When people ask me what my family Christmas traditions are, and how we are supposed to feel during this season, I take pause. Are we supposed to have some special family traditions? If I don't, am I somehow deficient or wanting? What are we supposed to feel, and what if I don't feel that way? Our family kept the fast; my wife read the children the Gospel nativity accounts; she made a calendar with daily messages for the forty days before the feast; we went with the parish teens to carol for the shut-ins and nursing homes; she made or bought each child a special Christmas tree ornament; and we always went to Church for the festal liturgy (pretty important for the priest). Those asking, however, must be looking for a more special family tradition. The most memorable tradition for me was setting up the video-camera to catch the excitement of the children as they opened their gifts. Waiting for the camera was painful for the children who had been anticipating their gifts for months.
Christmastime is supposed to be a time of joy, yet, because it reminds us of days gone by, it can also be accompanied by some unfinished grieving for loved ones. We all remember past Christmases, when loved ones now asleep in the Lord were still with us. We remember what they did to add to the holidays. Remembering such times leaves us with mixed emotions. We can hardly expect to feel joyous all the time, yet we can take consolation in what this season brings to us. It brings the Resurrected Lord in the infant Jesus. We celebrate Christ's Nativity, knowing that Christ is risen from the dead. By His death is death destroyed, and we are restored to life. Symeon, the righteous old priest, saw the salvation of mankind in the infant Jesus. We can too, even if the representation of Jesus is a plastic figure in a crowded department store.
Lent is not only a time for personal renewal; it is a time for parish renewal as well. The Church is reborn every time someone enters the community. This is true even when the new member comes from another Orthodox parish, or a Christian communion outside the Orthodox Church, or is baptized as an infant or adult. The community is changed to make room for the new member who will build relationships, assume responsibilities, and even need to find a place to stand and sit in the worship.
To be deliberate about our parish renewal through this transition, the Church has appointed this Lenten time of fasting and intense prayers. We rediscover our roots with our new members as we read during the weeks of Lent from the Old Testament. We rediscover our innocence as the catechumens ask questions and express delight at the Orthodox perspectives. We regain our fervor as see the community grow and see how God is active in the lives of the catechumens and in our own.
We can not take this process for granted. Not every Lent sees catechumens in every parish. Not every parishioner is even aware that the Church is growing and that God is calling people to Himself. Perhaps at some places and at some times, communities don’t grow simply because the community is on “vacation” or asleep when people come knocking on our doors, or even when they sit in our pews. This is a great tragedy and we will be held accountable for this on Judgment Day. We really need to be deliberate about being ready to witness and care for those whom God is calling. Some prospective members are walking into our Churches unnoticed; others are working and playing with us all day long, waiting for our invitation to share in the life God has prepared for all. If this is too abstract, let me be more concrete: