Hope, prayer and sacrifice lead to Christmas
By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
PINELLAS PARK -- For the past couple of weeks, 18-year-old Bechara Adwani has stopped going to parties and has given up much of the food he loves, essential sustenance in the form of hamburgers, hot dogs, ice cream and milkshakes.
This self-denial will continue until Christmas Eve, when he and many Orthodox Christians will break their fast for Advent, the period of hope and spiritual reflection to commemorate Christ's birth and to prepare for the Messiah's second coming.
Advent, which marks the beginning of the Christian new year, began Nov. 15 for many Orthodox believers. Some Orthodox, though, including Armenians, follow the old calendar; and for them, Advent began Sunday. For many other Christians, including Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans, the season begins this Sunday. It is a day on which some congregations will light the first of four Advent candles to mark the Sundays that lead up to Christmas.
"The word "advent' itself, it means coming," said the Rev. Bob Wagenseil of Calvary Episcopal Church, 1615 First St., Indian Rocks Beach.
"Advent usually gets lost because everybody is talking about Christmas after Thanksgiving," he said.
"Advent tells us that history is headed in a wonderful direction."
Against the backdrop of Sept. 11 and the subsequent war against terrorism, the season will take on new significance this year, Wagenseil said.
"Advent says that terrorism is not going to have the final say. Death is not going to have the final say. Poverty is not going to have the final say. In other words, none of the things that break down the human family are going to have the final say," he said. "Advent tells us that our god is going to have the final say."
Erik Gauss, who is in his third year of seminary and is serving a one-year internship as vicar at Grace Lutheran Church, 4301 16th St. N, in St. Petersburg, offers a more traditional outlook to the season.
Advent "is a time that we prepare for the coming of Christ," he said.
At Grace Lutheran, special Advent programs will focus "on what Christmas is really about," Gauss said.
"Because it is just before his first coming, we also focus on his second coming. We are focusing on what Christ does for us. He gives us true hope. It is not a hope that is ambiguous because it is certain hope. We also receive the joy and peace that come from that."
Given the nation's troubles, Gaus thinks Advent, with its emphasis on prayer and hope, has come at just the right time.
"I think it is blessed timing," he said.
At 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, on the feast of St. Stephen the New, about two dozen parishioners of St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, at 6447 76th Ave. N, gathered for one of two daily services offered during Advent.
Taking time off from his studies, Adwani, the church's head acolyte, served at the midmorning liturgy. In the days to come, as has been his Advent commitment for about four years, the high school student will leave to work and pray at the Orthodox monastery of the Theotokos in Ocala.
"It's just a spiritual thing that I've done that helps me be a better person," he said this week.
The Rev. Thomas Joseph, who celebrated Wednesday morning's liturgy with the Rev. Cassian Newton, said the 40-day period before Christmas gives Orthodox Christians the opportunity "to empty ourselves of all worldly cares and let the newborn Christ be born again within us."
He added: "That is the same way that Christ prepared for his ministry. He fasted, he prayed, and he emptied himself of everything else and tried to fill himself with God's blessings."
The Orthodox Advent fast is a moderate one.
"Basically, for the first 28 days, the fast is one of abstention. We abstain from eating meat and dairy products," Joseph said.
"The last 12 days of the fast becomes much stricter. You don't eat anything from an animal that contains blood. You can eat shellfish."
The faithful also are encouraged to limit themselves to one meal a day, which usually is consumed after sundown.
"It's a mini form of Lent," Joseph said of the Advent obligation.
Besides fasting, Orthodox Christians also are encouraged to limit entertainment, including television, and to attend to the needs of the sick and the poor, Joseph said.
At St. Nicholas, which was founded in 1976 to serve Arab-American Christians and today has become a thriving multicultural congregation, the choir and teenage members of the parish are visiting hospitals and shut-ins. These kindnesses help parishioners "to set aside concern about themselves and the secular holiday," Joseph said.
"It is really quite the opposite of what we see happening in the secular Christmas world.
"The secular Christmas world tends to make this a preparation period of filling yourself up with worldly goods; while in the church, we are doing the opposite."
At St. Hagop Armenian Church, 7050 90th Ave. N, where parishioners began Advent on Nov. 20, the season of preparation will continue until the evening of Jan. 5. The next day is when Christmas, properly called Theophany or the appearance of God among men, will be observed by followers of the old calendar.
Meanwhile, St. Hagop's will observe the days of Advent in a manner similar to other Orthodox believers, said the church's priest, the Rev. Nersess Jebejian.
As in years past, Jebejian said, he will emphasize "the importance of Christmas not as a commercial feast but as a celebration of Christ's birth."
Like his fellow clergy, Wagenseil, of Calvary Episcopal Church, also will find himself restating the season's spiritual message.
"Christians will do well to revisit and refresh their memories with the Scriptures and with the traditions of the church because it is there that we can hear and experience the promises of God anew. And those promises are wonderful," he said this week.
"To me, they are all summed up in the words of Jesus as they are recorded in the revelation to John. "I will wipe away every tear from my people's eyes. I make all things new.' "
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
North Pinellas desks