In the Orthodox tradition the celebration of the Nativity of Christ is preceded by fasting
By Augustine Sokolovski, Doctor of Theology, priest
The Russian Church lives by the Julian calendar, so Christmas is celebrated in it on 7 January and the Nativity Fast begins on 28 November. Thus, December is a month of fasting.
On 27 November, the day before the beginning of the Nativity Fast, the Church commemorates several remarkable saints: among them are Emperor Justinian (+565), his wife Theodora (+548), St Gregory Palamas (+1359) and the Apostle Philip. So in Russian tradition this Fast is also known as Philip’s Fast. However, this name of the fast was widespread before the Russian Revolution of 1917 and today it has almost fallen out of use.
Practising Orthodox Christians usually observe the Nativity Fast. But those who do not keep it should remember that in December, according to a centuries-old tradition, the Orthodox Church, wandering in history, has the Nativity Fast.
It lasts exactly forty days. Forty is a Biblical number. Among other things, it is a Symbol of the deadening, irresistible, abolishing time, which in Christ Jesus the Church and the world hasten to overcome. Paraphrasing the words of the Apocalypse: ‘And the Angel… lifted up his hand to heaven and sware by Him that liveth for ever and ever… that there should be time no longer’ (Rev. 10:5–6). Interestingly, this English translation of the Revelation is most likely inaccurate. In the original the Angel announces that the world’s days are numbered.
The forty-day period of fasting precedes the celebration of Christmas. It should be understood that the ancient tradition of preparing for the Birth of the incarnate God is still preserved not only in Orthodoxy, but also in Catholicism, Protestantism, and even, paradoxically, in agnostic secular society. However, in Western Christianity the period of Advent has a more festive character. In the Orthodox East the period preceding Christmas is devoted to ascetic labours and fasting, reminding us of silence and the preparation for the Nativity.
Meanwhile, using the word ‘fasting’ in relation to the season before Christmas, you should not mislead yourselves and your neighbours, to say nothing of condemning those who do not fast. The Apostle Paul in his Epistles directly says that the Lord is indifferent to the question of ‘eating’ or ‘not eating’ (cf. Rom. 14:6). For all righteousness is in keeping God’s commandments. Initially the Biblical fasting meant the total abstention from food and drink all day long till sunset. Keeping in mind this basic rule of fasting warns any faster against pride.
In the Gospel the Lord very often addresses His contemporaries. He speaks about keeping the commandments and warns people about important things. In chapter 11 of the Gospel of Luke He speaks of keeping the little things. ‘Woe unto you, Pharisees! For ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs and pass over judgment and the love of God’ (Lk. 11:42).
By the Gospel of Christ and the apostolic preaching Christians were freed from the Law, which the people of the Old Testament were obliged to observe. Since the time of the Apostolic Council, described in the Acts (Acts 15:1–35), Christians have been liberated from observing legal prescriptions. Circumcision, complete rest on the Sabbath and many other duties are no longer required. ‘A man is not justified by the works of the law’, the Apostle Paul writes (Gal. 2:16). In his Epistles he warns people that God does not bless Christians to observe the Law.
So, we do not give tithes from crops and other offerings in a specific visible way. However, the very image of the Lord’s words is important, topical, and relevant. This applies primarily to where our spiritual life is performed: the life-giving Church sacraments, specifically the sacrament of confession.
At confession we tend to list our sins. Instead of mentioning one single specific grave sin before God so He can forgive it, we simply list many petty sins or just mistakes.
So, a husband or a wife who has cheated on his or her spouse says this at confession, but then immediately continues and repents of inattentiveness during prayer in the evening. This creates a mess of venial sins in which the true sin is invisible. Other examples: a person stole something and just ‘broke the fast’ or beat someone and ‘missed the Vigil’.
Thus, it may seem that the ‘danger’ for someone who repents does not come from the sin he committed, but from the priest. Enumerations become distractions. In fact, the priest by virtue of the grace of his ordination hears everything. However, such ‘dissolved confession’ is not heard by God.
The God of the Bible is not the God of philosophers and theologians. He has hearing, ears, eyes, hands and feet. He gets angry and hates sin. ‘Then the Lord awaked as one out of sleep, and like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine’, the Psalms say (Ps. 77:65). The God of the Bible appears in the garb of human words.
Tombs that lie hidden, tithes of ‘confessional idle talk’, and neglect of the Last Judgement and the love of God. These are simple images that God uses in His speech, a constant and place of gravity that are necessary in Christ.
The Gospel was written almost 2,000 years ago. Many of the images present in the Gospel text are now beyond our direct comprehension. Sadly, for us they do not match the reality and the world we live in.
However, the same Gospel text contains images that on careful consideration match our reality more than ever. They are of great spiritual benefit, if approached responsibly.
Moscow, Paris, Prague, Berlin and London – these great cities are steeped in history. Ancient history is that of people. And the history of people is that of death and cemeteries.
Many cemeteries that existed earlier were destroyed, whether consciously or simply wiped off the face of the earth by time, oblivion and the weakness of human memory.
It is no coincidence that one of the most important petitions of the Orthodox Church on the Saturdays of the commemoration of the dead is a prayer for those whom there is no one to remember and no one to pray for. Memory is the opposition of oblivion; oblivion is memory’s younger sister.
Houses stand on the site of former cemeteries; people live and we walk over them. In chapter 11 of the Gospel of Luke the Lord, denouncing the scribes and the Pharisees, says: ‘Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are as graves which appear not, and the men that walk over them are not aware of them’ (Lk. 11:44). These are cemeteries wiped off the face of the earth and graves forgotten by people.
