This text was originally posted as a Raising Saints podcast episode in 2012.
It’s November, and that means that it’s time to get ready for the Nativity Lent, the Advent Fast.
For Orthodox Christians living in America, this is a very important fast, because in this society, we really need it.
In our American culture, we love to pre-celebrate our holidays, especially Christmas. Many stores are already pressing you to purchase your Christmas gifts and ornaments; as soon as Thanksgiving is out of the way, they’ll be inundating you with Christmas carols and candies. By the time Christmas Eve arrives, how many Christmas parties will you have already attended? By midday on the 25th of December, you may well be worn out from a month of celebrating Christmas before Christmas even had a chance to arrive.
In the U.S., we hear Christians of all kinds exhorting you not to “forget the reason for the season” or to put “Christ back into Christmas” because in this country, Christmas is transforming into something else entirely.
It’s oft-lamented that Christmas has become a consumer event; it’s a retail bonanza, and in fact, you’ll see Christmas shopping numbers tracked closely on the evening news starting in November, because this is e a huge event for our economy.
It’s not just the excessive focus on gift-giving, and it’s not just the way that Santa Claus and his elves forget their St. Nicholas roots and overshadow Christ in His manger.
It’s also about the fact that in the United States, the Christmas feast begins earlier and earlier. Whatever time in December is not already taken up by shopping, seems to be spent at parties. Households and companies alike throw their annual Christmas parties throughout the month of December, and people exchange Christmas cookies and baked treats not just on the holiday itself, but throughout the month that precedes it.
Frankly, by the time the evening of December 25th rolls around, America is tired. By Christmas Day, we’ve been celebrating this holiday for weeks already.
In fact, from Thanksgiving to the long Christmas party to New Year’s Eve, at this time of year America lunges from one feast to another — until finally in January, our waistlines and credit card statements bulge with the excesses of the holiday season.
The truth is that just about everyone in America knows that this is not a healthy system — it’s not physically healthy, financially healthy, or spiritually healthy, and you don’t have to be Orthodox to recognize what a mess our holidays are. This is not a structure designed to help us receive Christ. This does not invite us to marinate in the amazing reality of the Incarnation of God.
Of course, Orthodoxy doesn’t celebrate feasts like this; we don’t gorge ourselves for months in anticipation of a holiday, only to be worn out and exhausted by the feast itself. We fast before we feast, preparing our hearts to more fully receive Christ when finally the anticipated feast day arrives.
We Orthodox Christians have another way to experience Christmas, and we are passing it along to our children. Not only should we observe the Nativity Fast with them, but we should draw their attention to the ways in which the society around them feasts without ceasing, and how fasting can alter our experience of the feast.
This would be a great conversation to have with a Sunday school class or at a youth group meeting, or around your dinner table.
Kids can probably think of more examples than you can of ways in which they’re seeing Christmas celebrated before December 25 and the ways in which this constant feasting distracts us from the real meaning of Christmas.
As we’re raising kids in an unorthodox society, we need to talk about the differences with them so that they’re not just blindly absorbing whatever input our American culture is giving them; they should discern what they want to take in and make part of themselves from what they will reject and hold at bay.
So how are we presenting the Nativity Fast to our children?
A few years ago, our parish priest, Fr. Vasileios Flegas, offered a classic image that is accessible to our children and it beautifully communicates both the struggle and the wonder of Advent: it’s the journey of the Magi, who came from distant lands to seek Christ. Let’s talk with our children about these men who studied the stars. They were astronomers, and they knew that God would send a star to lead them to the Messiah, the King of Kings. How did they know? You remember Daniel, a favorite prophet for children, for they’ve seen him survive the Lion’s Den; well he spent some time in the East, and he left prophecies. These men worshipped the stars, but Daniel pointed them to the One who had created those stars; and he prophesied a time when God would use a star to announce the birth of the King. They remembered Daniel’s words through the generations, and they watched and waited. God knew their language, and He used a star to direct them; He knows how to talk to each and every one of us.
These wise men set out on a journey, travelling a long, hard way through the desert — not unlike the struggle we undertake through our fast — following the star, believing in its promise, and seeking the Christ-child; let’s join them as we make our way through these forty days to finish by kneeling at the manger, worshipping in wonder at the glorious incarnation of God Himself.
We can teach our children that the fast is not merely about food, it’s about preparation, about the journey which is worth taking, because it leads to a better reception of Christ.
In our youth groups at Transfiguration, one year the children made little mangers out of brown construction paper, and they were given bags of cotton balls. They were challenged to do something especially good every day for the forty days, marking each good work by adding a cotton ball to the manger. At the end of the fast, if they had been disciplined and done many good deeds, the manger would be soft and warm and ready to receive Christ — because when we work to prepare our hearts through fasting, prayer and good works, our hearts will become soft and warm and ready to receive Christ!
This is a beautiful image, and one that children of any age can really understand and make their own.
Of course, whenever we are fasting, we should be praying, and we should be studying. This particular fast can be really difficult because there are so many distractions this time of year.
A great way to stay focused as a group is to read a book together!
I have two great recommendations for you.
For preschool & elementary aged children, there’s Mersine Vigopoulo’s From I-Ville to You-Ville. Narthex Press publishes this neat story, which is based on the teachings of Elder Paisius. Fourteen short chapters lend themselves well to bedtime reading, and children from four to fourteen will really benefit spiritually from its wisdom. Anyone older who happens to be within earshot will soon find themselves joining the reading, eager to hear more. This allegorical story has the hero, Stubborn, setting out from his self-centered community of I-Ville to discover the land of Serenity known as You-Ville. Along the way, he’ll find God and learn what it takes to transform from a haughty, lonely soul to a loving member of this sweet community. This story is a gem, especially because it gives us an invaluable vocabulary and frame of reference for talking to kids about humility and unselfish love.
We have read this beautiful, sweet tale many times in our house, and we truly never tire of it. I hope it will become a favorite in your home as well!
(*2015 Note: watch for part 2 to be released in English soon.)
For older kids, I recommend a new book called Crazy John, by Dionysios A Makris. This book is also about a modern Saint: John was a fool-for-Christ in an urban Athens neighborhood where neighbors were isolated from one another and from Christ. In his unique and loving way, John, whose holiness was as profound as it was hidden from sight, changed the lives of the various people lucky enough to come into contact with him. Without giving too much away, I can say that he brought them closer to one another and closer to God, creating a beautiful Christian community in a place that had been barren and cold.
You could read Crazy John out loud, one chapter at a time, or you could read it book club style – with each of the kids reading independently, then coming together with you to discuss it. Either way, it’s not a difficult book, and like John himself, it speaks simply and eloquently, teaching us HOW exactly we are to live out this Christian faith, HOW exactly one follows Christ in this modern world.
This one has some mature themes, but they will open fruitful conversations with your high schoolers.
May God bless us all as we undertake this Nativity Fast with our youth at our sides! Let’s talk with them about why we fast, why we join the Magi on the journey to Christ, and how it’s the journey that helps us to appreciate the destination.
Let’s make them aware of the difference between the instant gratification our society embraces and the faith-filled Orthodox project of fasting in anticipation of the Lord. From the fast itself to the wonderful lessons in the books that we’ll read together, let’s make this Nativity Lent a fruitful time for all of us.