We have now gone through almost three weeks of the Nativity Lent, my dear friends. This fast, beginning on November 28th, lasts for six weeks - almost as long as the Great Lent. However, the Nativity Lent has a different and entirely unique character. Lent in our minds is usually associated with penitence, sorrow, weeping over one’s sins, cleansing the soul in preparation for the forthcoming great event or sacrament. In Christmas Lent, all concepts concerning lent - except for the last one, that is, purification of the soul, - are eclipsed by two dominant characteristics. These are - humbleness and internal joy.
Why does the Church urge us to use this lenten period to bring our souls into a state of complete humility? Because the coming holiday, although so joyous and so great, is completely enveloped in the spirit of humility. The Apostle Paul explains to us that in this holiday “God on high descended upon earth, in order to elevate us into heaven.” But in order to achieve this, the Lord “diminished Himself, taking on the image of a servant, and was likened to man.” We are all servants of God, that is, we have all been created, and in order to become like man, the Lord had to diminish, lessen, exhaust, in other words - humble His Divinity. And all of this the Lord did for us, in order to save us from death and the power of the devil, so that man - the crown of God’s creation - would not perish. In like manner we, too, should honor and thank our Creator and Saviour. We should diminish our pride, lessen our self-extolment, exhaust our selfishness, and only then - through total humility - will we find that ascending road into heaven, into the Heavenly Realm, which the Lord has opened for us in His descent to earth.
In the Holy Land, in the town of Bethlehem, where the Lord was born in a humble manger 2,000 years ago, a majestic church now stands over the site of His birth. This church is distinguished by its entrance doors, which were made so low, that an average adult has to stoop in order to go in. This was done deliberately, to constantly remind us of the need for spiritual humility before the greatness of the event that took place here.
At the same time, Christmas Lent is also a time for joy. During Great Lent, for example, the Church so gives itself over to penitence, that with the exception of two major feasts - the Annunciation of the Holy Virgin and the Entrance of our Lord into Jerusalem - which are both directly linked to paschal events, there is hardly any commemoration of the feasts of major saints, since a holiday spirit would interfere with the purpose of this lent. The entire Christmas Lent, on the other hand, is studded with the feasts of major saints like glittering jewels: holy great-martyr Catherine, Saint Apostle Andrew, holy great-martyr Barbara, the great Saint Nicholas, Saint Herman of Alaska, and many others, as though indicating to us that the presence of all these saints and all this rejoicing has become possible only because the Lord has come down to earth and has opened the way to heaven. Thus throughout this entire period the Church strongly urges us to prepare for the coming joy with the words of the Christmas canon: “Christ is born - glorify Him! Christ cometh from heaven - meet ye Him! Christ is on earth - be ye exalted!” Amen.
Now we have entered the Nativity fast, and we thank God that once again we are preparing to participate in the mystery of the coming to earth of our Saviour. In the words of St. Theophanus the Recluse, during this lent we must partake of the Blood and Body of Christ, in order to comprehend with our entire being that the Word has become flesh, and that the Lord has taken on our flesh and blood, becoming one of us.
Now, while the Church is reminding us of the necessity for fasting and prayer, it would be well to note that although the Nativity fast is not so strict in terms of external demands, it still requires a reasonable attitude towards it. First of all, we must keep this fast of course, but as Saint Isaac the Syrian says, there is a proper measure of fasting. We must understand that all church regulations should accord with the measure of each specific individual, depending on his bodily strength, age, health and other characteristics.
St. Isaac says that inordinate fasting is more harmful than too little fasting. This refers primarily to those devotees of fasting who wish to quickly ascend to a very high degree, exhibiting outward abstinence that is, however, not counter-balanced by their inner spiritual state. Why is inordinate fasting more harmful than too little fasting? Because, says the holy one, from a state of inadequate fasting a man can still proceed to a correctly-established spiritual life, while the corruption of spirit that arises from immoderate fasting can lead to spiritual disorder which is much harder to rectify.
Lent, being a spiritual manifestation, always bares our perception of both good and evil, and so each one of us must remember that during lent there naturally arise special temptations, and we can either draw nearer to God or become alienated from Him as a result of the increase in the temptations we suffer. Saint Sincleticia says that external fasting which does not correspond to the measure of our spiritual state is more harmful than beneficial, because it primarily incites us to vanity and a feeling of superiority over others. That is to say, external fasting alone does not bring us closer to God and other people, but, on the contrary, alienates us from them. And all the other passions – irritation, anger, and everything else that is characteristic of us, can flare up very intensely during lent.
