watching, waiting songs that look forward to the coming of the Messiah. Examples include “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “O Come Divine Messiah.”

A few local liturgical church pastors have rebelled in recent years, jumping right into Christmas carols during Advent. By the time we truly arrive at Christmas, we’re already so saturated with Christmas carols and secular Christmas music from churches, stores, malls and on the radio that Christmas Eve becomes anticlimactic. Too many evangelical churches do Christmas an injustice by singing carols the entire month of December. The true theme of Advent is one of hopeful watching and waiting for the coming of the Messiah to be celebrated each Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This period traditionally incorporated prayer, some fasting, and preparation of lives and hearts for the coming of the King.

The colors of Advent, for most denominations in Western Christianity, are purple, violet or blue and are used in clerical vestments and sanctuary furnishings.

A hopeful sign of progress is that a growing number of evangelical pastors are beginning to observe Advent in more traditional manner, giving a new impetus to its embrace as they lead congregations toward Christmas.

For me, Advent offers the ideal antidote to the consumerism that has already hijacked Christmas and its meaning from the church. Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber offers a startling perspective on Advent along these lines.

“If you use the lectionary the first two or three Sundays of Advent, you’re not getting shepherds and angels and baby Jesus,” says Bolz-Weber. “You’re getting these crazy apocalyptic texts like the one that says two people will be in the field and one will be taken and one will stay. That Jesus will come like a thief in the night. There’s something about seeing Jesus as a holy thief. Our first Advent together, I started thinking about maybe the idea of God breaking in and ‘jacking’ our stuff doesn’t need to be heard as bad news … There’s so much stuff that’s weighing us down that we actually need a holy thief to come and steal from us.”

Special Advent event at St. Patrick’s Parish

An evening of Advent music and reflections will be held at St. Patrick’s Parish on Friday, Dec. 2, at 7 p.m. This will be their 10th annual benefit concert on behalf of Catholic Social Services for the Brother Francis Shelter. They are asking for a donation of $7 per person, or $20 per family, to attend. Donations of coats, hats, gloves, scarves, boots, pants, shirts, sweaters, socks, long johns — any warm clothing items — are also requested. I cannot think of a more appropriate way to observe the spirit of Advent than by extending ourselves on behalf of those less fortunate. For more information, call 337-1538.

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.

10 ways to make the most of this Christmas

As you read this, the Christmas season is approaching a climax. Before Christmas passes, I’d like to suggest a few activities to help make the most of your observances of this Christmas season.

These practices will, I believe, help make the holiday’s meaning and message more real.

“Christians celebrate Christmas because they see, in the person of Jesus, God’s reign in-breaking amidst the sin, pain, despair and seemingly endless cycles of violence in our world,” says Rector Michael Burke. “The traditional teaching of Advent is threefold: to prepare for the birth of the Messiah, in the form of the tiny Christ child, in a place known only to those for whom the world has no place (or ‘room’).”

Advent observers experiencing a period of watchful waiting for the Messiah may be better prepared than other worshippers to celebrate the birth of Jesus as an eagerly awaited event.

As you celebrate Christmas, use this time to share with those around you the good news of His wonderful gift of love and redemption. Jesus was mostly rejected by his own people, yet much of his brief ministry was directed toward casting out devils, bodily and spiritual healing, kindness to prostitutes, loving the unlovely, and giving hope to the poor. Gandhi is famously quoted as saying, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Those of us who are Christians can remember this by opening our hearts and lives in loving response to the work of Jesus. Let’s share it with our children and everyone around us. Christmas offers many opportunities to do this. Here are 10 ways to restore the true spirit of Christmas in yourself, your family and friends and others.

1. Attend both a Christmas Eve and Christmas Day service.

Both are important. If you have children, look for appropriate Christmas Eve services. Many churches have them. They can be memorable for children and adults alike. A double-page spread in today’s Alaska Dispatch News lists many services offered by area churches. Personally, I’ve enjoyed Christmas services at St. John United Methodist Church, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and Our Lady of Guadalupe co-cathedral, especially the midnight Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe.

2. Read Luke 1 and 2 together with a group.

It’s a story where both chapters are important. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a wonderful film to watch on Christmas. YouTube has the poignant part where Linus recites the passage from Luke 2 for Charlie Brown to restore his faith in what Christmas is all about. Charles Schulz insisted this be included in the film.

3. Make snow angels outside with someone you love.

In doing so, remember the significant role of the angels of the Christmas narrative in Matthew and Luke.

4. Attend midnight Mass if you’ve never done so.

Like Easter, midnight Mass is one of the highpoints of the Catholic church year. Held at midnight, it rings in the true spirit of Christmas. Regardless of your faith, you’ll appreciate this special event. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church also has a service starting at 11 p.m., which culminates with candles and Eucharist at the stroke of midnight.

5. Invite a friend, regardless of religious persuasion, to join you at a service.

You’d do the same for them if they invited you to a meaningful service in their personal life. It goes both ways.

6. Extend yourself to the ‘beatitudes people.’

You know, the ones Jesus spoke of during his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, revilers and evil speakers. There are ways to reach out to every one of these. For example, there are many examples of the persecuted these days, such as Syrian refugees.

7. Ask any number of charities now if you and your family could help.

The Salvation Army, Bean’s Cafe, Catholic Social Services, Lutheran Social Services, Brother Francis Shelter, Downtown Soup Kitchen, AWAIC, Gospel Rescue Mission, Food Bank of Alaska and many others can make use of your monetary and other assistance at this time of year.

8. Share memories of Christmases past with friends and family.

Many of these memories are stories of hope and meaning that may die unless shared and maybe recorded for posterity. StoryCorps is a wonderful way to record these memories of a friend or loved one, which may otherwise disappear. Storycorps.org has an app available to download to make this easy.

9. Consider a monetary gift to an Alaska-based relief and development project in someone’s name.

Alaska Sudan Medical Project (alaskasudan.org) is one such worthy cause in South Sudan that is saving and changing lives in many ways. So is the Malawi Children’s Village (malawichildrensvillage.org). Both are spearheaded or strongly supported by Alaska physicians.

10. Call a long-lost friend to reach out in love.

Giving the gift of love is a virtually cost-free gift with huge dividends. Using Google or Facebook can facilitate your search.

Here’s my hope that God’s peace rests with you and your family as you celebrate the true experience of Christmas.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.