This image was given by the Lord to help us in everyday life as we daily wander through the streets of ancient and new cities. Earth conceals former cemeteries, the earth to which we must return; it is our cradle and sister.
The Lord’s words were meant to become through the Holy Spirit a reminder, the question of whether we, the living, are becoming like the tombs that we involuntarily and imperceptibly trample underfoot, and in which, albeit in different places, we will find ourselves sooner or later.
The Nativity Fast is a time that brings us closer to the Coming of the Lord. The God of the Bible is not a proud God. He appeared in our history once and for all to deliver us from spiritual ‘tombs’.
In the Creed the Church as the community of the faithful professes its faith in the One God and Maker of Heaven and earth. By Heaven the Church Fathers meant the angelic powers, whose memory the Orthodox Church honours every Monday and especially on 21 November, exactly a week before the beginning of the Nativity Fast.
According to the Gospel of Luke, the appearance of angels accompanied the Birth of Christ. They sang the song that became a worldwide hymn of joy: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men’ (Lk. 2:14). The Gospel of Matthew says that the Birth of Jesus was preceded by the appearance of a star (Mt. 2:6). Some Church Fathers believed that this star was not an astronomical phenomenon, but the appearance of an Angel.
‘Earth’ in the Creed means our visible world – the place of wandering and salvation of man. A world in which, to the amazement of the angels, God Himself lived among us in the Person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, there is no salvation outside the world.
In the Greek original the word ‘Maker’ from the Creed literally means an artist and a poet. Created in the image of God, man is called to cultivate in himself the likeness of God, to be a poet, a creator and an artist like his Creator.
Everyone is called and supposed to create a work of art. And this work of art is our human life, which is supposed to be beautiful and unique, spiritual and in everything similar to the most beautiful of the sons of men – the Lord Jesus Christ and His Angels.
This is what life should be like. A Christian has no right to stand still: he must create daily, in the language of modernity, an improved copy of himself.
The ability to improve yourself by the power of God is one of the dimensions of God’s image, in which according to the Scriptures the Lord created man.
Angelic nature has no ability to be creative. For the Angels are the ‘bureaucrats’ of God. They do His will. Or they oppose it, as demonic forces do. The angels are unable to fall away from God, just as the demons cannot repent and return to the Creator. For repentance is creativity. The bodiless powers have no creative ability.
Unless this happens, the path of perdition is very close. ‘I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of My mouth’ (Rev. 3:15–16). Thus, the curse of the Biblical word can be fulfilled. May the Lord of the Heavenly Hosts, the Lord of Sabaoth, keep us from this.
The Nativity Fast is the time of preparation for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, for the festivity, for the triumph of the spirit, the soul and the body. The image of a supper, a wedding feast and a festivity is very dear to the Lord. He speaks of it in His parables more than once. So, in chapter 14 of the Gospel of Luke (Lk.14:16–24) the Saviour speaks about a man who made a great supper.
When the time came – that is, the Supper time – he commanded his servant to call those who had been invited. But ‘they all with one consent began to make excuse’ (14:18). ‘I bought land, I bought oxen, I’ve got married…’ These are simple, human, real and undoubtedly pardonable excuses.
But, learning about this, the master of the house got angry and said to his servant: ‘Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind’ (21). ‘It is done as thou hast commanded, and yet there is room’ (22). Then the master said to the servant: ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. For I say unto you, That none of those men which were bidden shall taste of my supper’ (23–24).
His anger came in response to real, fully justified excuses of those who couldn’t come. Then the Lord sovereignly invited those who had previously had nothing to do with the supper. His predestination determined ‘to compel to come in.’
The words, ‘for I say unto you’ – that is, in fact, ‘Amen’ – in response to His own words, in the Gospel and in the Scriptures in general, are typical exclusively to the Lord Jesus, and speak of the Lord’s Divinity. They also demonstrate the eschatological character of this parable. Eschatology is what theology calls the word about the end times.
There is another image of supper in the Scriptures – at the end of the Apocalypse: ‘An angel standing in the sun… cried with a loud voice, saying to all the fowls that fly in the midst of heaven, Come and gather yourselves together unto the supper of the great God; That ye may eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of mighty men, and the flesh of horses, and of them that sit on them, and the flesh of all men, both free and bond, both small and great’ (Rev. 19:17–18). It is the Supper to which the Lord calls the fowls of the air…
‘The poor, the maimed, the halt and the blind’ are all of us, or, rather, the entire Church as the community of the faithful and the assembly of spiritual and moral cripples, sanctified by God for Himself from all peoples. Those who had not been called became guests at the Gospel Supper. Those called, who had previously seemed to be chosen – the mighty of this world – were rejected by the Biblical word and, at the same time, became guests, or, rather, participants in a terrible apocalyptic supper.
The combination of these two images of the supper, from the Gospel and from the Apocalypse, is extremely important in our evil time. It is so important at this moment of anticipation of the New Year and Christmas. Today we live in a time that is somewhat reminiscent of an invitation – an invitation by the powers that be who knows where. We can hear it from all directions. May it not drown the Voice of the Lord, Who calls His Church and His world to the true Supper, which is, above all, His Life – the life of God. From the Gospel pages God gives us a new, the New Testament definition of Himself as the Future of every human being.
‘According as His Divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the Divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust’, the Apostle Peter writes (2 Pet. 1:3–4). The approach to the Holy of Holies of the Divine life here on earth in the Eucharist must become the realisation of an unconditional determination to participate in God’s Supper – the only way to avoid the supper of judgement that begins here and now from the Divine words of the Apocalypse.