By Father John Parker
With Rick Warren’s visit to Charleston still fresh in the minds of the multitudes that his appearance attracted, Orthodox Christians around the planet have begun, once again, a season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in preparation for the Nativity of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. “Little Lent” or the “Nativity Fast” as it is variously called has been an annual Christian season for over 1500 years, and has been practiced in its present form for the past 900 years. The recent frenzies of “40 days” of this, that, and the other are perhaps well-intended (if not ingeniously marketed) efforts to (re)create a spiritual discipline which has not only been assumed, but has been a part of Christianity from the first days. Forty day cycles and spiritual efforts are no novelty to Orthodox Christians. Rather, they have always been a regular, and needed, spiritual discipline in the life of the Church.
A wise Christian once said, “he who does not know how to fast does not know what it is to feast.” And the practical life of the Church, in her calendar, reflects this verity. Easter, “Pascha” as we call it, is the chief celebration of the Christian year, at which we celebrate Jesus Christ’s holy Resurrection, His “trampling down death by death”. No one knows feasting better than Orthodox Christians on the night of Pascha. In the middle of the night after the celebration of Holy Communion, the tables are set as we feast on the delicious contents of baskets fat with meats, cheeses, cakes, and other delights from around the world. (Since our calendars are sometimes different, come and see this year—we celebrate the Sunday after Western Easter in 2006.)
At least since the early 300s AD, if not certainly before that, Christians have celebrated a season of fasting to prepare for this Feast of Feasts. Increasingly lengthy prayer services, long periods including whole days of strict fasting, and more focused almsgiving and service to the “least of these” are the marks of such a repentant season. By our prayer and fasting, we begin to see ourselves for who we truly are: selfish, angry, short-tempered, self-promoting, judgmental sinners. The spiritual discipline of fasting joined to prayer cleanses the soul. A fourth century monk described it this way, “If a king wanted to take possession of his enemy’s city, he would begin by cutting off the water and the food, so his enemies, dying of hunger, would submit to him. It is the same with the passions of the flesh: if a man goes about fasting and hungry, the enemies of his soul grow weak.”
We also learn, by our reading of the Scriptures and singing of special hymns precisely who God is: the Almighty, all-merciful, all-loving Creator of everyone and everything who welcomes home and forgives all those who turn back to Him from their wicked, sinful ways. The parable of the Prodigal Son comes to life for us, as we return to see ourselves as the “prodigal” and God as the benevolent Father.
For us Orthodox Christians, the preparation for Christmas—the Nativity of our Lord as it is more commonly called—is a mirror of the preparation for Pascha. Hence the name “little Lent”. So on November 15 every year, we begin together to forego meat, dairy, wine (alcohol), and oil, as a common fasting discipline which teaches us slowly, but surely, that our stomachs have begun to govern us. Pride and gluttony, along with self-satisfaction have taken us over. By our voluntary hunger and the rumbling of our stomachs, we begin to see our tempers flare and our sinfulness rear its ugly head. When we see our true selves in this way, we can reconvene our surrender to Christ. By such surrender, we begin anew to see our neighbor with God’s eyes, to serve with God’s hands, to hear with God’s ears. And thus we can also reconvene our plea for Grace. When our stomach rumbles, we make our prayer something like this, “Lord, I thank you that today I have the blessing to choose to be hungry. Help me in my bounty to serve those who are hungry today not by choice of their own…” This is the true meaning of the 40 day fast.
The Nativity Fast, like Great Lent, is not “40 days of individuality” where Johnny chooses to give up beer (which he doesn’t drink anyway) and Suzie gives up chocolate. No, inherent in the Fast is the understanding that no one is saved alone. One can only be saved in community. The Orthodox Church has been living ‘40 days of community’ for nearly two millennia.
During this season, we might even ask the question in contemporary terms, “40 days, what’s the purpose?” The purpose is Communion with God, and love of neighbor, epitomized in holiness—the Christian perfection to which our Lord Himself has called us, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) and “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
God has taught us, through the prophet Isaiah, not only what the true meaning of fasting is, but has revealed Himself to us as the very fulfillment of it:
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard” (Isaiah 58:6ff).
And so, on December 25, we will once again celebrate the Nativity of Jesus Christ, the One who has loosed the chains, who has offered His very self as the Bread of life, and who offers life to those dead in sin. Our fasting, having come to an end, turns into feasting, as the light overcomes the darkness since the True light, Jesus Christ, has come into the world.