Western Christians love to rush into Christmas. (Better called the Nativity, as the Orthodox do – every worship service can be called the Christ-mass.) As soon as the weather turns cold and the Halloween pumpkins have collapsed into dejected mush, out come the chubby Santas and the coloured lights, the tinsel and the ho-ho-ho. St. Nicholas of Myra would not have said ho-ho-ho. He would have said “Repent and be saved!” And St. Nicholas of Myra would have been lean and strong from fasting, and didn’t need magic. He had miracles. He is, in his place before the throne of God, a great saint of healing. The Lord hears his prayers for us still. He is a solemn and wise saint, known for restoring life and health, as well as for his acts of charity.
We should be following his example beginning Monday. Advent – the days of preparation before the Feast of the Nativity (yes, Christmas) – are a season of fasting. That is why we sing “O Come Emmanuel.”
O Come, o come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
We are a lost and lonely people, and until we turn our faces toward the Light of our Father in His Beloved Son, we cannot know the Spirit of joy. Why are we like this? We turn continually to the wrong things, to worldly things, to pleasure and trinkets and momentary sensations that ignite the nerves but not the soul. We please the sinful body and not the exalted body that we anticipate at His return. We are not prepared.
The great Alexander Schmemann (+1983) exile and theologian, wrote this in Great Lent:
“It is a characteristic of the Orthodox liturgical tradition that every major feast or season – Easter, Christmas, Lent, etc. – is announced and “prepared” in advance. Why? Because of the deep psychological insight by the Church into human nature. Knowing our lack of concentration and the frightening “worldliness” of our life, the Church knows our inability to change rapidly, to go abruptly from one spiritual or mental state into another.”
When we skip over the preparation of our hearts for the solemn festival of the Incarnation, we do not move from the world into God’s presence. The world, of course, here means that which is sinful and fallen, the God-created that we claim as just our own, failing to see that Satan followed Man out of the garden and continues to whisper lies. When we live in that fallen world, we do not live in the Kingdom, which the Prince of Peace proclaimed and for which He died, giving us the victory in this Christ.
Fasting in preparation for the festival is certainly not decorating the house, lawn, dog, car and ourselves while indulging in rich foods, lots of drink, and riotous behaviour. It’s the opposite. The expectation the Church had until about fifty years ago was that Advent would be a time of confession, restitution and restoration. It is the time of reconciliation for peace on Earth. This is not done easily or superficially.
The fast is the physical discipline. We are creatures of substance, not ephemeral spirits. The body informs the spirit, but the body needs to be reminded that it is not in charge. It is the Word of God that guides what we do, as well as what we believe. Faith that is not lived in the body is a dead faith, a false faith. Fasting is part of that. It reminds us that what we receive we receive from the Lord, not ourselves. Fasting is to make us truly grateful, and to conquer our whims and passions. This is totally opposite to what the world teaches us everyday, as we are encouraged to buy, indulge, luxuriate. We pamper ourselves and think we deserve it.
This attitude and indulgence leads to self-centeredness and waste. We know this. We know we throw away more than we use, that we sap the resources of others for our own wantonness. We take more than our fair share. And we continue to do it, despite knowing we shouldn’t, despite knowing that the consequences will be, in the end, fatal to ourselves. Truly the Apostle said, “I do the thing that I do not wish to do!”
Fasting is the turning of the will of our human nature to the perfect will of God. Fasting is turning away from waste and wantonness, and away from destruction through indulgence. It is a time for self-examination. It is a time for prayer and renewal of relationship with God, and with those we have injured.
Fasting can become legalistic. This is part of our human nature, to reduce the important work of our spirit to self-righteousness and routine. This is why we wash our faces, put on clean clothes, and go about cheerful, because it keeps us from falling into righteousness for our own sake, and not through God. Fasting is a solemn joy, but joy it is, as it takes us step by step closer to the Kingdom.
The Festal Day will come, and we can enjoy it all the more for the self-denial we have practiced, and for the spiritual strength we have gained. We can enjoy our feast more because we have given to others in our fast. The way of righteousness is fasting, prayer and alms-giving; the reward of righteousness is a seat at the Lord’s banquet. “Well done, good and faithful servant.”