Thus, the main thing of which the Church reminds us during lent is that when we partake of bodily abstinence, our body, which separates us from the invisible world, becomes thinner and we become more sensitive to the spiritual world. And if our heart is not purified, then, naturally, our contacts with this spiritual world are primarily connected with the evil forces. This gives rise to all the temptations and passions which only proceed to increase during lent.
Let us ponder this. From year to year we are used to fasting too externally, too formally, often focusing only on keeping to a certain dietary regimen, without adding prayer and without delving deeper into a realization of our path to Christ, a realization of the mystery which is being revealed to us during this time. Christ truly approaches each one of us; therefore, let us realize that the worst thing that can happen to us is for us to be spiritually lukewarm, to be observing only a formal and external fast. Let us try to deepen our fast from the very beginning (and not only at the end), drawing nearer to Christ not only through the reading of the Holy Scriptures, not only through the reading of prayers and a more frequent attendance of church services (although all of it is essential and necessary), but specifically through a communion with the most important thing that there is in Christ – His love, His unity with the suffering and fate of each individual, so that the mystery of Christ’s incarnation would become a living experience for us during this lent. Amen.
Why the Nativity Fast Has Been Established
The Orthodox Church prepares its faithful to welcome the Nativity of Christ in a worthy manner by means of a 40-day Nativity fast, which lasts from November 28th to January 6th (by the new calendar).
Besides generally known reasons, the Nativity fast is also undertaken by Orthodox Christians in order to venerate the suffering and sorrow undergone by the Holy Mother of God at the hands of the scribes and the Pharisees just prior to the sacred event of Christ’s Nativity.
Holy Tradition tells us that shortly before the righteous Joseph and the Holy Virgin set off for Bethlehem, they were subjected to the following tribulation. A certain scribe by the name of Ananias, entering their home and seeing the Virgin pregnant, was severely distressed and went to the High Priest and the entire Jewish council, saying: “Joseph the carpenter, who has been regarded as a righteous man, has committed an iniquity. He has secretly violated the Virgin Who was given to him from the temple of God for safekeeping. And now She is with child.” Then the High Priest’s servants went to Joseph’s house, took Mary and Joseph, and brought them to the High Priest, who began to denounce and shame the Most-blessed Virgin Mary.
But the Holy Virgin, crying in deep sorrow, replied: “The Lord God is My witness that I am innocent and have known no man.” Then the High Priest accused the righteous Joseph, but the latter swore on oath that he was not guilty of this sin. Yet the High Priest did not believe them and subjected them to the trial that was customary in those times, (when a woman suspected of violation was given to drink bitter water that had been cursed by the High Priest). However, the trial just served to confirm the innocence of the Holy Virgin and the righteous Joseph. All those present were amazed at this, unable to understand how a Virgin could simultaneously be with child and yet remain inviolate.
After that the High Priest allowed the holy couple to go home in peace. The righteous Joseph took the Virgin Mary and went to his house, joyously glorifying God. But this was not the end of the Holy Theotokos’ trials. It is well known that afterwards she shared with Joseph the toil of a three-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. And in Bethlehem there was no place for the Holy Virgin either in an inn, or in some home, and since night was already approaching, She was forced to seek shelter in a cave which served as a resting place for cattle. In this humblest of shelters the Most-blessed Virgin remained in prayer and divine contemplation. It is here that She painlessly gave birth to our Lord Jesus Christ, Saviour of the world.
We can see from all of the above that the days immediately preceding the Nativity were not days of rest and comfort for the Holy Mother of God. In those days She suffered various sorrows and trials, but did not leave off her prayers and contemplation. The Holy Church appeals to the faithful to participate, at least to some small degree, in the Holy Theotokos’ spiritual labor, constraining one’s flesh during the Nativity fast and nourishing one’s soul with prayer. However, the Church warns us that external fasting only is not enough. We must also apply ourselves to internal fasting, which consists of shunning malice, deceit, wrath, worldly bustle, and other vices. During this fast, as at all times, we must show works of love and mercy to our fellow beings, doing all we can to help those in need and in sorrow. Only then will our fasting be genuine and not hypocritical, only then will it be God-pleasing, and only then will we know the true joy of the bright feast of Christ’s Nativity.
