We have begun the joyous and holy Nativity Fast. The fast begins on November 28, or forty days before the Nativity in the flesh of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and ends on the feast itself or January 7, according to the secular calendar. Just as the Jews wandered in the wilderness for forty years before entering the Promised Land, the Holy Church leads us for forty days into the wilderness of the Fast before entering into God’s promise revealed on the Nativity. For the Jews, it was in order to shake off the bonds of slavery—physical, mental, and spiritual. An entire generation of people born and raised in Egyptian slavery was to die before those who no longer remembered being slaves and those who were born free were allowed to enter the “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod. 3:8). And so it is with us: we must shake off the bonds of slavery to sins and passions—physical, mental, and spiritual. We must cease being slaves of sin and become friends of Christ by keeping His commandments (John 15:14).
There are several aspects of the fast, all of which are important and connected to each other. The first thing about which many people think are the limitations in the quality and quantity of foods that we eat. The Nativity Fast is not as strict as some other fasts—fish is allowed on all Saturdays and Sundays, except the last weekend before Nativity (January 2-3), and on several Church Feasts: The Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple (December 4) and its apodosis (December 8), the feasts of the Kursk-Root Icon of the Theotokos (December 10), Sabbas the Sanctified (December 18), the Conception of the Theotokos (December 22), and Saints Herman of Alaska and Martyr Peter the Aleut (December 25).
Why do we fast from foods?—Because we are wholesome beings. Christ did not come to save our souls only, but all of us: soul, body, mind, spirit, will—and as many “parts” as one would wish to count. He took our entire human being upon Himself, all of our human nature, and “made a man’s whole body well” (John 7:23). In the God-given order, our spirit is to pull us to God, our soul is to find its inspiration in the direction of the spirit, and our body is to be nourished in doing the will of the Father (John 4:34; cf. Matt. 4:4). Sin perverts this divine order, and our flesh feeds on this world and becomes a slave to food, our soul finds inspiration in the things of the flesh, and our spirit no longer hungers for God but finds its direction in the passions of the soul.
The Holy Church gives to us times of fasting in order to help heal and restore our corrupted nature. An athlete does not win a prize before patiently exercising discipline and “self-control in all things” (1 Cor. 9:25). And if we are to receive an “imperishable wreath” (ibid.), we must do the same and begin by taking control of that in us which is most material, restoring the divinely-ordained order and reaching to that which is the most spiritual. If we cannot control our bellies, how can we hope to control our tongues and thoughts, how can we hope to even begin to fight our passions? We must learn to discipline our bodies, because without this foundation we cannot begin to build the walls of the temple of our soul. And just as the purpose of a foundation is not in itself, but in that which can be built upon it, the purpose of taking control of our flesh is in freeing the soul from being controlled by it.
This year, the beginning of our Nativity Fast came on the day after Thanksgiving. I know that for some, the main dish was not a turkey or a pumpkin pie, but other people, whom they tore apart and devoured by gossip, judging, evil talk, and back-stabbing. What good is their fast if they continue to feast on humans? What good is their abstinence from meat if their tongue flings about like a butcher’s cleaver?
The King and Prophet David says, “Keep your tongue from evil” (Ps. 34:13), and “I will bless the Lord at all times, His praise shall continually be in my mouth” (1, 2). If we want our fast to be more than a weight-loss program, we must follow the regiment prescribed by the Prophet. We should learn to control our tongue and our thoughts by directing both to communion with God. At all times but especially during fasts, we must be “sober and watchful,” because our “adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). But in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, we have a sure protection from the attacks of the devil.
Run to Christ in prayer, but be watchful that your prayer does not become like “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). Pay close attention to the words of prayers; make them not just someone’s words repeated by you, but truly your own words that come from your whole heart, your whole soul, and your whole mind (cf. Matt. 22:37).
Run to Christ in reading the Gospels, but be watchful that it does not become a chore whose meaning is forgotten the minute that the book is closed. Ask the Most Holy Theotokos to help you keep all the things that you read in the Gospels and to ponder them in your heart (cf. Luke 2:19, 51) as you go about your day, glorifying God for his abundant mercy to us.
Run to Christ in reading the lives of His saints, but make sure that you own life follows in the footsteps of the holy men and women that came before you. We do not study the lives of the saints for their literary value or as some pastime before we go to bed. They are a living example of what it means to be a Christian, and to love God, and to love one another.
Most importantly, run to Christ in the Communion of His Body and Blood, but do so in humility and repentance, lest with the morsel Satan enters into you, as he did into Judas (John 13:27).
May the all-merciful God bless this time of our fasting. May He accept our small human efforts and by His divine grace “which always heals that which is infirm and supplies what is lacking,” receive our prayers and guide our lives toward His commandments. May He “sanctify our souls, make chaste our bodies, correct our thoughts, and purify our intentions” that together with “the assemblies of angels and the choirs or martyrs” we may always glorify the Holy Trinity.
From the Prayer at the Nativity of Christ for Spiritual Children.