Christmas: Lessons from the Nativity Fast


Nativity of the Lord Jesus from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt

The tradition in Orthodoxy is to spend the 40 days before Christmas fasting from meats and dairy products, with fish, wine, and olive oil permitted on certain days. Along with this abstinence, believers are encouraged to attend extra services during the week, or (at least) strengthen their individual rules of prayer. Since St. Basil is an hour away from home, I made more of an effort to do better in my nightly prayers and commit to spiritual reading. Paraphrases from an African Desert Father and an encouraging rebuke from an American monk pretty much underscores where I am.

The icon corner of my “cell”

I came across the Paraphrases of St. Makarios of Egypt (Macarius the Great) in the Philokalia Vol. III. The sections on Prayer, Patient Endurance & Discrimination, and The Raising of the Intellect have been challenging and inspirational. In particular, from his #43 passage: Whoever has attained the full measure of mature manhood naturally lays aside childish things (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:11). From this and other writings in this chapter (written by St. Symeon Metaphrastis), I had given myself a simple challenge: Grow Up! Many of the sins we commit show our spiritual immaturity. Gluttony is a childish desire to eat without any purpose but fulfilling the flesh. Lust is an infantile want of the act of unrestrained procreation without considering the purpose of the Creator. Pride is the temper tantrum that puts us over those who may have greater needs and are greater than ourselves. I am guilty of these and the long list of others. Each one makes me more a spoiled child rather than a man of God.

Macarius the Great & Seraphim Rose

One danger in reading and ingesting patristic Christian wisdom is that we think more of ourselves than we should. A pilgrim and recent convert made a self-assured confession to Fr. Seraphim Rose. The hieromonk’s words struck him deeper than anything he’d ever heard: Oh, my brother. You have a long way to go (Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, pgs. 821, 22). Learning wisdom from the early Church fathers and mothers is very important for our spiritual growth and aids in understanding the Bible. But being able to recite the words of some long-forgotten monk is not a magic formula to end a bad habit or escape from temptation. Complacency is the one weapon the evil one uses time and time again to cause us to fall back when we should be moving forward.

If transitioning from the 40 days fast to the 12-day feast were a sentence it would be: Grow up my brother! You have a long way to go. Not bad words to take into the New Year as well. I have work to do.

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