The Nativity Fast
Sayings of the Fathers
Amma Theodora said that neither asceticism, nor vigils nor any kind of suffering are able to save, only true humility can do that. There was an anchorite who was able to banish the demons; and he asked them, “What makes you go away? Is it fasting?” They replied, “We do not eat or drink.” “Is it vigils?” They replied, “We do not sleep.” “Is it separation from the world?” “We live in the deserts.” “Then what power sends you away?” They said, “Nothing can overcome us, but only humility.” Amma Theodora concluded by saying, “Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?”
Nativity Season: Fasting, Almsgiving and Prayer
On November 15, the Orthodox Church universally embarks on a 40 day fast in preparation for the Birth of Christ. As we approach the Nativity and the increased demands on us spiritually and socially in this holiday season, we need to keep an important concept to keep before us, and that is: We see the light of God according to the measure we have removed the things that blind us to His light. Our goal through fasting, prayer and almsgiving during the Nativity season is to subdue our passions for our fleshly desires in fasting, to fast from our lusts for worldly goods and selfishness through almsgiving, and from our busyness and attachment to our “life by the dayplanner” by increased time with God in prayer. Through these things we can come to the Birth of Christ like the Magi, who spent many days journeying across the desert on a long and hard journey. They voluntarily gave up the daily comforts and security of their homes to lay their gifts at His feet praising God for His great Gift to mankind. We are called to the same journey. Let us not look on the services of the church, the rules of prayer and fasting as inconveniences and increased demands on us, but as preparation, and a foretaste and opportunity to experience what lies ahead for us in His glorious and eternal kingdom.
The Fast of the Nativity is the Church’s prescription to heal our human infirmity. God, by the Holy Spirit has guided the Church to put before us a discipline that will keep us in spiritual health and remembrance of the One who came with “healing on His wings”. We are called to draw near to God, to contemplate His coming in human flesh to assume our human nature and restore it to its former glory by His grace.
The Nativity fast is a journey. ‘Come, O ye faithful, and let us behold where Christ is born. Let us join the Magi, kings from the east, and follow the guiding star’. We are called like so many other Biblical faithful to enter a journey toward God. Abraham, Moses, the Twelve were all called, but the step toward a new life in God was by their own free will, ‘Abram went, as the Lord had told him’ (Gen 12.4).
A journey is not “normal life”, it calls on us to pare down our existence to bare essentials, to “travel light”. We cannot take all of our possessions on a journey. The best planned journey has an element of us being “out of control”. We cannot forsee all the detours, the mechanical breakdowns, the things that distract us along the way either by their beauty or their unfamiliarity. We move to a new place, and though we may return to our former home, we see our old place through different eyes. We are transformed by a journey. This is the spirit to which the fast calls us.
Here the importance of the fast and alms. We are reminded by the Church that ALL creation rejoices at the coming of its Creator to redeem it from corruption. The Incarnation is a COSMIC event, rooted in eternity. The fast and our spiritual disciplines ask us: Do I rejoice? Why? Fasting, alms and prayer remind us we are part of the creation, we stand as the undeserving poor, the lowly shepherds, the alienated Magi, Mary choosing obedience and humility, Joseph bearing the scandal, as Simeon and Anna who lived in anticipation. We are touched in so many places of our lives by the story of the Incarnation of God. We sing: Make ready, O Bethlehem: let the manger be prepared, let the cave show its welcome. The truth has come, the shadow has passed away; born of a Virgin, God has appeared to men, formed as we are and making godlike the garment He has put on. Therefore Adam is renewed with Eve, and they call out: ‘Thy good pleasure has appeared on earth to save our kind’.
Adam and Eve, indeed ALL of humankind, are renewed and made alive in the Incarnation of God in Christ, who ‘appeared on earth to save our kind’. Our bodies that are bound to death, are taken into the body of Christ and through His flesh are made truly alive. It has been said truly that humankind drew its first full breath at the infant Christ’s first cry.
We are called to see that the Nativity is not only about God’s coming down to us, but about our rising up to Him We are called to arise during the fast and walk the journey into Christmas. ‘O blessed Lord who seest all, raise us up far above sin, and establish Thy singers firm and unshaken upon the foundation of the faith’. We abandon those things which bind us, weigh us down and hinder our walk, in order that a focus on God as ‘all in all’ might become ever more real and central to daily life. This is the purpose of fasting. Meals are different, less complex, so that a constant, lingering hunger may remind us of the great need we each have for spiritual food that goes beyond our daily bread. The number of Church services and prayers are increased, that we might know “the bread which comes from heaven”. We focus on alms and give away that which we would normally spend on our selves. Parties may be avoided or reduced, that we might realise that the joy of this world does not fulfill. We voluntarily lay aside anything which holds the slightest power over us that we might bring ourselves to be obedient to God and not our flesh. This is the seed of virtue, to willfully lay aside the passions of the flesh to make clear a path to God.
