Thursday, November 14, 2013

Easier said than done

The Nativity Fast, observed from the 15th of November through the night of the 24th of December, is the last of the four fasts of Holy Church, and probably the hardest to faithfully keep. Why? It shouldn't be. The rules are very relaxed. On the Greek calendar hanging on my kitchen wall the fish symbol (fish permitted) occurs on at least half the days, and the grape symbol (wine and olive oil permitted) on perhaps another quarter more, the rest being marked with a cross (strict fast). But it is hard to keep. We do not live in an Orthodox world, even if some of us live in a 'Christian' one. Wherever we find ourselves, except within the walls of a monastery, there will be tugs to join the party. Which party? The ongoing Christmas and End of Year festivities. Family, friends, co-workers, business associates, school mates. Everyone is celebrating. How does one get out of that without offending someone? And who's going to be offended if we don't keep the fast?

In America, we have an additional problem, unless we're on the 'old calendar.' The greatest American family holiday (yes, even holy day), Thanksgiving, also known as 'turkey day,' falls near the beginning of the Nativity Fast. And what's on the menu? Turkey, turkey, and more turkey. This is the holiday when America outdoes itself in the eating category. Unless you celebrate it nearly alone and with an 'out of the box' turkey roast, you will have lots of leftovers. That is intentional. That way you and the family can have enough for turkey sandwiches for almost a week after the Thursday of the feast. What to do with all that meat, my Orthodox brethren? Isn't it bad enough we broke the fast to celebrate the holiday, but now we have all these leftovers? Well, years ago my spiritual father told me, 'Just keep eating it till it's all gone, and then resume the fast.' 'Even on the Friday?' I asked. 'Even on the Friday,' he replied. That's ikonomía for you!

Back to the problem, the pre-celebration of Christmas (or of the winter solstice, or of the year's end, if you're in a very secular context) will always preempt the keeping of the Nativity Fast, sometimes even in 'Orthodox' countries. To keep the fast we will have to duck out of sight when hands are being raised as to 'who's coming to the party?' and we'll have to keep close watch on our cell phones to see who's calling—it might be another invitation. The alternative is to just graciously give in. That's what I usually do, although thankfully, I am a social recluse as a matter of fact, and people rarely ask me out, even to lunch. Through all this dissipating activity, who's to blame if we don't keep the fast? We will give it a half-hearted try, and be relieved when it's all over after attending the Nativity evening liturgy. Then we can eat all those same foods again that we just stuffed ourselves with the preceding nearly forty days. Ever wonder why we miss the feeling of ending this Fast?

The reality can be quite different than what I have described. The Nativity Fast, just like the other three seasonal fasts, doesn't have to focus on food. In fact, it shouldn't. We're reminded by Holy Church that we should not fast from food if we are not praying and giving alms, that is, helping the poor. 'What poor?' There we go again, trying to let ourselves off the hook. 'Don't I pray enough already?' Well, the Church offers more services than usual during the four fasts to give us more opportunities to pray together. 'Well, I just like to pray at home, alone, as I always do.' 'That's okay too. Just do it!' as my spiritual father used to say. All of this boils down to a case of 'reality versus unreality,' exactly the kind of mental conflict we all like to avoid. When we see it coming, we tell ourselves to just 'turn up the music,' so we can forget that this least of all moral issues is pressing us. What moral issues? Well, if nothing else, the Nativity Fast reminds us of the moral issue of the sacrifice of the unborn.

In fact, everything we do hinges on moral issues, whether we are aware of this or not. We go through life thinking we are making choices based on what we believe are good reasons, often without ever realising that the correct choices have already been made. Already made? You mean, there's no such thing as free will, free choice? Well, yes and no. We do have free will, but what we do with it when we ignore pre-existing morality, the 'real right and wrong' as C. S. Lewis puts it, is usually a disaster, even when we are personally untouched by the result (at least we feel we're untouched—it wasn't my baby!). It is, in fact, choice that defines all personal beings from the higher animals, through humans, up to the bodyless powers (the angels). So we have a choice, from finding a mate, to buying a house or car, to voting for a candidate, to cheating on our taxes, our spouses, or our God. Yes, it all comes down to choice. What will I do with the Fast this Christmas?

See also Guidelines for the Nativity Fast


Sasha said...

Not on the main topic of this post of course, but just an interesting detail. :)

> In America, we have an additional problem, unless we're on the 'old calendar.' The greatest American family holiday (yes, even holy day), Thanksgiving, also known as 'turkey day'...

Most "old calendarists" (I think they are Russians) have the same problem on a different day: during the soviet years the "big feast" was shifted from Christmas to New Year's celebration. So, "old calendar" Russians start fasting after the Thanksgiving day, but they finish fasting after the New Year - which is celebrated with no less food-feasting and poses the same "challenges".

For us it's even more fun: 3 family birthdays fall into that period. :)

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Thanks, Sasha, for the interesting detail! Have a happy Thanksgiving, and a great finish to the Nativity Fast.

Sasha said...

Same to you, and thank you for being my brother. :)