For those of us following the Old (Julian) calendar, as we do in the Coptic Orthodox Church, we have just begun the Nativity Fast, which culminates in the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity in the flesh on January 7, 2017.
Throughout this Fast, we commemorate the events that preceded the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ and ultimately transformed human history. We are called to be attentive and faithful, awaiting the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity, which He undertook to save mankind from slavery to sin, the devil, and death. Our father among the saints, the Holy John Chrysostom, recognized the awesome significance of this feast, saying,
A feast day is about to arrive, and it is the most holy and awesome of all feasts. It would be no mistake to call it the chief and mother of all holy days. What feast is that? It is the day of Christ’s birth in the flesh.
As with any period of fasting, the Nativity Fast should not be viewed as an obligation, but rather, as an opportunity. It is an invitation to renew our commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ by practicing asceticism and restraining our bodies in order to strengthen our souls. It is a time to restore balance, peace, and holiness to our lives.
Too often, we misunderstand fasting in the Orthodox Church as more of a diet than anything else. We place far too much emphasis on thinking about what we can and cannot eat, and pouring over ingredient labels. The problem is that, if we focus this season of fasting only on our stomachs, we will miss the whole point of the Fast. Do the devil and his demons eat? Of course not. Yet they are no less evil. What goes into our stomachs can certainly impact our holiness, but what occurs in our hearts is far more important.
For this reason, I have compiled the following list of things we might consider working on during this Holy Fast. It is not an exhaustive list, but rather a humble starting point that we can discuss with our spiritual fathers as part of our struggle during this Fast to really prepare ourselves for the mystery and wonder of our Lord’s Nativity.
Seven Exercises for this Fast
- Control the Tongue. As the Proverb says, “He that keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps his soul from trouble” (Pr 21:23). Try to maintain silence as much as possible, and if it is absolutely necessary to speak, use a low and persuasive voice, remembering that how we speak oftentimes matters more than what we say.
- Flee from Screens. Today, people are more distracted than ever by all of the different things they can do in front of a television, computer, or device screen. Whether it’s online shopping, social media, gaming, or any other activity that chains us to our devices, try to set a meaningful limit for each day or give them up altogether.
- Be a Source of Encouragement to Others. Rather than living a sheltered and self-centered life, be more aware of what is happening in the lives of others and their careers and families. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another” (Ro 12:15). Let everyone you meet, regardless of what they’ve done or how they live, know that they are precious in your eyes.
- Cheer Up! “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting” (Mt 6:16). The Fast is not a time to grumble and complain about the small injustices, pains, and disappointments in your life. It is a time to carry the cross joyfully while focusing on our Lord’s Cross and the many (and oftentimes heavier) crosses that other people bear daily. Grumbling and complaining is one of the many ways the devil and his demons try to get us to be self-centered, especially during periods of fasting.
- Humble Yourself. Humility enables us to realize our full potential as human beings. Remember that God formed man from the dust of the earth, something that is lowly and humble, but He gave us life by breathing His breath into us, something that is holy and exalted. So, our nature is primarily lowly and humble, but whatever is holy, good, and exalted within us comes from God. The Fast is a good time to remember this in all of our dealings at home, work, and in the church. It’s okay to discuss things, but never argue.
- My Sins Alone. “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” (Mt 7:1–3). Christians refuse to think about or speak of the sins of other people. We don’t gossip or waste our time judging the spiritual condition of other people. The Fast is a time to remove this sinful habit from our hearts.
- Free Forgiveness. “Bear with one another, and forgive each other! If anyone has a complaint against anyone else, forgive, even as Christ forgave you” (Col 3:13). In this Holy Fast, we remember how our Lord Jesus Christ took flesh and was born of the Holy Virgin Mary in order to save us and freely grant us the forgiveness of our sins. How can we prepare for this wondrous event without freely forgiving one another, as well? During this Fast, ignore all of the bad things people have said about you and forget all of the bad deeds done toward you. Forgive freely and live a holy life so that, in all cases, God may be your defender: “For all the words of God are tried in the fire, and He defends those that reverence Him” (Pr 30:5).
As we begin this Holy Fast, let us endeavor to take these 7 exercises as a starting point in our journey towards the mystery and wonder of our Lord’s Nativity in the flesh.
Pray for me throughout this journey as I pray for you.