Synonymous for many things: family, parties, gifts, gifts that no one wants, or needs, “spending” so the economy grows – an intense, but short time in which we try to cram all the relational connections that we should have been working on during the other eleven months of the year, into one frantic and frenetic 30 day lollapalooza. The “holiday’s” are also synonymous for indulgence. Indulgences of every kind: food, shopping, drinking, eating, shopping – you name it, and in the next 30+ days, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day ( or Super Bowl Sunday) depending on how you classify the “holidays”, Americans go into a consuming frenzy of living out the axiom that “more is better”. But in Orthodoxy, it’s just the opposite.
The conscious denial of something, in order to obtain mastery over the body; so as to increase communion with God. What an amazing concept. A drastic and intentional move away from consumption and consumerism towards compassion and contentedness. Self denial. Learning to be content with what is, instead of what might be. Happiness with what you have, instead of with what you want. Being able to say no to the things of the world, saying no to the compunction for owning things, and trading them all in, for a season – a 40 day journey – of learning to be content. Content to be with God. I have said it once before, but for the Orthodox Christian: “Fasting is Feasting!”
So while our culture eats, spends, drinks and indulges its way towards New Year resolutions of losing weight and reducing credit card debt, the Orthodox Church will refrain: choosing not to feast, but rather to fast, in order that our bodies might better anticipate the feast to come, that our hearts might better hear the song of the Christmas angels singing “Glory to God in the Highest…” receiving the true gift of the Season; Peace from the Prince of Peace. We will fast for a season, so that we might truly know what it means to feast – for a day!
In the spirit of this Nativity Fast where we refrain from dairy, meats, oils and alcohol, from November 15 to December 25, I want to make use of a powerful book called The Book of Mystical Chapters: Meditations on the Soul’s Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplatives, as a foundation upon which to build some weekly thoughts from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the Orthodox Church. You see, fasting is not just about what you “won’t” do, but rather it’s more about what you “will do” in the place of something else. For instance, by not eating as much, I free myself up to pray more often, to worship more deeply. So, I remove “stuff”, in order that I might fill my life with “better” stuff. Jesus once said, “…I have food to eat, that you do not know of…” His food was separation from the world, so that He might commune better with His Father.
As the six weeks of this Nativity Fast unfold, as each Holiday party gives way to the next, as each Orthodox Christian says “no” to their fleshly wants, and says “yes” to the desires of the soul… It is good to “fill” ourselves, and to“gorge” on the wisdom of the desert, to become “gluttons” feasting upon the spiritual wisdom of women and men who gave their lives entirely to the pursuit of holiness and sanctity. Here is a nice summary from the introduction to the book…
This book is a portable collection of Christian monastic wisdom, a very small edition of the vast amount of teachings that exist and are still used in the monasteries of the Eastern Christian world to this day. It has been arranged in the manner of an ancient manual of instruction, in three ascending books: Praktikos, Theoretikos, and Gnostikos. The earliest writers tended to divide their spiritual teachings into three basic categories, suitable for the stages of first: searchers , second, young monks of several years’ standing and third, the more advanced.
The instructions were usually arranged into short paragraphs, meant to be learned by heart and meditated on over and over again for a day, or even a week until the paragraph had broken like a fruit on the tongue of a monk and revealed its inner flavor to the searching mind.
Come with me as we move towards the Feast Day of the Nativity, travelling like the Magi, in search of the star, but in reality, in search of Wisdom personified in a Person. Journey with me, through the desert, as we say no to the temptations to gluttony, and instead turn our hearts towards the filling of our souls with manna from the desert, food from the table of the greatest ascetics and monastics in all of Christendom. Come with me, as we partake of food that will feed our souls and pave the way toward fullness of life now, and to a glimpse of the culmination of life as it will be lived in eternity.
Here is our first taste – in this fasting season:
Abba Antony said:
Whoever sits in solitude and is quiet has escaped from three wars:
those of hearing, speaking and seeing.
Then there is only one war left in which to fight, and that is the battle for your own heart.
-Sayings of the Elders