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For those from western countries, the concept of Orthodox Christian fasting is a novel one. The weeks leading up to Christmas in the West are typically a roller coaster of workplace Christmas parties, gorging on chocolates and shortbread from the company’s suppliers, drinks and dinner with friends, and a frenzy of consumerism as people spend more money than they can afford on gifts that the recipients don’t really need.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the six weeks before Christmas are typically much more subdued. Alcohol consumption is curtailed and eating of meat and dairy products is reduced or ceases. Why, when a joyous Christmas celebration is impending, would this self-denial be required?

Theologians far more authoritative than the author can elaborate on this issue with greater clarity. In a nutshell, removing alcohol and luxury foods (and meat and dairy were indeed luxuries for most people until the 20th century) seems to have a beneficial effect upon prayer. One’s mood is more stable and distractions are more easily controlled. One strives to maintain a mood of calm and forgiveness in the season before the Nativity Feast, and for reasons known for thousands of years by the Early Church Fathers, and the Prophets before them, abstaining from alcohol and rich foods seems to facilitate this mood.

Another effect of the fast is creating a sense of anticipation for the great feast to follow. How many people in the West do you hear complaining that they are dreading Christmas, the endless round of Christmas parties and drinking binges, buying gifts for all and sundry, and enduring the company of irritating relatives? In an Orthodox Christian society, such complaints are very rare. People are preparing themselves for Christ’s arrival on Earth, not as a commemoration or ritual but witnessing the event first-hand, as if it were happening here and now. The Orthodox concept of a sacrament involves the Hand of God reaching through time and space to effect a change amongst His people. If one accepts this as true, then desisting from drinking and eating rich food is a small price to pay in order to prepare correctly for such an earth-changing event. One is also inclined to keep very close track of how many days until the Feast if one is tired of eating beans instead of meat 🙂

An unintended consequence of fasting is that, on Christmas morning when one breaks the Nativity Fast, one can freely enjoy the Feast with no guilt. Six weeks of vegetarian diet with less alcohol is generally conducive to dropping a good deal of weight, so a few days’ indulgence won’t do any harm. The custom of feasting on Christmas Day in the West has arisen from the custom of fasting for six weeks beforehand, which used to be commonplace in the West (and even a legal obligation in many countries) but now has fallen out of favour.

A key issue is being modest and unobtrusive with fasting, and not condemning others for not keeping the fast. That issue emanates from pride and is counterproductive to the general need to maintain humility in advance of Christ’s arrival.

It should be made clear that fasting is done in conjunction with advice from one’s spiritual father, rather than on the suggestion of blog authors; your priest knows your personality and your habits, and can suggest a regime that he thinks will be beneficial for you. There are of course exemptions for people with illnesses, nursing mothers and so on, so the right person to ask about what should or should not be done is your priest. The Nativity Fast, being a joyous fast, is less onerous than that of Great Lent, so there are some days when wine and fish may be consumed. Consult with a Church calendar and your priest for guidance in this.

May you have a Blessed Nativity Season. Some thoughts of the Early Church Fathers, far more authoritative than I, are appended below.

There is both a physical and a spiritual fast. In the physical fast the body abstains from food and drink. In the spiritual fast, the faster abstains from evil intentions, words and deeds. One who truly fasts abstains from anger, rage, malice, and vengeance. One who truly fasts abstains from idle and foul talk, empty rhetoric, slander, condemnation, flattery, lying and all manner of spiteful talk. In a word, a real faster is one who withdraws from all evil.
 *****
As much as you subtract from the body, so much will you add to the strength of the soul. 

* * *

By fasting it is possible both to be delivered from future evils and to enjoy the good things to come. We fell into disease through sin; let us receive healing through repentance, which is not fruitful without fasting.

* * * 

True fasting lies is rejecting evil, holding one’s tongue, suppressing one’s hatred, and banishing one’s lust, evil words, lying, and betrayal of vows. 

