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Advent is a time 'to look inward'

Church leaders stress the somber tone of the season, and bemoan the fact that it is often taken up with the pursuit of materialism.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- Advent begins Sunday for many Christians: weeks of penance, prayer and fasting that culminate with the birth of Christ.

Church leaders also recognize a seasonal conflict: spiritual pursuits competing with -- and usually losing out to -- material pleasures.

Advent should be a time of reflection, the Rev. Jerry Straszheim of Lutheran Church of the Cross said.

"It encourages us to look inward. It is perhaps one of the more important times within the church calendar, because it encourages us to look to the first coming of Christ, celebrating God's fulfillment of the promised one," Straszheim said.

"It also encourages us to look within and to prepare for his coming yet again, to be reborn within us. And it encourages us to look ahead to prepare for his ultimate coming in glory. So, we are sort of pulled in three directions, back in history, to the present and into the future. . . . It's sort of a shame that this season gets slighted."

The Rev. Thomas Joseph of St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in Pinellas Park, also bemoans the fading spiritual dimension of the pre-Christmas season, which for Orthodox Christians began more than two weeks ago.

"It is quite difficult to talk to your people in your parish about prayer and fasting during this Advent season, because the outside world is talking to them about buying and selling and eating and drinking and being merry," Joseph said.

"We talk about those things, but we talk about those things after the birth of Christ, after the 25th. But before then, we don't celebrate. We pray and fast."

At Epiphany of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church, the pre-Christmas tone is somber. The priests wear burgundy colored vestments and similarly hued linens are placed on the altar. Neither flowers nor weddings are permitted.

"The church's attention is just the opposite of the public, because the world that surrounds us is full of material things, and maybe properly so for the children," said the Rev. Matthew Berko, pastor of the church with glittering gold domes on Fourth Street and 90th Avenue N.

"The bottom line for Christians is that they must prepare worthily for the feast (Christmas), through penance, good works and fasting."

Members of Epiphany of Our Lord are encouraged to eat meager meals and abstain from meat and dairy products, Berko said. The fast, which began on Nov. 15, the day after St. Phillip's Day, is not mandatory. Additionally, Berko said, Thanksgiving and Sundays are exempt from the regimen.

The single bright event that will take place at Epiphany of Our Lord in the weeks before Christmas will be the dedication of the church's new $70,000 iconostasis, or icon screen. Bishop Robert Moskal, of Cleveland, Ohio, will bless the hand-painted Byzantine representations of Christ, Mary, certain saints and the apostles at a 10 a.m. ceremony on Dec. 9. (The church, though Catholic and in union with Rome, adheres to the Eastern tradition and is not under the jurisdiction of Bishop Robert N. Lynch and the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.)

After their somber 40-day preparation, members of Epiphany of Our Lord will celebrate with a meatless 12-course meal on Christmas Eve.

After Wednesday morning's service, a longtime parishioner, Irene Kuc, spoke happily of the traditional event. She said she will team up with other women in the church to prepare the feast that will include such Ukrainian specialties as boiled wheat with honey and poppy seed, beet soup, fish, pierogies, cabbage rolls, mushroom sauce and homemade bread.

Parishioners at St. Hagop Armenian Church in Pinellas Park began fasting on Nov. 20 and will not celebrate until Jan. 6, the Rev. Nersess Jebejian said. That day is officially called Theophany, or the appearance of God among man.

Even as the secular world rushes headlong into Christmas, Christians should savor the time of waiting for the religious observance and use it as "a great opportunity" to examine their lives, said the Rev. Randy Hehr, dean of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Peter.

"Advent, the church would say, is a preparation for Christmas. What does that mean? Is that about getting out the Christmas lights and putting up the Christmas tree? Of course, it is. People think of those external signs of the season," Hehr said.

"(But) Advent is really intended to be an inward preparation. So it's an opportunity to look at ourselves and to prepare for a great celebration by making our lives more whole and more holy."

Sunday, the first day of Advent, Hehr plans to tell his congregation just that.

"The sermon will give a direction and a suggestion that this is what this period is about and certainly will give ideas of how we might use these four weeks," he said.

"We have external signs that we are changing. Royal blue for the vestments and the altar . . . and we use the Advent wreath, where each candle is lit. But those are the external signs. People can get caught up in the craziness and the demands of the season, but they don't look at what can make their lives more meaningful."

Echoed Straszheim of Lutheran Church of the Cross: "Advent is a pre-Christmas gift, so that we will not miss out on the most wonderful gift of all."

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