Fasting from the Sentiments of the Feast


I have a favorite Joni Mitchell song. In her very mournful style she sings about the season before Christmas:

It’s comin’ on Christmas,
They’re cuttin’ down trees,
They’re puttin’ up reindeer and singin’ songs of joy and peace.
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on…I would teach my feet to fly!

It is a melancholy tune, echoing the bittersweet experience of the culture Christmas. We love it. We hate it. We wish we had a river we could skate away on.

black-friday-has-gone-christmas-shopping-season-continues1Christmas is the great feast of sentiment in our culture. It is filled with deep poignant reminders of childhood hopes and dreams as well as bitter pains. The songs associated with it, from religious carols to the crooning of Bing Crosby, are geared towards a set of thoughts and feelings that are among the most strongly held in modern America. A Jewish friend once said to me, “Everybody’s a Christian at Christmas! You can’t help it!” It certainly feels that way. Little wonder that those who want Christians to be unseen and unheard bring frivolous lawsuits and get angry at a holiday that pierces so deeply.

Of course, the feelings are not about Christ or His birth. That event itself becomes overshadowed in the fog of sentiment. The feast is about a feeling – one that is often co-opted for other purposes.

The angels proclaim, “Peace on earth, goodwill towards men!” and their song is taken up as a slogan, a desire and longing for a world that does not exist, but which we feel as though we somehow misplaced. “I’ll be home for Christmas,” the singer croons, but we never do get home. For the home is a childhood that we remember, but with all of the tricks of false memory. It is blended with images of Jimmy Stewart and Zuzu’s Petals and the sentiments of a Christmas that never comes.

And so we react with anger. The marketing of the sentiment begins too soon and is often either too earnest or simply wrapped in kitsch. Anger is the reactive passion that seeks to protect us from the season’s onslaught. And it hardens the heart – like that of Scrooge.

But whatever Christmas is—it is not nothing. It cannot be avoided or dismissed. As such, it should be recognized for what it is – a spiritual struggle that begs to be joined. Anger and dismissal are already defeat, the triumph of misbegotten dudgeon.

The struggle is not about Christmas – it is about the passions. The cultural treatment of Christ’s incarnation is only an occasion of temptation. Christians angry about the abuse of Christmas does nothing for the world and only impedes the gospel.

So how do we struggle? First we forget what the culture is doing. How can we expect the culture to do something different? Modern culture exists to sell things to people and the people exist in order to feed their passions – to acquire pleasure and avoid pain. But the Christian struggle is to keep the feast. And the feast begins with fasting.

This is the Orthodox way of life, the last complete example of classical Christianity in the modern world. There are other vestiges of classical Christianity – trace elements that mark the memory of a Christianity now greatly weakened. In contemporary Churches that memory is called Advent. Advent is marked with a special wreath with candles and readings appointed for Sundays. The home might include an Advent Calendar, a ritualizing of the Christmas countdown. But forgotten by contemporary Christianity is that Advent was once a fasting season, comparable to Lent. In Orthodoxy, the fullness of the fast remains. The Nativity Fast begins 40 days before Christmas (November 15 on the New Calendar). Though not as strict as the fast of Great Lent, it is nearly so.

And this is the classical pattern of the Christian life – the arrival of every feast is prepared with fasting. The greater the feast, the stricter the fast.

Why the fasting before the feast? It would be just as appropriate to ask, “Why the feast?” The liturgical celebration of events, or saints is not an exercise in ceremonial memory. The Church is not engaging in fits of nostalgia. The faith of the Church is that the mystery of the feast, or the person of the saint is, in fact, made mystically present in the feast. We do not celebrate the memory of Christmas – Christmas comes into our midst and we become partakers of the mystery. The Word becomes flesh, and the spiritual energies of Christ’s incarnation permeate the lives of those of partake of the feast. It is a saving event.

It is this reality that fasting prepares for. Fasting is a spiritual preparation that readies the body, soul and deep heart for the reception of the feast. orthodoxxmasusAnd in the feast we are transformed. This is the hallmark and pattern of the whole of the Orthodox spiritual life.

…purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1Co 5:7-8)

Our attention in the 40 day Nativity fast is properly directed towards our own lives. We refrain from certain foods and increase our prayers. We increase our giving and remembrance of the poor. We strain ourselves towards union with Christ in all things. And all of this so that at the great feast of His Nativity, He might be mystically born in us, in His humility, finding a welcome and kindred home.

He does not enter the heart that is crowded with wealth and cares. For there was no room in the public inn. It is in the humble cave in the company of the ox and ass that Christ finds His home. And there, in the company and companionship of His mother we welcome Him.

We really don’t need to concern ourselves with what is happening in the stores and shops. We may indeed decorate our trees and buy presents. But the heart that has taken up the discipline of the fast can forgive the world for its forgetfulness and neglect. For it was in just such a time that Christ was born. Those who are watching for Him will always find Him.

26 comments:

  1. You mentioned the Incarnation in your essay.
    Did not the Incarnation happen March 25, i.e. 9 months ago?
    Surely Christmas is the feast of the Nativity?
    respectfully,
    Charlie.

  2. Father, my family and I are catechumens, entering into our first Nativity fast. Your post here is tremendously, wonderfully helpful to us. Thank you very much!

  3. I always hesitate to comment here because I am a tiny little fish in this big pond and only a beginner on the Orthodox path. But thank you for your words here. Can’t help noticing how your post begins with the poignant melancholy of Joni Mitchell’s song (which often makes me cry) and ends with such joyful and hopeful words – “Those who are watching for Him will always find Him.” I pray that those who are longing in this world of ours for the deep and the true but not knowing where to look for it, and are blinded by our overpowering consumerist culture, will be given eyes to see and ears to hear, that they too may watch this year and that He may be found by them. Including me.

  4. Just this morning, a reporter friend asked my husband for the Orthodox perspective for an article on how Christians prepare for Christmas. My husband asked me, and I’m embarrassed to say that I came up with three or four other things before I thought of the most important one — we fast. I wish I had read this article a couple hours earlier — I would’ve had a much more complete (and accurate) answer. Thank you, Father!

  5. Heeding sentiments and the surface which is swung this way and that dependant on the external or internal stimuli – in the absence of God-centred watchfulness – is a recipe for unhappiness. Contrary to our desire for joy, we end up unhappy again and again – unable to ignore the draw of the passions and their false promises…
    Watchfulness in humility invariably leads to unshakeable joy – even though this ‘asceticism’ might seem harsh to worldly eyes…
    As Fr Aimilianos often reminded us:
    Pain, worry, sorrow, angst, are products of the fall, which came about due to man’s selfishness.
    While the soul’s natural state is joy – since God Himself is peace and joy – and the soul is His own breath, created by Him and directed towards Him, the ego’s vapors spawn heartache within the soul. But this aching distress is alien and unjustified in human life.
    Alas, today there is no one who is joyous, we barely, therefore come across a balanced, calm, normal person.
    Unhappiness is a terrible illness that plagues the world – it is perhaps the greatest torment of humanity, its greatest tragedy. It is not just the preambles of hell but hell itself experienced in the present life.
    Lack of joy indicates a lack of God while the presence of joy is proof of the presence of God.

  6. Fasting is a deep mystery to me. One I have never been able to penetrate to any extent. It is explained in so many different ways. Here, Father, you seem to explain it in a cause-effect type of way: if you give up things of lesser importance, you will get things of greater importance.

    I have only been able to do even a semblance of the fast simply out of obedience. Jesus said: “…when you fast…”. He expects us to fast. The Church gives us the manner of fasting (at least the external manner). So I attempt (mostly failing) to do it.

    However, for me, the greatest insight into fasting occurred when, during Lent, a person I deeply loved was torn from me unexpectedly. I desired that the person remain and yet that was not possible. It was a deep longing desire that could not be satisfied–she had died. I did not thing about the normal fast the rest of the Lent. Yet, when Pascha came, the greatest joy I have ever known was granted to me, despite my grief. In that moment, I participated in the Ressurection My fasting that Lent was involuntary.

    All too often the fast becomes for me a mere sentiment just as much else in modern life. To really fast, to not eat things for which I long deeply or to forgo anger or some other sinful passion no matter how much I want to give in. That may be approaching actual fasting, but that is just a guess.