  
Holy Hierarch Basil the Great

Do you fast? Then feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick, do not forget the imprisoned, have pity on the tortured, comfort those who grieve and who weep, be merciful, humble, kind, calm, patient, sympathetic, forgiving, reverent, truthful and pious, so that God might accept your fasting and might plentifully grant you the fruits of repentance.
*****
Fasting of the body is food for the soul.

* * *

It is necessary most of all for one who is fasting to curb anger, to accustom himself to meekness and condescension, to have a contrite heart, to repulse impure thoughts and desires, to examine his conscience, to put his mind to the test and to verify what good has been done by us in this or any other week, and which deficiency we have corrected in ourself in the present week. This is true fasting.

* * *

As bodily food fattens the body, so fasting strengthens the soul; imparting it an easy flight, it makes it able to ascend on high, to contemplate lofty things and to put the heavenly higher than the pleasant and pleasurable things of life.
 

* * *

The point is not only that we should come to church each day, that we should continually listen to one and the same thing, and that we should fast for the whole Forty Days. No! If we, from continually coming here and listening to the teaching, do not acquire anything and do not derive any good for our soul from the time of the fast ­ all this does not procure for us any benefit, but rather serves for our greater condemnation, when despite such concern for us by the Church we remain just the same as before.
*** 
Do not say to me that I fasted for so many days, that I did not eat this or that, that I did not drink wine, that I endured want; but show me if thou from an angry man hast become gentle, if thou from a cruel man hast become benevolent. If thou art filled with anger, why oppress thy flesh? If hatred and avarice are within thee, of what benefit is it that thou drinkest water? Do not show forth a useless fast: for fasting alone does not ascend to heaven. 

* * *

Fasting is wonderful, because it tramples our sins like a dirty weed, while it cultivates and raises truth like a flower.

Holy Hierarch John Chrysostom

If thou, O man, dost not forgive everyone who has sinned against thee, then do not trouble thyself with fasting. If thou dost not forgive the debt of thy brother, with whom thou art angry for some reason, then thou dost fast in vain ­ God will not accept thee. Fasting will not help thee, until thou wilt become accomplished in love and in the hope of faith. Whoever fasts and becomes angry, and harbors enmity in his heart, such a one hates God and salvation is far from him.
 

Venerable Ephraim the Syrian

Seest thou what fasting does: it heals illnesses, drives out demons, removes wicked thoughts, makes the heart pure. If someone has even been seized by an impure spirit, let him know that this kind, according to the word of the Lord, “goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21).
 

Saint Athanasius the Great

 
The strictness of the Quadragesima [the Forty Days] mortifies the passions, extinguishes anger and rage, cools and calms every agitation springing up from gluttony. And just as in the summer, when the burning heat of the sun spreads over the earth, the northern wind renders a benefaction to those who are scorched, by dispersing the sultriness with a tender coolness: so fasting also provides the same, by driving out of bodies the burning which is the result of overeating.
 

Saint Asterius of Amasia

Fasting is the mother of health; the friend of chastity; the partner of humblemindedness (illnesses are frequently born in many from a disorderly and irregular diet). 

Venerable Simeon, the New Theologian

Give the body as much food as it needs, and thou shalt receive no harm, even if thou shouldest eat three times a day. If a man eats but once a day, but undiscerningly, what benefit is there to him from that. The warfare of fornication follows excess in eating – and after this the enemy weighs down the body with sleep in order to defile it.

Saints Barsanuphius and John

As a flame of fire in dry wood, so too is a body with a full belly.

Venerable Isaac the Syrian

Always establish one and the same hour for taking food, and take it for fortifying the body and not for enjoyment. 

Venerable Anthony the Great

Do not neglect the Forty Days; it constitutes an imitation of Christ’s way of life. 
 

Saint Ignatius the God­bearer

 

 
The more days of fasting there are, the better the healing is; the longer the period of abstinence, the more abundant the gain of salvation is.
 

