Source: The Grapevine: A Newsletter of St. Lawrence Orthodox Church, November 12, 2010
Nativity Fast Begins Monday, November 15 in those churches which observe the Revised Julian calendar.
Make plans now to enter in, increase our spiritual discipline, set goals, see to our earthly responsibilities without total spiritual distraction, and prepare for a joyous celebration.
Make ready, O Bethlehem: let the manger be prepared, let the cave show its welcome. The truth has come, the shadow has passed away. (Sticheron at the Royal Hours)
Like Pascha, the feast of the Nativity is preceded by a 40-day fast, less strict than Great Lent, to refresh our faith in the saving Incarnation of Christ. We journey towards Christ in anticipation of His birth, His arrival. When we give ourselves to a fast with any degree of consistency it becomes a journey of movement and growth. The old is left behind, newness is perceived and embraced, and we grow in our understanding and experience. Even if our journey ends at the same place it began, that familiar place is transformed and made new by the experience of journeying towards it. We have kept the Nativity fast before; but not this one, this one is new.
When we journey through a fasting period, we pack light. Meals are lessened in order that lingering dissatisfaction might remind us of our real need for spiritual food. The fast is an ascetical time. We eat less and more simply, we avoid excessive business, activity, and entertainment, and attend services more often that we might be able to calm down inside and focus on the approaching mystery. These acts of self-mastery strip away our typical indulgences and nurture the seeds of virtue. In doing so, we take up the essential task of our own purification, by Godís grace, that we might approach Him on Christmas as did the Magi and the shepherds in Bethlehem: with wonder and amazement at His love for us.
From Adam and Eve to you and me, all of humanity is renewed and enlivened in the Incarnation of Christ, who appeared on earth to save us. Fallen flesh, assumed by the Son of God, is made fully alive for all of us. We will never fully comprehend the ineffable mystery of the Incarnation, yet we make every effort to enter into it as fully as possible, sacrificing ourselves for the greater prize of partaking in the divine. For by His grace, coupled with our effort, we contemplate in our mind and heart how this mystery is our own mystery, how His life is our own life, and how Christmas Day is, indeed, our own salvation. In keeping the spirit of the fast to the best of our ability, we journey toward this realization. And the journey itself magnifies the feast to a degree we cannot experience by simply showing up for the feastday alone. For most of us, we are anxious to get to the feast and hope the days of the fast will pass by quickly. Yet once we genuinely enter into a fast and experience its magnification of the feast, we may even start looking forward to the fasts themselves. If we push ourselves, even just lightly, but consistently, our efforts are transformed into spiritual anticipation which thunders in fulfillment when the feast arrives.
Along with keeping the fast, avoiding unnecessary distractions, and making it to a few more services than usual, there are other very practical things that draw us into a fast and feast. Try reading a spiritually centered book in the next 40 days. Fr. Thomas Hopkoís The Winter Pascha is a favorite. Or perhaps read through the prophecies and Gospels where the coming of the Messiah and the birth of Christ are mentioned. Look for opportunities to give alms, by which we participate in Godís charity of sending His Son. Find time alone to pray and to ponder the meaning of the feast and the importance of the Son of God taking on human flesh.
In making these efforts, we heighten our general awareness of spiritual things. Our sense of Christian duty is refreshed and becomes lighter on our hearts. We begin to see that the fasting period we are in is not simply symbolic but is the very focal point of all reality in this present moment. The leaves fall from the trees for they are preparing to be reborn. The days are cold in anticipation of the warmth of God. The angels (as well as demons) prepare to enter into (or resist) the celebration. The saints urge us on and compel us forward in the struggle. We are spiritual athletes and, for the next 40 days, Nativity is the finish line to which we run.