    This Nativity Fast, I have recently acquired medical situations that make the food portion of the fast even more difficult than usual: not impossible, but much more difficult. So once again, I will likely bumble through and likely I will miss out on the fullness of joy at His Incarnation in limbo sort of between the sentiment of the world and the promise of Him becoming man for us.

    I suspect that I am not alone in my experience as many people I know either make up their own fasting rules or simply ignore them.

  7. Dino,

    Thank you for the amazing quote from Father Aimilianos

    Especially :

    “and the soul is His own breath, created by Him and directed towards Him, the ego’s vapors spawn heartache within the soul. But this aching distress is alien and unjustified in human life”

    Which of his books contain this quote and which books would you recommend?

  8. Father,
    This post is a difficult one as Christmas has always been so wrapped up with “traditions” involving food, special cakes, special cookies…the smells, the music…they invoke a truly sentimental part of me that is hard to escape. Childhood memories that can no longer be repeated because loved ones are not here anymore and children grow up and didn’t really like your favorite Christmas cookies after all. 🙂 It leaves me with a sadness that three years of orthodoxy hasn’t changed yet. Although by the time Christmas on the old calendar comes around I can let go of the lost Protestant traditions and be glad they aren’t ” in the way” of focusing on the birth of Christ.
    This year has an added twist that is too private for an Internet posting but I will not likely be at our home parish so I will miss a new tradition as well.
    I guess I am saying is what about do I do about all these sentimental feelings … Are they wrong to have? Does this just tell me I am way too caught up in this world?
    Thanks

  9. Beautiful article! I am very excited (and very blessed) this year to be spending most of Advent and then Christmas at a monastery. The best part for me will be the focus on the church and not the food/presents/etc. Rather, we will be going to a vigil (the highest rank of feast)! So wonderful… Good re-emphasis. Thank you Father.

  10. AJ,
    “They are what they are.” We indeed are largely trapped in a lifetime of accruing such sentimental things. It is why the fast is important (in all its aspects). Where we direct our attention (Christ) is important, so that we don’t simply indulge ourselves needlessly in the non-productive aspects of the sentiments.

    Are they “wrong.” What does it matter? They are not useful in our salvation.

  11. “Where we direct our attention (Christ) is important, so that we don’t simply indulge ourselves needlessly in the non-productive aspects of the sentiments.”

    I understand that the bumper sticker “Keep Christ in Christmas” comes from reaction to the culture, and can even be an “angry” reaction. Still, I find it to be a “productive” sentiment – it has reminded me on occasion what the focus should be…

  12. Father and Dino,
    Thanks for your comments…and gentle reprimand. I reread what I wrote and compared it to your blog entry. I sound like a whiny kid not getting what they want for Christmas!
    Please pray for me.

  13. “the Christian struggle is to keep the feast.”

    Father Stephen, this quote has been niggling at me for a few days now. Most of the Paschal liturgies I’ve participated in have ended in a feeling of sadness rather than joy. The mere fact of putting in effort to keep Lent brings a feeling of joy, but by the time I finish my plate at 3 am on Pascha, I feel physically satisfied but spiritually empty again. I wonder if you could give some advice on how to properly keep the feast. Because I want to rejoice as I did in church, shouting Christ is risen!

  14. Meg Photini,
    I recognise what you describe and my own thoughts are that the joy (which is in a sense the very definition of the word ‘feast’) is always retained through ‘Nepsis’ – watchful, prayerful vigilance. The feeling of sadness at such a time as you describe is a corollary of the usual relaxation of the intensity of our ‘nepsis’. Remaining in that ‘New day that has no evening’ through nepsis – it can only be done through nepsis – destroys this sadness. We cannot possibly pay attention to it even if sadness was to come in great force, as we are paying attention elsewhere unceasingly. Even when we have are forced to return to the banal after Pascha, we do not really become a part of it, since this watchfulness in everything keeps us poised with feet on the earth and heart and intellect in the Heavens. It is not difficult to combine being seriously poised and joyous this way.

  15. Thanks very much, Dino. Your words are very wise–now it remains for me to attempt the practice. Christmas is coming!

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