The Nativity Fast starts tomorrow (New Calendar)! I can almost smell the pine trees… and lentils. Speaking of beans, in our tradition, we are given a multitude of time-honored practices that invite us into the liturgical and sacramental significance of Christ’s entrance into this world–fasting rubrics, for example, or added emphasis on repentance, prayer, and almsgiving.
It’s tempting to see these “rules” of a fasting season as the endgame, but really they are just the beginning.
Bearing that in mind, here are 5 ideas for how we can redeem the time this Nativity Fast.
Kick things off with a time inventory
Speaking of redeeming the time, I have found it beneficial to begin longer fasting periods with a 2-3 day time inventory (more than that and it gets a little onerous). (I’ve blogged about this practice here, here, here, and talked with Fr. Robert Holet on the podcast about it here). The basics of this quasi-spiritual discipline are simple: keep track of how you spend your time so that you can a) become more vigilant about the ways you use your time in this life; and b) carve out more time for things that are important to you, like prayer or relationships. It’s a good thing to do for a few days at a time or even an entire fasting season to cultivate a more disciplined and wakeful attitude toward time.In the past, I’ve used an app on my smartphone, but the added screentime this required got too complicated and stressful. Back to basics! I now print off and fill out a pdf spreadsheet that’s broken up into half-hour increments and that fits one week on a single sheet of paper. If you want to try this along with me for the first few days of the Nativity Fast, I’ve made a special one here. Feel free to use this for your own purposes! (If you have eyesight issues and find the small text difficult to read, get in touch and I can try to send you the Word version so you can customize it to your needs.)
Incorporate more Scripture reading into your day
Between the fasting and liturgies and rules of prayer, it’s tempting in the Orthodox world to take Bible reading for granted. But even if you attend church frequently and hear the Gospel readings, you’ll only ever hear a limited portion of the totality of the scriptures. The Nativity season is a great time to start incorporating more Scripture into your daily routine. There are many reading plans out there, but lately I’ve benefited from listening to Fr. Alexis Kouri’s podcast Daily Orthodox Scriptures. This show first launched last March, and since then Fr. Alexis has been on a year-long journey through the Bible, reading the Orthodox Study Bible version. Daily episodes are posted in the middle of the night so they’re ready to listen to even if you get up early, and each one ranges from 15-30 minutes long, with readings from both the Old and New Testaments and brief contextual notes or exhortations from Fr. Alexis. I’ve done year-long Bible reading plans before but this is the first time I’ve done so through audio–there really is something special about hearing the Word of God rather than just reading it silently. It’s quickly become one of my favorite parts of my morning routine.
Pray for your enemies
Redeeming the time isn’t all roses–there’s hard work to be done. While we are always called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Mt 5:44), the Nativity Fast is a fitting time to adopt this practice more intentionally, especially if we’ve neglected it. The weeks leading up to Christmas are a time when we naturally begin looking back over the last year and taking stock. In doing so, it’s easy to become consumed with perceived transgressions we’ve endured from others. If you’re like me, the “enemies” that come to mind typically aren’t enemies at all, but people who somehow haven’t lived up to my own preconceived expectations and ideals–ideals I myself don’t even measure up to. Instead of drawing up a calendar of resentment in our minds, we can challenge ourselves to transform this season into one of–not just forgiveness–but love and goodwill towards those who know not what they do (yes, even that colleague at work who STILL hasn’t cleaned out the microwave after heating up his unusually fragrant saurkraut three weeks ago).
Practically, what this looks like is (gulp) actually praying for our enemies. And not with the false veneer of piety as the Pharisee prayed, but with the humility of the Publican–no matter how deeply someone has wounded us, we and our sin are our own worst enemy.
My favorite prayer for this purpose is a single line buried in the daily supplications in the morning prayers of the Orthodox Study Bible: “Save, O Lord, and have mercy on those who envy and affront me, and who do me mischief, and do not let them perish through me a sinner.”
Attend to the Light
From the lamp-lighting hymn of vespers to the morning prayers of matins that speak of rising early and anticipating the dawn, so many of the prayers in the daily office center on the waxing and waning of light throughout the day–a prefiguration to the coming light of Christ. It’s a difficult part of our tradition to fully grasp in our light-saturated world of electricity and blue-lit smartphone screens that most of us are apparently staring at far too late in the night. Yet it’s perhaps this time of year more than any other we can begin to appreciate the importance of the light God has given us and start to carve out meaningful ways of interacting with and giving thanks for light.
The service of vespers essentially sacralizes the moment in the day you turn on a lamp to see. An otherwise mundane act–an act that I’m sure was easily taken for granted in late antiquity just as it is today–becomes holy and an icon of Christ’s entrance into this world.
How can we come to similarly attend to the light in our own mundane routines? Last winter was so long and dark where I live that on May 1 (May 1!), when it still showed no sign of letting up, I finally caved in and bought a special light therapy lamp for Seasonal Affective Disorder. My doctor recommended I use it for a certain number of minutes every day. She also recommended going outside while the sun is up for a certain amount of time every day for the same reason. I’m learning to see these times as invitations to remember Christ, the true light. If my mind and body require light to fully function in these dark months, how much more so do I need Christ?
There are many people who, like me, have to be extra vigilant about light to offset the effects of SAD in northern climates. It’s a real part of the Nativity Fast and beyond for lots of us. Why not incorporate this into our theology of light and–like the lamp-lighting hymns of vespers–find a way within ourselves to give thanks and remember Christ when we turn on that therapy lamp or step out into the -10 degree weather because… sunlight?
Likewise, what about remembering Him on our beds at night–rather than scrolling in that endless cloud of blue light and social media posts? This, too, is another opportunity to attend to the Light.
Bear another person’s struggles
I think it’s easy to make a fasting season about ourselves–what we’re giving up, habits we are trying to cultivate, our own sense of purpose or lack thereof. Giving alms and helping our neighbor is an element of fasting seasons that easily falls by the wayside. In addition to giving actual alms in the form of financially helping someone else, one way we can show love for our neighbor this Nativity is to intentionally learn more about a category of suffering others are going through that we have little or no experience with. Maybe it’s addiction, unemployment, depression, disability… There are several passages in the New Testament that invoke our calling to bear one another’s weaknesses with love in the body of Christ, yet so often we are satisfied to be ignorant about what suffering actually entails for others. What’s it actually like to be a parent to a child with a serious disability? What’s it actually like to be addicted to opioids or to love a family member who is? Let’s venture out of our comfort zone and learn about a category of suffering people in our lives or community are facing–what their pain is, what needs they have, how we can pray for or support them. It’s a small step toward making our parishes places where people can bring their struggles, no matter how messy, and experience healing. If this is scary for you, start with podcasts and books–listening to the podcast Last Day, for example, has helped me better understand the human tragedy behind the opiod epidemic and be less afraid to listen to people I encounter in my everyday life who struggle with addiction. (Warning: the podcast does have some swearing.)
Redeeming the time this Nativity is about more than simply staying in the lines of rubrics that have been handed down to us, it’s about leaning into them to transform our lives and the way we fill each moment. It’s about asking ourselves not so much what more we can render to the Lord, but how we can respond more fully to all that He has rendered unto us in sending His Son into this world.