Protopresbyter Serafim Gascoigne from the Holy Protection of the Theotokos Orthodox Church, Seattle, Washingtonand Priest Sergei Sveshnikov, rector of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russian church in Mulino, Oregon answer Pravmir’s questions about the Nativity Fast and the Nativity celebration.
Pravmir: The Orthodox Church prepares the faithful for the Nativity of the Lord by the 40-days fasting period. The secular world has its own spirit of Christmas preparation: parties, presents, Christmas markets, early decorated stores… How not to be involved by the secular pre-celebration of Christmas and to keep the fast not only in food, but in spirit as well?
Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov: First of all, I would warn against building too high a partition between the “Christian world” and the “secular world.” In the true sense of the word, there is no such thing as the secular world; there is only one world–that which was created by God and corrupted by sin. Trying to “flee from the world” may be a lofty aspiration indeed, but one that in its purest form would require us to abandon our employment, family, relationships, oh, and probably the internet as well. Yet it is unthinkable that the Church would want all of us to become monastic hermits—Christians would simply die out within a generation or two!
Unlike the somber Great Lent, which is a preparation for the Passion Week, the Nativity Fast is full of joy, as we prepare for God Himself to enter this sinful “secular world,” and to dwell among us—not only among the Essenes, the Nazarites, and other desert dwellers—but among us also. Like a pregnant woman who knows what the result of her labors will be and smiles in anticipation, the Church cannot but know what joy awaits us at the end of the Nativity Fast and rejoices in anticipation of God’s love and abundant mercy. Christ tells us not to look dismal when we fast, but to anoint our heads and wash our faces (Matt. 6:16-17), that is to say, to act in normal ways expected of us in our society.
There is nothing inherently sinful in parties or presents. That is not to say that gluttony or addiction to shopping are not sinful diseases–that they are in all seasons—Advent and any other; and if we feel that we should not be doing something during Advent, we probably should not be doing that before or after the fast either. Having said that, I certainly realize that many people experience what is called “peer pressure” as our friends, classmates, or coworkers invite us to their Christmas parties where non-fasting dishes and alcoholic beverages are served on days when we cannot have them.
Thankfully, in America it is very much acceptable to be different. Most people actually understand and respect their friends’ dietary preferences. Sometimes, Orthodox Christians excuse their own desire to break the fast by citing some story from the life of some ascetic who broke his fast in order not to offend the people who offered him food. These Christians usually forget that the said ascetic led a very strict life before the incident, and that he fasted for forty days after tasting of the chicken which was brought to him by some poor people who gave him the last of what they had. Our situation is incomparably different. We have a lot of control over what is served at a party: we can ask the hosts ahead of time to prepare certain fasting dishes, we can bring some dishes to the party, or we can respectfully and discreetly excuse ourselves and not go to the party at all. In most cases, people will understand and respect our choices in the same way that we understand and respect theirs.
– What would you advise those who face the problem of celebrating two Nativities (in a case where one spouse is a non-Orthodox or where one member of a family converted to Orthodoxy and attends a parish which follows the Old Calendar)?
– If our spouse celebrates the Nativity of Christ according to the Gregorian calendar (I shall not address the “New Julian” conundrum here), we should show to them our utmost love and respect and celebrate with them. Of course, we do so without breaking our fast; but a true celebration can be equally joyful even without our eating a piece of duck or ham. And if we show acceptance of their customs, traditions, and beliefs, our loved ones will be likely to accept ours. In any case, what we must avoid is any division in the family. “No house divided against itself will stand” (Matt. 12:25), and if we want to have a strong family, we must learn to respect each other, including each other’s choices in celebrating the Nativity.
– How to deal with the problem of two dates of celebrating of the Nativity in the Orthodox Church, if one follows one calendar but attends the nearest parish who follows another?
– This is a very difficult and painful issue. I do not know whether Christ was born on December 25, January 7, or some other day, but I think that it is very important that the Church is united. Adopting a new calendar not recognized by the fullness of the Orthodox Church has clearly caused divisions and strife within the Church. As members in the Body of Christ, we must see divisions and separations as one of the greatest evils that can be endured only in cases of great necessity. And I do not feel that the calendar issue presents such a necessity. For me, this statement goes both ways: those who instigated the calendar reform had no right to do that, unless the entire Church was in agreement; but in the same way, we have no right to separate ourselves from our brothers and sisters in Christ over the calendar issue.
Liturgically, however, a person cannot celebrate two Nativities in one year any more than he can celebrate two Liturgies in one day. We can certainly be present at both services (although, I would strongly advise against that), but we can fully participate only in one. In other words, if we choose to attend a new-calendar parish, we should celebrate Church feasts and fasts according to the customs of our chosen parish. If we worship with them in the same church, commune with them from the same Cup, ask them to baptize our children, but think that their Nativity is not the “correct” one because the “correct” one is two weeks later, then we are driving a wedge between ourselves and the Church and are guilty of schism. We can choose to make matters very complicated when clergy of different jurisdictions concelebrate together, but for most lay people, the principle of Orthodox unity should be primary to any astronomical, historical, cultural, or any other arguments presented by proponents and opponents of the New Calendar.
Fr. Seraphim’s answer to the above mentioned questions:
I believe the ‘doors of Heaven’ are wide open during this season of preparation for the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This time of year carries with it, special blessings, especially if we are obedient to the Holy Tradition of the Church. Through physical and spiritual fasting, we make ourselves receptive to the grace of the Holy Spirit, so that when we come to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord, it will be for us, not simply a commemoration but a spiritual event in which we step out of time and into the Eternal Now. We too shall be with shepherds in Bethlehem.
Fasting is not difficult if we live in an Orthodox family. In fact the external act of fasting from animal products is not difficult, for this is part of our daily liturgical life. On a spiritual level it is more challenging, especially with the demands that are made on us at this time of the year. I am referring to our ‘obligation’ to join in office parties or socialize with non-Orthodox friends. For those of us whose immediate family is not Orthodox, this poses a challenge on the physical level as well.
When I worked for a corporation, I was expected to attend team pizza-parties, which always took place on a Friday. At these parties I fasted, but nevertheless joined in the fun with my colleagues. After awhile, out of respect to me as an Orthodox priest, I was subsequently not required to attend these functions. The same consideration applied to Muslims, vegan vegetarians and anybody who had something ‘religious’ going for them.
The challenge we as Orthodox Christians face, is how do we keep this time of the year holy and pure? Over the years, Christmas has become more and more, a secular celebration. It is the time to get together with family and friends, not necessarily to celebrate Christ’s birth according to the civil calendar, but to celebrate being together. In order not to alienate ourselves from others but at the same time to observe the fast, I recommend attending functions with family and colleagues, but keeping the physical fast. If I was a diabetic or had a heart condition I would most likely be on a diet. My loved ones would not expect me to kill my body by breaking my diet. No one would expect me to eat turkey if I was a practicing vegan. There is always a need to share our love with others, but we do not necessarily have to compromise our faith. I am reminded at this time of the late Countess Orlova, a courtier who was also a secret nun. At the end of a day of banquets and receptions, she would retire to her room and remove her silk dress and fine jewelry, putting on her monastic clothes and spending the night in prayer. There is also the story of a desert father who never refused hospitality that was offered to him. However when he returned to his cell, he would fast extra days, according to the amount he had eaten and drunk. His spiritual disciple complained to a generous host that, the old man would kill himself with fasting and begged the host not to give him too much.
This is a wonderful time of year to make the season of peace and goodwill a truly Orthodox experience, for ourselves and for those around us.