We tend to think of fasting as a regimen of giving up, mainly food, but in some Christian communities, other things, other enjoyments, in a personal a la carte fashion. Orthodox Christians who use the new calendar are now in the Nativity Fast, forty days prior to Christmas, the feast of the Lord's nativity. Of the four scheduled Church fasts, this one seems hardest to keep, and many people just give up altogether. The whole world, it seems, is in an irresistible free-fall towards 'Christmas,' engaged in a flutter of festive planning and activity which will abruptly end with a resounding splat amidst discarded wrapping paper and tinsel on Christmas Day.
This is not how it is supposed to be. Remnants of what Christmas used to mean are still with us, though considered quaint, like the carol 'The Twelve Days of Christmas,' which is sometimes sung as itself, but often popularly spoofed and sung in parody, to the shame of Christians who do it, all in a spirit of ‘fun.’ The Nativity of Christ, along with the Resurrection, are the two points between which the whole of Christian life is supposed to be lived, in the tension between one humility and another, God becomes man so that man can become God. Each point requires preparation, and that is what Lent is all about.
Back to the fast, it seems like the forty days before the twenty-fifth of December are anything but a time for us to abstain from enjoyments—Christmas is coming!—and so we half-reluctantly follow the world around us, letting ourselves be plundered of the peace that fasting gives. When it's all over, after Christmas, we can console ourselves that at least we are still Orthodox, that at least we now have twelve more days to unwind and rest in the peace of the Christ Child, out of sight of the world which will continue partying perhaps till the big bash on New Year's Eve, before it mournfully returns to the drudgery of the holidayless month and a half that stretches out to the next Hallmark occasion—Valentine's Day.
Back to the fast, to remember what it means, what it is there for.
We know, if we go to church, read our bibles and maybe the Church fathers, if we pray, we know we can't cheat God. The fast is not primarily about food. It is about clearing the path of obstacles. It is to follow John the honorable forerunner and prophet first, so that like his two disciples we can be ready to follow Jesus the Lamb of God next. It is to personally step into the preparation that John initiated, 'Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord… make a straight way for our God… let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill laid low' (Isaiah 40:3-4). It is to step into his path, make it ours, that we can be found worthy of recognizing our salvation.
If we cannot fast, brethren, from the foods proscribed, for whatever reason, let's not waste time blaming ourselves, feeling guilty or unworthy, but count our weakness a blessing, our ruin an opportunity for transformation, for just as at Pascha, it is only the dead who rise with Christ at His resurrection, to be seen in the Holy City, and for us, even from the shame of our human nature, we can be born anew, not by anything we own, but by the Word of God. He has pitched His tent among us, and not as a visitor who quickly departs leaving us with the memory of a one day guest. He is here with us now, for all time, even now, during the fast we could not keep. He is with us. Immanuel.
Back to the fast, forgetting about what we failed to give up, let's use the time that remains to prepare ourselves. Yes, for that is what the fast is all about. Remember. John the Baptist. Remember, the holy gospel, the good news of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Remember. The Lamb of God. Listen to the prophet, 'Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.' Remember. Jesus turns around and faces us, 'What do you seek?' Remember. The two disciples, 'Rabbi, where do you live?' Remember. 'Come and see,' and whatever else you are going to do or are forced to do, go now, and spend the rest of the day with Him.
Brethren, let's not dwell on what we cannot or could not do, but on what we can. There is still time. The fast has only just begun. This is the time to clear the road ahead of obstacles. The time to cut ourselves free of whatever it is that holds us, so that we can go with the shepherds and kings to see why that star shines so brightly. Who is it for? Why does it still shine? Even through the long corridors of time, it is still there. Yes, He is still here, with us. Immanuel.
Forget about eating. Go, spend time with the Word of God, who says, 'That is why I am telling you not to worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor about your body and how you are to clothe it. Surely life means more than food, and the body more than clothing! Look at the birds in the sky. They do not sow or reap or gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they are? Can any of you, for all his worrying, add one single cubit to his span of life?' (Matthew 6:25-27).
When the world can no longer bear with Him, let it go. It has much to do (cf. John 6:66). But you, come running back to hear Him ask, 'What about you? Do you want to go away too?' And forgetting everything else, be brave enough to respond, 'Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe' (John 6:67-68).
Back to the fast…