Homily for the Nativity Fast
The Gospel narrative about the healing of the ten lepers reveals to us the mystery of life and the power of thanksgiving. Leprosy is a terrible illness that was well-known even in antiquity. A leper’s body decomposes while he is still living, and he lives in the throes of a slow death. The Holy Church says that all of us are slowly dying, encompassed by the leprosy of sin, and the reason for our life – and particularly for fasting – is to be able to see our sinfulness, to see that sin is a leprosy that leads to death. And Christ was born into the world and came to us expressly in order to deliver us from the horror of such an existence.
The Lord sends the ten lepers to show themselves to the priests, and while they were on their way they already became healed. All the lepers, among whom there was one Samaritan and nine Israelis, became equal in the face of this common terrible misfortune. There was no difference between them, and they appealed to the Lord from the depths of their suffering. And the Lord performed a miracle. However, we see that the majority of sick and suffering people were looking only to be healed, and that for them Christ became only the means to a desired end.
What else can be said? Christ exclaims: “Have not all been healed, so where are they?” We see that the Lord misses these people. In our imagination we hear the voice of God, walking through Eden and asking: “Adam, where art thou?” Through this healing the lepers have not come closer to God; on the contrary, the distance between them and Christ has remained or has even increased. After being healed they joyfully went the other way. But one person, the Samaritan, overcomes this distance. He returns to God, and we see that if for all the others Christ was only the means to recovering health, for this man his return becomes a nearness to God Himself.
At this point the Holy Church reveals to us a mystery of life which we all should learn well. It speaks of the fact that all the blessings, all the gifts that we receive from God should become a foundation for us by means of which we can return to the source of our life, to the beginning that unites us with God. All that we are, all that we have, all that we received from Him, – we must offer to God.
In this lies the meaning of the Eucharist – the Holy Mysteries of Christ – of which we partake. Under the guise of bread and wine we offer to God all that He gives us. In other words, we offer to Him all that we have received from God. And He returns our offering to us, but transubstantiated, transfigured by Divinity. We partake of a new life in Christ, i.e. in God Who has become man.
Actually, our Saviour’s own life is comprised within this mystery. The mystery of His incarnation, the mystery of His death on the Cross and His resurrection – all speak of the fact that He is being given to us. He is “the Son, and given to us,” as we shall sing on the eve of the Nativity of Christ. And He, given to us and having come to us from the Heavenly Father, gives Himself back to the Father, offers Himself to the Father, and through Himself offers Him our entire life, in order for His new life – the life of the resurrected Christ – to become our new life, so that we would become conscious of this blessing, this gift which God gives to us. St. Gregory the Theologian says: “When we offer thanks to God, we become dear to Him.” Such is the mystery of thanksgiving which we must ponder and study throughout our entire life.
Those lepers in the Gospel had sufficient faith to be healed of leprosy. But only one of them had sufficient faith to be healed of death, because until we are healed of the leprosy of sin, which is called death, our healing has no meaning and can even turn into misfortune for us.
How are we healed of the mortal illness which ails all of us? It happens only when we learn to give thanks to God. Nine people were healed, but only one was saved. And he was saved only because he recognized the nature of God, – he recognized that God is love. He learned that this love constitutes perfect and incorruptible life, which vanquishes not only the leprosy of all sins, but vanquishes death itself.
It is revealed to us that God is love, that God is generosity, and that these two qualities are overwhelming in Him. And until we recognize the love which God, Who becomes man, brings down to earth, we cannot properly thank God for all the sorrows which He sends us.
May God grant us the wisdom during this lent and throughout our entire life to learn to thank God in our prayers for everything that happens to us, to accept everything as coming from His hands, no matter how bitter or unendurable it may seem to us. And may God grant us the wisdom to understand that the significance of Christ’s Nativity lies in the great mystery of God becoming man. He – the invisible God – becomes visible in others: initially in His own human incarnation and afterwards, having achieved the salvation of all men, having arisen from the dead and gloriously ascended into heaven, He continues to be present in all people. He says to us: “All that you do unto others, you do unto Me.” Thus, when we learn to thank other people, we simultaneously learn to thank God. At that point we draw near to God, from Whom we have been separated by the terrible leprosy of our sins.
May God grant us to participate in the new and incorruptible life, and to recognize the love of Christ in the commandment which instructs us to love God with all our heart, all our thoughts, all our strength, to draw near to the Lord and to learn to love others as we do ourselves. However, we will be able to draw near to the Lord and our neighbors only when we study and master the mystery of thanksgiving. Amen.