Blessed Augustine
 
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Today marks the Feast of the Birth of the Virgin Mary. As the human being closest to God the Son, the major events of her life are closely followed in the Orthodox Church.

Roman Catholic doctrine is that the Virgin Mary was herself the product of a virgin birth. This position is not accepted by the Orthodox Church and is seen as an innovation. While the parents of the Virgin Mary, Joachim and Anna, are seen as saints and honoured by the Church, they are not understood to be sinless.

Vespers (evening service) is held the night before the feast, and Divine Liturgy is served on the day of the feast, even if it is a weekday.

The special hymns of the day, the Troparion and Kontakion, are very poetic and joyous. The translation is:

Troparion

“Your Nativity, O Virgin,
Has proclaimed joy to the whole universe!
The Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God,
Has shone from You, O Theotokos!
By annulling the curse,
He bestowed a blessing.
By destroying death, He has granted us eternal Life.”

Kontakion 

“By Your Nativity, O Most Pure Virgin,
Joachim and Anna are freed from barrenness;
Adam and Eve, from the corruption of death.
And we, your people, freed from the guilt of sin, celebrate and sing to you:
The barren woman gives birth to the Theotokos, the nourisher of our life! “

The Early Church Fathers were very vocal on the significance of this feast; some quotations are provided (with thanks to John Sanidopoulos for the quotations).

St. Romanos the Melodist

* O mystery brought about on earth! After the birth, Anna prayed to our God and Maker Who knows all things in advance: “You have heard me, O Lord, as you have heard Hannah who was accused before Eli of being drunk” [1 Sam. 1:14]. She promised Samuel, after his birth, to the Lord to become priest. Just as formerly you have given me too a gift, the barren woman gives birth to the Mother of God and the nurse of our life.

* In your holy birth, Immaculate One, Joachim and Anna were rid of the shame of childlessness; Adam and Eve of the corruption of death. And so your people, free of the guilt of their sins, celebrate crying: “The barren one gives birth to the Theotokos, who nourishes our life.”

* Consequently, the tribes of Israel heard that Anna had given birth to the pure Virgin, and they all rejoiced with great gladness. Joachim held a great feast and celebrated splendidly the miraculous birth. And when he had summoned to prayer the priests and the Levites, he placed Mary in the midst of all, in order that she be magnified.

St. Andrew of Crete

* O Bride of the Father, immaculate Mother of the Son, and holy and resplendent temple of the Holy Spirit; O most chaste of all creation, most suitable to His ultimate purpose, on this account the universe was created and, by thy birth, was the eternal will of the Creator fulfilled.

*O Lord, you have opened the womb of Sarah, giving her Isaac as fruit in her old age. Today, O Savior, you have likewise given to godly Anna a fruit born from her womb, even your own Mother without spot.

St. Sergios of Constantinople

* She is the treasure of virginity, the rod of Aaron springing from the root of Jesse, the preaching of the prophets, offshoot of the righteous Joachim and Anna. She is born, and with her is the world become new again. She is born, and the Church clothes herself in majesty. She is the holy temple, the receiver of the Godhead: the instrument of virginity, the bridal chamber of the King, wherein was accomplished the marvelous mystery of the ineffable union of the natures which come together in Christ.

St. Germanos of Constantinople

* As foretold by the angel, today have you come forth, O Virgin, the all-holy offspring of righteous Joachim and Anna…you did destroy the curse and give blessing in its place.

* No more are the gifts of Joachim turned away: for the lament of Anna is changed to joy. “Let all the chosen of Israel rejoice with me,” she says, “for behold, the Lord has given me the living Pavilion of His divine glory, unto the joy and gladness of us all and the salvation of our souls.

