Our Life In Christ
Forty days before the Feast of Christmas, on November 15, the Orthodox Church begins the Nativity Fast, also known as the season of Advent. In the non-Orthodox, Western Christian tradition deriving from Roman Catholicism, Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Advent is a Latin word meaning “arrival”; thus, the season of Advent was instituted to prepare the faithful for the arrival of God in the flesh born of the Virgin Mary as celebrated at the Feast of Christmas.
In the Orthodox tradition, the 40 days of Advent are characterized by the practice of fasting in direct imitation of the 40 days of the season of Lent prior to the Feast of Pascha. In the same manner as Pascha (our Lord’s Resurrection), the Feast of Christmas is set apart with like importance. Indeed, the Birth of Christ coupled 12 days later with His Baptism in the Jordan (Theophany; January 6) leads directly and purposely to our Lord’s Crucifixion and Resurrection for the salvation of the world. The fasting seasons prior to these greatest of events serve to enable the faithful to participate personally in the essential process of salvation, both the need for and fulfillment of restoration to life in Christ. During a fast we purposely empty ourselves in order to realize the source of life which comes from God alone, and that very Source is Christ Himself (see Jn. 14:6).
Christ’s forty-day fast becomes the template of our Nativity Fast (see Matt. 4:1-11; Mk. 1:12-13; Lk. 4:1-13). Following His Baptism in the Jordan, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.” Being hungry, destitute, and alone, Christ who emptied Himself of divine prerogatives coming in the weakness of our mortal nature (except without sin; see Phil 2:5-8 ; Heb. 4:15-16), was tempted as we are by the devil. The three-fold temptation consists of: 1) gluttony - satisfying our bodily desires before the Word of God; 2) pride - presuming to set our own limits on God’s activity; and 3) greed - the idolatry, or false worship, of worldly advantage.
The Church instituted various fasts (e.g., Lent, Advent, etc.) because fasting is the way of Christ exposing our passions and overcoming the constant influence of the evil one. “[W]hen you fast…” Christ says (Matt. 6:16), assuming the practice of fasting to be a normal aspect of the Christian life; and, when questioned about the ability to cast out demons, our Lord said, “[T]his kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Matt. 17:21).
- Abstaining from food and drink results in hunger and thirst, exposing both our blameless desire for bodily nourishment and our desire beyond what is merely natural, namely our mindless addiction not only to the kinds of foods in which we delight, but also to the excessive quantities we don’t need resulting in ill-health, laziness, and immorality.
- Keeping the fasting guidelines of the Church for the duration of the Fast exposes our limits of humble obedience, not only to the common conventions of the Church, but ultimately to God Himself whose will we must keep by conforming our self-will to His in the keeping of His commandments.
- Detachment from usual worldly distractions including thoughtless entertainments exposes our level of contentment with the greater and more essential pursuits of life, namely, the prayer of faith, care of our neighbor, and praise and thanksgiving to God.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Matt. 5:6; 6:33) Fasting is an indispensable tool for seeking the Kingdom with maximum focus and clarity!
During His Fast, the devil tempted Christ when He was in a physically weakened state, meaning conversely that Christ overcame the devil’s temptation despite His seeming vulnerability as a true Man. The Nativity Fast is a proving ground both for the genuineness of our faith and the sufficiency of God’s grace to keep us steadfast in the way of Christ.
How is it possible – isn’t it crazy(!) – to go without eating meat, any dairy, or an alcoholic drink for a couple of days, let alone 40? How can I restrict my constant use of my cellphone, computer, and TV when so much of life has come to depend on being connected to the internet? Before Christmas, our society is filled with holiday parties, expensive gift-buying, and songs and mythical stories evoking purely emotional cheer, so how is it possible to focus more on prayer, Church services, and the reading of God’s Word this whole time?
Our forty-day Fast follows Christ’s forty-day Fast which fulfills the spiritual principles of Israel’s forty-year journey through the wilderness. “Now you shall remember the whole way the Lord your God led you in the desert, to deal harshly with you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He dealt harshly with you and weakened you with hunger, and fed you with manna (lit., ‘what is it?’; Ex. 16:15), which your fathers did not know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word proceeding from the mouth of God many shall live” (quoted by Jesus to the devil’s suggestion to turn stones into bread). “Your garments did not wear out on you, nor did your feet become callused these forty years. You should know in your heart that as a man chastens his son, so the Lord your God chastens you” (Deut. 8:2-5).
The way of Christ is not the way of the world; they are opposed to one another (see Jam. 4:4; 1 Jn. 2:15-17). The way of Christ includes fasting and leads to the Promised Land of the Kingdom of God. The way of the world consists of indulgence of the flesh, egotism, and accumulation of corruptible wealth leading to empty death. The Orthodox Church enjoins the Nativity Fast in the hope of remaining in the way of Christ so that our joy is truly complete in the Feast of our Lord’s Birth for our salvation.