We prepare for the great Winter Feasts of Christmas and Theophany with a 40-day Fast. Christmas (the Nativity of the Pre-eternal Son of the Father) and Theophany (the Baptism of that same Son) form a unit in the liturgical life of the Church. And although – thanks to secularism, Santa Claus, and Macy’s, many in the contemporary West tend to feel (at least emotionally) that Christmas is The Great Christian Feast, the fact is that the historic Church sees Pascha as the Feast of Feasts and – as far as the Winter festal season goes – Theophany as the major climax of the Winter festal season. And this does not in the least diminish our love and involvement with the Lord’s Nativity in the cave in Bethlehem.
Here is a short scriptural check-list for all faithful Christians regarding fasting as an integral component of our lives in Christ, and in our preparation to greet His Nativity.
Dismayed by their failure to exorcise a demon1 the Lord’s Disciples asked Him why they had failed in their (sincere) efforts to heal a possessed child.
Our Lord’s reply to His confused and upset Disciples – after He had succeeded where they had failed2 — is rather short and to the point: Because of your unbelief . . . . Howbeit this kind [of devil] goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.3
The Lord’s message, terse as it is, confronts us with 3 points:
1. Because of unbelief, the Disciples were unprepared to deal with the demoniac by prayer and fasting
2. Prayer and fasting are integrally linked to each other
3. Faith is the required prerequisite for undertaking the work of prayer and fasting
So, the failure to pray and fast has something to do with a lapse of faith; it has something to do with becoming distracted away from the hard work of sustaining a living faith. But when our faith is alive, we naturally pray and fast, we can move a mountain, and nothing shall be impossible for us.4
Are we in fact faithful – is our faith a living faith? A lived faith? Do we practice our faith, as they say, 24/7?
Or do we make the mistake of thinking that belief, faith, has something to do with words about God, rather than the actual meaning of faith, which includes such things as to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. . . . And . . . thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself?5 Note the love!
Do we see how it comes to pass that it is love that is involved in this entire matter of fasting and praying – so much so that we can rightly say “this kind goeth not out but by prayer, and fasting – and loving”! Loving!
So in addition to consulting church calendars to know when to fast, we see that it is equally crucial for Believers to know what is involved in fasting. Yes, we alter our diets. Yes, in addition to changing the character (the quality) of our food, we also adjust the amount (the quantity) of calories consumed.6
Quantitative fasting and qualitative fasting: for our fasting to be balanced, both must be taken seriously.
But fasting involves more than dietary issues.
What is fasting without praying? For that matter, in the context of the Lord’s teaching on this question – we can equally ask, what is fasting without loving? (And the answer is, not much! Right?)
Someone noted that in pre-revolutionary Russia, wealthy people who had servants dreaded fasting seasons because that was when all the servants became short-tempered – even with their employers! And the one noting this (was it the popular English writer, Timothy [Metropolitan Kallistos] Ware?) also noted that while these workers fasted strictly, they were not given time off to attend church services; and given the long workdays and the hard work that most of these people were required to do daily, I doubt they were in any condition to engage in much private prayer behind closed doors: And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are . . . But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret . . . .7
And do we see the significance of the parallel between prayer offered secretly8 and the Lord’s insistence that our fasting must also be offered in secrecy – and for exactly the same reason: Moreover, when ye fast, be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance; for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face: that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.9
In these few Scriptural notes we have much material for reflection, Brethren.
When you go through the references at the bottom of these pages of this and open your New Testament10 I hope you see how deeply interconnected the main elements of our faith actually are.
In connection with the Nativity Fast, for example – we begin by speaking of fasting; then we are speaking of praying; then we are speaking of being faithful; and of avoiding hypocrisy – and if we are struggling to avoid hypocrisy, then we are committing ourselves to a life of integrity – and at that point we are speaking of the life in Christ – and we find ourselves in a closet, with a shut door, praying with Christ, in the Spirit, to the Father! And what binds all these wondrous things together has to be love, a love which we talk about, but more importantly, also a love realized as God’s simplest identity.11
If you will, Brethren – take time every day, ruminating on these things with undivided, undistracted attention12 – phones off the hook; television, radios and players of all kinds turned off; videos and video games set aside. This disengagement from our involvements with things is indispensable for prayer, for pondering the great things of God, for repentance and reconciliation – and for the joys thereof.
This daily engagement with the one thing needful13 can turn our life around. The habits of reflection, of pondering our life in Christ can be for us nothing less than the examined life, worth living.14
As with every fast, the Nativity Fast can bring us back to our spiritual home-base. It can reconnect us to the fundamental truths by which we are resolved to live in virtue of our initial commitments undertaken in Baptism, renewed in our eucharistic Communion, fed by Scripture, the Fathers, and experienced in the ascetic struggle present in the give and take of daily life in all its relationships. All integral fasting engages us in these things by design. It is also the time of relief from demonic assault – for no matter how overwhelming our demons are, even the worst of them can be dealt with by prayer and fasting.
So – what is it that fasting can accomplish within us?
Among other things, one response could be that fasting empowers us to be serious about serious things! Used properly, fasting really does keep us wide awake and paying attention during prayer! And no better way to find our own way to Bethlehem. No small gift, that, Brethren!
First Day of the Nativity Fast, Thursday, 28/15 November, 2013
1 Saint Matthew 17: 16; 19.
2 Saint Matthew 17: 18. Interesting that this great teaching about fasting resulted from a notable failure.
3 Saint Matthew 17: 20 – 21.
4 Saint Matthew 17: 20.
5 Saint Matthew 22: 35 – 40. Of the 3 main words for love in Greek, the word our Saviour uses here is αγαπεισεις (agapeiseis, thou shalt love).
6 And if it needs repeating, Yes, if we are (a) ill; or (b) taking medications requiring the ingestion of certain (non-fasting) foods, or (c) we are nursing mothers . . . . we are absolved from the full force of the Fast.
7 Saint Matthew 6: 5 – 6. Note that just after this key teaching on prayer, our Lord gives His Disciples “His” prayer, The Lord’s Prayer, Saint Matthew 6: 9 – 14. But then note that following The Lord’s Prayer comes the crucial teaching regarding forgiveness (Saint Matthew 6: 14 – 15) and then comes an equally crucial teaching on fasting (Saint Matthew 6: 16 – 18). These matters are all connected with each other.
8 What is the point of this secrecy? To avoid pride, and hypocrisy. Prayer must be offered in humility. We recall the Lord’s Parable of the Publican & the Pharisee as remembered in Luke 18: 10 – 15.
9 Saint Matthew 6: 15 – 18.
10 The New Cambridge Paragraph Bibl – King James Version is quoted in here, if for no other reason than that, in addition to its general accuracy, it connects the reader to a most beautiful body of English. In our hard world, any time spent in the presence of such beauty, employed in so singularly sacred a work as bearing Scripture, is good time, and sometimes, it is just about the best time we can have.
11 1st Epistle of Saint John, 4: 16 — God is love.
12 The quality of being wide-awake, vigilant, supplies the descriptive term (νηψις) for the Fathers included in the Philokalia of the Neptic Fathers. Not much is accomplished without this quality — especially in prayer.
13 Saint Luke 10: 42.
14 With a nod to – but reversing – Sokrates’ The unexamined life is not worth living (Apology 38 A: ο δε ανεξεστατος βιος οu βιωτος) – quoted famously by Henry David Thoreau in Walden.
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