The Indian-owned shopping malls in this Kenyan city are ablaze with holiday lights. In the big supermarkets there’s an extra aisle of cheap Chinese toys. There are even artificial Christmas trees in multiple sizes, and strings of coloured lights for sale. Local advertising on my Fb page ensures that I am daily assaulted by invitations to drink and meet the ladies at holiday-themed excuses to party and get drunk at the local clubs positioning themselves as dispensers of holiday cheer. I read people’s descriptions back home of going to this office Christmas party and that Christmas soiree at the neighbors, Online newspapers carry stories about whose Christmas light display are a must see, and whose are just tacky. And then retail stores have been bribing people since Halloween to come and leave their money in their cash registers. And when a huge storm dumps more than a foot of snow across my North Carolina and Virginia homelands, children get off from school, but businesses grumble because nobody is out spending money, and that is what this season is all about, after all. Religious people gather in their churches on Sunday and start singing Christmas carols and light a candle in the Advent Wreath. Churches without hymns and carols do their normal rock concert worship extravaganza and wont be bothered by marking seasons and days and will march on with the sermon series on ten steps to a successful life, which is what people seem to want to hear about anyway. At home, mothers are busy baking Christmas cookies for the upcoming and highly anticipated Christmas cookie exchange, ensuring that there’s enough for the family and enough to distribute to the neighbours. And fathers are busy eating, and with the help of Christmas parties, Christmas drinks, Christmas desserts, Christmas candy and Christmas cookies, well on the way to putting on their traditional 10 pounds of Christmas joy.
Whatever Christmas has been in past centuries, this is what Christmas is today. So much celebration, so many excuses to eat and drink to excess. So many lights.
But Christmas isn’t about lights and celebrations. Christmas, the real Christmas - or as we Orthodox call it - Nativity - is really about the darkness. For most of Christian history, the 40 days before the Nativity of Christ was a time of fasting and spiritual preparation. A mere vestige of this remains in the Western Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches, and observance has been minimised to a prayer and a candle with a carol on Sunday morning at church, if that. Fasting and repentance? Nah. We Orthodox still do things the original way, still keep a vegan fast (which causes issues when we have obligations in the part of our society that thinks eating, drinking and being merry is how the holidays should be marked). We also schedule even more seeker-unfriendly services than usual. Moreover we are told that fasting from certain foods is useless unless we are also fasting from sin, which introduces an element of repentance into the picture, which rests rather awkwardly alongside the so-called spirit of Christmas, or the other more politically correct wishes for a happy holiday.
We fast in preparation for Christmas because of the reason that made Christmas necessary - our brokenness. And the brokenness we inflict on each other. Individually. In our families. In our communities. In our nation. Across the globe.
I can’t escape the brokenness where I live. I go to bed alone. I wake up alone. I wash my dishes alone. Enjoy a cup of tea alone. Because my brokenness, and the brokenness of my wife of 32 years made it impossible for us carry on together. I also walk by brokenness every day. The women selling their bodies so they can feed their children in the squalid shack where they live. The boys who sleep rough on the streets and hustle for a few shillings and sniff glue til they can’t see straight. Police who take bribes and refuse to enforce the laws. And the next thing one hears is that a coach’s steering or brakes failed and the driver lost control and the bus careened down an embankment and 56 people are dead. Too many clergy in all denominations are scamming their own flock or unsuspecting foreigners for money because, despite what they preach or say, they actually believe that money is what is all about.
This is not too much changed from the world of Herod the Great during those years when BC turned to AD. The powerful and the rich had everything, and most everyone else had next to nothing. Rulers enforced their will with cruel, often petty brutality. Corruption simply awaited an opportunity. There were just as many hypocrites then as now. And just like today, everybody died. It’s just, except for home remedies, there were no effective medicines. No surgeries to help backs that hurt, knees that didn’t work, bones that didn’t set, and tumours that appeared from nowhere. Many, sometimes most children died. There was no morphine pump to ease one’s transition into the afterlife. Sure, there were glimpses of joy, of happiness, something of what this human life was meant to be. But glimpses alone. The rest was hard.
The religion of the Hebrews, the covenant with God at Mt. Sinai, the faith of the exiles returning from Babylon, Judaism put into words the darkness, the great need, the overwhelming danger facing humanity. Israel was intended to be God’s light for the world, but was itself caught up in the vortex of darkness, idolatry and brokenness. The world’s solution has ever been to promote one conqueror after another, one ideology after another, each one imposing the jagged edges of its brokenness on an already broken humanity. And each one has been simply the world again in different garb. Instead it would take a Savior. Not one in the mould of the world. But a servant. One who could and would enter into the very heart of the darkness itself,
The darkness is not something out there, not something done to us, not something we find ourselves in. We are the darkness. I am, you are, the darkness comes from us, from my heart, from yours. Our plight is that serious.
That’s why a prophet cannot save us, and will not ever make a difference. That’s why gods of our own making are worthless in the face of the darkness, because they themselves come from the darkness. And only someone whose either blind to history or has lost their memory could seriously entertain the secular hope of progress. The genocides of the 20th century and the ideological reasons used to justify them should have long ago shamed us human beings into repentance. But we are peerless when it comes to denial.
A baby boy was born in the night, in the darkness. His mother had heard that she would give birth to the Savior. Her betrothed had a dream and was told that the baby would save his people from their sin. He was born like every other boy and girl. But somehow he was also Emmanuel, God with us. This was no theophany, no light show from heaven. This was no worship extravaganza, no media scrum with their satellite trucks and gonzo reporters, no marshalling of the rich and powerful lining up to welcome another they assume will be just like them. This was a rescue mission. And first responders do not wait in the fire station for the people needing to be rescued to come to them. No, Jesus was born into our world. He became like us. He came into the darkness, and took it upon Himself.
This is why we fast during Advent. Because we need a Savior. And when we see just what God did, just what it took to begin the process that will end in our salvation, then it’s just possible that there might be better ways to respond than frivolity, decorations, shopping, and eating more cookies.