During the holiday season every year there is a plethora of television specials, books, movies, theater productions, school programs, and season-specific services and sermons in churches around the world, all designed to help us focus on “the reason for the season.” Sometimes it might feel like overkill, but then again, our lives are so flooded with self-centered pursuits (or just self-survival for many) that it often takes ALL CAPS to get our attention and help us focus on others.
That’s what happened to me this morning. I was saying my morning prayers, and I read the following quote in my “Daily Lives, Miracles and Wisdom of the Saints” Orthodox calendar which sits on the reader’s stand in our icon corner:
“There is nothing we can offer to God more precious than good will. But what is good will? To have good will is to experience concern for someone else’s adversities as if they were our own, to give thanks for our neighbor’s prosperity as for our own; to believe that another person’s loss is our own, and also that another’s gain is ours; to love a friend in God, and bear with an enemy out of love, to do to no one what we do not want to suffer ourselves, and to refuse to no one what we rightly want for ourselves; to choose to help a neighbor who is in need not only to the whole extent of our ability, but even beyond our means. What offering is richer, what offering is more substantial than this one? What we are offering to God on the altar of our hearts is the sacrifice of ourselves.”—Saint Gregory the Theologian
In Luke 2:14 the angels tell the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” These words from Saint Gregory truly raise the bar for what it means to have good will towards our fellow man. I’ve just spent a month alone at the beach, writing on a novel. And yes, it is my work. It was not just a vacation. But for one month I had very little interaction with my fellow man. As I returned to Memphis earlier this week, I was immediately presented with many opportunities to do good to others, either through my church’s almsgiving activities, the community’s programs for reaching out, or personally delivering blankets to groups of homeless people who gather on the streets near a shelter that is a five-minute drive from my house.
But what happens after Christmas? If we take Saint Gregory’s words seriously—and we should because suffering and sacrifice are serious issues—offering good will isn’t just something we do once a year. As he says, “What we are offering to God on the altar of our hearts is the sacrifice of ourselves.” I imagine that he wasn’t talking about just at Christmas time, but maybe the season can help us begin to turn—if only a little bit—away from ourselves and begin to focus on others. May God help strengthen our feeble efforts and multiply them in our lives.
Peace on earth, good will to men.