One of my favorite hymns that we sing in the Orthodox Church during the Nativity Season is all about preparing… preparing to receive Christ in our hearts and to celebrate His birth:
Prepare, O Bethlehem,
For Eden has been opened to all.
Adorn yourself, O Ephratha,
For the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the Virgin in the cave.
Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the fruit divine;
If we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam.
Christ is coming to restore the image, which He made in the beginning.
One version says “Make ready, O Bethlehem.” Make ready. Make what ready? I guess the main thing is to make our hearts ready. To be at peace with one another. To fast (if that’s your tradition) and feed and clothe the poor and hungry. To spend more time with family and doing things that bring joy to our hearts and to others.
We don’t all make ready in the same way. Some people focus more on the spiritual activities I mentioned above. But others make their homes ready with beautiful decorations—inside and out—to remind themselves and others that something special is happening. Bright lights and colorful, shiny balls and fragrant green trees inside, or even in our yards. We are making ready as we “adorn ourselves,” as the hymn says.
Some folks get upset when people—and especially stores—start decorating for Christmas before Thanksgiving. I don’t know why… in the Orthodox Church we begin the Nativity Fast—and thus our season of preparation—on November 15. Having the American (not church) celebration of Thanksgiving during this season just heightens the spirit of anticipation and joy for me. It’s not like the two holidays are competing for our attention.
I guess the main culture clash between the Orthodox Christian tradition and other Christmas traditions is that our church encourages fasting from November 15 to December 25—with many days of no meat, dairy, and even wine and fish. It’s difficult to keep this fast and join with our non-Orthodox neighbors and friends for holiday parties where so many of our favorite foods and beverages are served. Instead of waiting to have these parties during the “12 days of Christmas” between Christmas and Theophany, most people begin celebrating during what is for Orthodox Christians supposed to be a time of preparation. This used to be a struggle for me, but over the years I’ve gotten more comfortable joining in with those early celebrations. Who am I to judge another’s traditions? And I certainly don’t want to appear Scrooge-like, which wouldn’t seem very loving, joyful, or Christian. Yes, I’m Orthodox, but I’m also American.
So I’m having a wonderful time “making ready”—preparing to mail out Christmas cards with our annual Christmas letter; wrapping gifts (finished shopping!); making cookies for a neighborhood cookie swap, taking toys to contribute to the Memphis Interfaith Association’s annual Christmas store (where parents in need can find free gifts for their children); and decorating our home. I hire someone to help put up lights on our beautiful Japanese Cherry Blossom tree in our front yard, and also our lighted angel, since my husband and I are too old to be up on ladders or climbing trees! Our neighborhood’s annual Christmas parade ends right in front of our house, at “Christmas Tree Park,” this coming Sunday. Santa will be there for photo sessions with the kids, and there will be hot chocolate and cookies and golf carts decorated with blinking lights. I know it’s not Christmas yet—but what a fun way to make our hearts ready as we share in this joyful tradition with our neighbors.
Make ready, O Bethlehem!