St. John of Damascus

* The day of the Nativity of the Theotokos is the feast of joy for the whole world, because through the Theotokos the entire human race was renewed and the grief of the first mother Eve was changed into joy. For whereas the latter heard the divine statement, “In pain you shall bring forth children” [Gen. 3:16] the former heard, “Rejoice favoured one!” [Luke 1:28]. The latter heard, “Your recourse shall be towards your husband!” and the former, “The Lord is with you!”

* The holy parents of the Mother of God received from heaven a gift worthy of God, a throne higher than the very cherubim [Is. 6:1; Ez. 1:4] — she who in childbirth would bear the Word of the Creator.

* The Mother of God was born to us at the holy Sheep Gate. Rejoice, O Sheep Gate, the most holy temple of God’s Mother. Rejoice O Sheep Gate, the wall of Joachim’s sheep.

St. Stephen the Hymnographer

* Eve declares her daughter and descendent blessed, “for unto me is born deliverance, through which I shall be set free from the bonds of hell.”

St. Photios the Great

* The present feast honoring the birth of the Virgin Mother of God easily carries off the glittering prize of seniority against every competitor…for without the Virgin’s feast none of those that sprang out would appear…The Virgin’s feast, in fulfilling the function of the root, the source, the foundation…takes on with good reason the ornament of all those other feasts, and it is conspicuous with many great boons, and is recognized as the day of universal salvation.

* After God had bestowed on man the enjoyment and mastery over everything in the Garden, it was meet for him who was entrusted with so great authority to be disciplined and trained with some command. However, after transgressing this command, the Creator did not overlook His creatures though they had plunged themselves into such great error. It was needful, therefore, that one Person of the Trinity become man, to make it manifest that the recreation too, like the creation, was their own work. Incarnation entailed a pregnancy and a mother. So it was needful that a mother should be prepared down below for the Creator, for the recreation of shattered humanity. She was to be a virgin, just as the first man had been formed of virgin earth; so the recreation too should be carried out through a virgin womb, and that no transitory pleasure, even lawful, should be as much as imagined in the Creator’s birth; for the Lord suffered to be born for the deliverance of him who was a captive of pleasure.

Who then was worthy? Clearly it was she who this day strangely issued from Joachim and Anna, the barren root. It was needful, yea needful, that she who from the very cradle had by a superior reason preserved her body pure, her soul pure, her thoughts pure, should be marked out to be the Creator’s Mother.

It was needful that she who had been brought to the temple as an infant, who had trodden the untrodden places, should appear as a living temple for Him Who gave her life. It was needful that she who had been born in a wondrous manner from a sterile womb, and had removed her parents’ reproach, should also make good the failure of her forefathers; for she, the descendent, was able to repair the ancestral defeat, who brought forth the Savior of our race by a husbandless birth, and molded His body.

* The Lord’s throne (Mary) is being prepared on earth, earthly things are sanctified, the heavenly hosts are mingled with us, and the wicked one, who first deceived us, has his power crushed, as his wiles and devices rot away.

St. Neophytos of Cyprus

* Anna, delivered by the Creator of nature from the bonds of sterility, conceives by her spouse, Mary, a daughter of God. Anna, today gave birth to Mary, the first-fruits of our salvation, the immaculate Mother of God the Word, and the first-fruits of the renewal of our nature that had been aged and tarnished by transgression of the divine precepts.

St. Gregory Palamas

* For her sake, the God-possessed prophets pronounced prophecies, and miracles are wrought to foretell that future great miracle of the world, the Ever-Virgin Mother of God. Generation after generation of vicissitudes and historical events, make a path to their ultimate destination, to the new ministry that will be wrought in her. The rites and laws had provided beforehand a type of the future truth of the Spirit. The end, or rather the beginning and root of those earlier events and wonders of God, is the annunciation to Joachim and Anna, who were accomplished in the virtues, of what was to be accomplished (in their daughter).

* All divinely-inspired Scripture was written for the sake of the Virgin who begat God.


Have a Joyous Feast!

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