The Orthodox guide to surviving Advent

George Clooney is set to star in a special charity episode of Downton Abbey (CNS)

Christmas isn’t the end of the world, even if it sometimes feels (and looks) like it. There are the fist fights, the weeping fits, the blackouts, the arrests, the heart attacks, the betrayals, the abandoned puppies. For many, however, it is none of those things. For many, Christmas is a season of loneliness, of hopeless memories and of exclusion. Never are we more in need of a Saviour; yet never, it sometimes seems, are we further from Him.

It should be easy to reject the secular Christmas, and yet each year we succumb. This year the festive season will be much as it was last. The nation will slump in front of Strictly Come Dancing and Downton Abbey. Let’s leave the cheesy and sleazy Strictly out of this, and concentrate, instead, on Downton – or at least on the one-off Christmas charity special starring George Clooney in a cameo role. It goes out not on Christmas Day but on December 19, so all those millions of dutiful mums should have recovered from the excitement in time to cook the turkey and trimmings on Christmas Day and do the washing up after dinner.

Whether or not Clooney’s appearance will do him any long-term good is another matter. He is said to have his eyes on the White House.
Some have suggested that his marriage to the British-Lebanese human rights lawyer Amal Ramzi will greatly improve his chances if he were to stand for presidency in 2016. Mrs Clooney, they are saying, is the perfect First Lady-in-Waiting. But is she? Not all Americans are fond of human rights, and many will no doubt be wondering why he couldn’t have married an all-American girl, someone like his aunt, Rosemary Clooney, or Michelle Obama. Many others, meanwhile, will wonder why they should make common cause with a woman who has defended Julian Assange.

But this is in not the time for flippancy, or even for political speculation. We have a job of work to do. It is Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas; that is, for the coming of our Lord. It is only recently that I have begun to look upon Advent as a mini-Lent, a time of self-denial. The Benedictine monks who taught me religion in the golden days before Vatican II said nothing about it, or nothing that I remember.

One is not required to fast during Advent, and anyway fasting as defined by the Church is pretty lenient; one full meal (lobster and fillet steak with chips, perhaps: surf and turf) and two snacks. With the Orthodox, it is complete different, and really rather terrifying, and makes the Catholic fast seems like gluttony. On most days in Advent the Orthodox avoid all meat, cheese, eggs, fish and wine. What an example they are to us! In fact, I am not suggesting that we adopt their fasting rules – which are a bit primitive in my view and perhaps dangerous – but I am suggesting that there are things we might learn from the seriousness and beauty of Orthodoxy.

Perhaps Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia has something to teach us this Advent. Earlier in the month he urged the Russian people to be on their guard against the corrupting influence of the West. “Those who see themselves as the winners of the Cold War tell all other countries that the path of development determined by them is right and, further still, the only possible one for mankind,” Patriarch Kirill said at the 18th session of the World Russian People’s Council on November 11.

St John Paul II was of exactly the same mind. It is uncanny. During his visit to Mexico in the summer of 1990, he declared that the overthrow of Communism had been seen “as the triumph of the liberal capitalist system. Certain interest groups want to … present the system that they consider the winner as the only path for our world.” The saintly pope considered it to be no such thing. He was a Catholic, remember, not a capitalist.

Good luck to those, meanwhile, who labour in the vineyard of ecumenism, but the only form of ecumenism that truly excites me is the one that reaches out to Orthodoxy. In common with many Catholics brought up with the old Mass, I love Russian Orthodox Liturgy, though I have experienced it only once –at the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God and All Saints, a few blocks north of the Oratory
in Knightsbridge.

But the Orthodox can be – how to put it? – tricky, or scratchy, and some seem to harbour anti-Catholic prejudices. Shortly after attending the liturgy, I spoke on the telephone to one of the priests at the cathedral, and found to my horror that he was talking to me in a patient and rather patronising way, as though I were a Protestant fundamentalist with learning difficulties. He obviously considered me not as
an equal but as a primitive outsider. The best he could say for me, I felt, was that I was invincibly ignorant. In other words, the priest was talking to me just as I, and other Catholics, have been speaking to our separated brethren for many years. Serves me right.

Christmas Day itself is always a problem, at least for those who celebrate the feast with friends or family members who do not, as a rule, go to Mass. Where to go to fulfil your obligation? The last time I felt really happy about Mass on Christmas Day was a dozen or so years ago when Fr Armand de Malleray, now head of the FSSP in England, said a Traditional Latin Mass at St Bede’s, Clapham Park, at 8am. It was holy, quick and beautiful, as one would expect, elaborate and simple at the same time. The non-churchgoer who accompanied us was not at all fazed, and indeed seemed to think the ceremony appropriate.

There is quite a wide choice if you are in London. There are Midnight Masses everywhere, and more Vigil Masses than ever. OK, so far so good, but what about the sermon? Perhaps I am being hyper-critical but sermons at Christmas seldom inspire me, and they can be positively shy-making when addressed to the children in the congregation. “And where was the Baby Jesus born?” It would be amusing, or at least diverting, if a child were to answer: “In Israeli-occupied Palestine”.

It’s not the fault of the poor priest, of course. If you don’t want to hear a sermon for children, you should take care not go to a children’s Mass, however innocent it may sound or however convenient the time. All the same, I cringe and snarl inwardly on such occasions. The only remedy – though I can’t say it works like magic – is to start saying the Russian Jesus Prayer over and over: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

But let’s be positive. Christmas will be over soon. Happy Holidays.