For most of my adult life, particularly my married life, I have fought a battle each year starting with the first Sunday of Advent. I have tried mightily to maintain a “Holy Advent” which involved prayer, worship, and contemplation and which excluded shopping for presents, decorating, and cooking.
My concept of what constitutes the holy in a Holy Advent mirrored the definition of the holy as expressed in a book by Rudolph Otto a German Lutheran theologian . Otto defines the holy using the maxim mysterium tremendum et fascinans, or a sense of being in the presence of something vast and awe inspiring.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book Exodus:The Book of Redemption which is a part of his Covenant and Conversation series further refines the definition with the concept of Tzimtzum, or divine “contraction” or “self-effacement”. Sacks takes this concept from the school of mysticism associated with Lurianic Kabbala. Tzimtzum posits that “there is a contradiction” between the infinite and the finite and since God is infinite and everywhere how then can anything else exist. God, and that which is not God, cannot occupy the same space so to engage in the act of creation God had to “contract”. Thus, you cannot love God and mammon. So, mammon’s got to go or at least be held at bay for a time.
These rabbi’s and theologians present a complicated explanation which is heady stuff for us laymen but simply put: in my mind a “holy” advent could only involve prayer, contemplation and worship. Shopping for presents, parties, decorating and baking simply had to be put off until the actual Feast of the Nativity arrived on Christmas Eve. But to have the Christmas celebration in all its elements one has to “prepare” which involves shopping, decorating, and baking. But a recently I have become convinced that there is something to the argument made by Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits who thinks that the word holy refers to God’s involvement with humanity not his transcendence or mystery.
Expectedly every year I have found myself loosing this battle to preserve a commercial free Advent. The world of commerce starts Commericalmas the day after Thanksgiving with the feast day of Black Friday and unremittingly continued to celebrate until the day after Christmas when – poof – preparations for Valentines day started in earnest. No Christmastide, no Epiphany, just on to the next sale.
But my encounter yesterday leads me to the conclusion that both Otto and Berkovitz can be right. I am a big fan of Icons, the type that the Orthodox make in copious quantities and for which there is one for almost every feast day and event in the Christian calendar. As my wife and I were preparing to leave on a shopping trip she asked me if there was something special I would like for Christmas. And at that moment a vision of an icon depicting the nativity popped into my head and, as luck would have it, there was a quaint little shop selling such things located near our original shopping destination.
So, on our way to buy gifts, we visited the small shop here in Columbia called “The Unexpected Joy” which is commonly referred to as the “orthodox shop”. It is run by a very kind and knowledgeable man named John who I believe is the member of an Orthodox order. As we entered the shop John immediately greeted us in recognition as in the past I have been known to purchase great quantities of incense from him and he remembered me. After a little catching up I asked him if he had a “nativity icon” “Of course I do” he responded and he guided me to the one by Rublev pictured above. I had wanted a certain size to match the Trinity Icon of Rublev’s which I already have at home but that size was not available and I settled on a smaller version. And as I was “proceeding to checkout” and as if guided by an invisible hand, my eye caught the sight of an icon of Saint Nicholas in the same size. It took all of two seconds to realize that Nicholas was the perfect companion to the Nativity icon and simply must also be had. So both were purchased.
The important part, however, was what happened next. John began telling me that the shop was celebrating its twenty fifth anniversary. Each year a ‘Blessing” ceremony is held and and a priest comes complete with holy water and incense and blesses the shop for another year. All of the shop keepers in the area, regardless of their denominational persuasion, attend because as John put it they see the shop as radiating a spiritual force throughout the area. John cordially invited Jana and I to come which we very much plan to do.
As we left the shop I felt cleansed, refreshed, and ready to once again face the forces of that “which is other than God” in the knowledge of the mystery that God is in all things and with us in all we do. The irony is that a selfish commercial transaction had opened a window and pushed aside that which is not God for a while allowing us to experience him more fully.
So, even in the midst of Commercalmas we can find sanctification and the way leading to a deeper experience of God in our lives. So from now on I will be viewing Advent differently.
Well, the real Feast of the Nativity will be here soon: may you have a Holy Advent and a Happy Christmas!
Icons: (1) The Nativity by Rublev,, St. Andrei located in the Cathedral of the Annunciation, Moscow, 15th c. (2) Saint Nicholas, N. Lionda, Greek School 20th c.
References: (1) Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy (Oxford University Press, 1958) (2) Jonathan Sacks, Exodus: The Book of Redemption (Maggid Books 2010), 139140; (3) Eliezer Berkovits, Essential Essays on Judaism, ed. David Hazony (Jerusalem Shalem, 2002), 247-314.