Come, O ye faithful, inspired by God let us arise and behold the divine condescension from on high that is made manifest to us in Bethlehem. Cleansing our minds, let us offer through our lives virtues instead of myrrh, preparing with faith our entry into the feast of the Nativity, storing up treasure in our souls and crying: Glory in the highest to God in Trinity, whose good pleasure is now revealed to men, that in His love for mankind He may set Adam free from the ancestral curse.
(Sticheron of the Sixth Hour, Christmas Eve)
The Church journeys toward the birth of Christ God by prayer, alms and fasting. It is a journey few if any, keep perfectly, and in fact it is fully intended to bring us to humility and face to face with the death we live within. Unless we grasp the desperate state we live in we cannot come to the Manger and the Virgin with Child bearing joyful gifts from the heart. We cannot understand what was overcome by God in our flesh if we do not understand the corruption of our flesh that needs God’s hand to overcome. God assumed in His flesh all of our diseases, the sickness unto death, and in His flesh overcame it on behalf of all mankind.
Come, let us greatly rejoice in the Lord as we tell of this present mystery. The middle wall of partition has been destroyed; the flaming sword turns back, the cherubim withdraw from the tree of life, and I partake of the delight of Paradise from which I was cast out through disobedience. For the express Image of the Father, the Imprint of His eternity, takes the form of a servant, and without undergoing change He comes forth from a Mother who knew not wedlock. For what He was, He has remained, true God: and what He was not, He has taken upon himself, becoming man through love for mankind. Unto Him let us cry aloud: God born of a Virgin, have mercy upon us!
(Sticheron of Vespers of the Nativity)
The transformation of the cosmos took place in a manger. The transformation of us as human beings takes place when Christ is formed in us as He was being formed in Mary by her humble obedience. Let us fast and pray and give to the poor of pocket and spirit that we may glorify Him with the angelic hosts and humble shepherds when He appears on earth to reunite creation and Creator.
Today the Virgin comes to the cave to give birth in a manner indescribable to the pre-eternal Word. Rejoice, O universe, and glorify with the angels and shepherds, Him who chose to appear as a young Child, the pre-eternal God.
(Kontakion of the Forefeast)
The Nativity Fast focuses on fasting with an emphasis on almsgiving. This anticipates the greatest act of “almsgiving to the undeserving poor” by God who gave His Son for the sake of the salvation of His undeserving creation that rejected Him.
Almsgiving heals the soul, fasting withers sensual desire; prayer purifies the intellect and prepares it for contemplation (of the things of God)….St. Maximos the Confessor (First Century on Love no. 79)
Feeding the hungry is a greater work than raising the dead. St. John Chrysostom
He who gives alms in imitation of God does not discriminate between the wicked and the virtuous, the just and the unjust, when providing for men’s bodily needs. St. Maximos the Confessor (First Century on Love no. 24)
I have need of one hundred grams of bread a day, and God blesses it. He blesses those hundred grams, but not one gram more. So if I take 110 grams, I have stolen 10 grams from the poor. St Cosmas Aitilos, a great martyr and preacher in Asia Minor
No one can say, “I am poor and hence I have no means of giving alms.” For even if you cannot give as the rich gave their gifts into the temple treasury, give two farthings as the poor widow did, and from you God will consider it greater gift than the gifts of the rich. And if you do not have as much as two farthings? You can take pity on the sick and give alms by ministering to them. And if you cannot do event this? You can comfort your brother by your words. “A good word is better than the best of gifts.” Abba Dorotheos
A man who has two coats or two pair of shoes, when his neighbor has none, is a thief.. St. Basil the Great (4th century)
The bread you do not use is the bread of the hungry. The garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of the person who is naked. The shoes you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot. The money you keep locked away is the money of the poor. The acts of charity you do not perform are the injustices you commit. St. Basil the Great
Whereas we receive benefactions from God every minute, we ourselves don’t benefactor even once our neighbor. Saint Basil the Great
“If you help a poor person in the name of the Lord, you are making a gift and at the same time granting a loan. You are making a gift because you have no expectation of being reimbursed by that poor person. You are granting a loan because the Lord will settle the account. It is not much that the Lord receives by means of the poor, but He will pay a great deal on their behalf. ‘They who are kind to the poor lend to the Lord’ [Prov. 19:17]” St. Basil the Great
There is your brother, naked and crying! And you stand confused over choice of floor covering. St. Gregory of Nyssa (4th Century)