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By Fr. Phillip Parfenov
This fast, as it is today in the Orthodox Church, became part of its tradition relatively late. The first mention of a fast preceeding the Nativity feast appears only at the end of the fourth century A.D. and its duration was not the same in different parts of the Christian world (the Armenian Church has preserved to this day a seven-day fast before Nativity and Theophany, which are united into one celebration). Only in 1166 did a council in Constantinople establish a forty-day fast before the Nativity, from November 15th to December 24th (according to the modern calendar, from November 28th to January 6th).
By analogy to the prepaschal fast, called the Great Forty-Day Fast, the fast before Nativity was also sometimes called a forty-day fast, but a “minor” one. In general, the number forty can be found repeatedly in the Bible and signifies a certain trial or preparatory period—it’s a number of ordeals.
The foretaste of the feast and its anticipation, coupled with a certain self-imposed test of one’s strength, can be no less spiritually rich than the feast itself. And that’s why the church calendar predisposes us well in advance, gradually, in an ever-increasing process.
Nativity hymns begin to sound in the Orthodox Church more than a month before the feast. The first time is at Vigil for the feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple, when we sing of her, “The Virgin appears in the temple of God, in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all.”1
“Christ is born; glorify Him! Christ comes from heaven; go to meet Him! Christ is on earth; be exalted! Sing to the Lord, all the earth! And praise Him in gladness, O people, for He has been glorified!”2
These words were taken from the first lines of “Oration 38, on Theophany or the Nativity of the Saviour,” by St. Gregory the Theologian: “Christ is born, glorify Him. Christ from heaven, go out to meet Him. Christ on earth; be exalted. Sing to the Lord, all the earth (Ps. 96:1); and that I may join both in one word: Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad,3 for Him who is of heaven and then of earth. Christ in the flesh, rejoice with trembling and with joy; with trembling because of your sins, with joy because of your hope.”
From this moment (the evening of Dec. 3rd)4, we hear these irmoi of the Nativity Canon at all Divine Liturgies as well as on Saturday nights. And services for the Holy Apostle Andrew, the First-Called (December 13th), and St. Nicholas the Wonderworker (December 19th) include the stichiras of the Nativity forefeast, such as this one from the Vigil for St. Nicholas:
Splendidly adorn thyself, O cave, for the ewe-lamb who doth bear Christ in her womb doth come! O manger, receive thou Him Who by a word doth release us mortals from irrational activity! Ye shepherds who pipe, bear witness to the awesome wonder! Ye Magi from Persia, bring forth gold, frankincense and myrrh, for the Lord hath appeared from the Virgin Mary; and the Mother, regarding Him as doth befit a handmaid, worshipped Him Who was laid in her arms: How wast Thou sown within me? How didst Thou spring forth in me, O my Deliverer and God?
In the course of this “Minor Forty-Day Fast,” a special place is given to the Old Testament prophets and righteous men: Obadiah (December 2nd), Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, and Haggai (on December 14, 15, 16, and 29, respectively). By all appearances, they are gathered for this fasting period deliberately. Services for these prophets are not at all celebratory, but rather penitential. This shows us that before the advent of Christ, humanity was weighed down by the burden of both Adam’s fall and its own lawlessness. But this did not prevent those faithful to God even in those times from looking at the future with hope and faith in salvation:
O Lord, revive Your work in the midst of the years! In the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy…His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of His praise…You went forth for the salvation of Your people, for salvation with Your Anointed. You struck the head from the house of the wicked, by laying bare from foundation to neck. (Habbakuk 3:1-19)
On December 30th, the Church commemorates the Prophet Daniel and the three holy youths Ananias, Azarias, and Misael. The Vigil includes Nativity hymns as well, although the service itself is not at all of a festive sort: “Daniel, a man greatly beloved, having seen the stone cut out without hands (cf. Daniel 2:31-45), foretold the birth of an Infant without seed—You, O Lord, the Word who took flesh from a virgin, the unchanging God and Savior of our souls.”
The blessed dew of the angel that preserved the three youths who were thrown into a fiery furnace by order of King Nebuchadnezzar is a prototype of God’s condescension during the Virgin’s conception of God made man. As for the youths themselves, they show the victory of life and resurrection (the episode of the three youths is commemorated especially on Holy Saturday, the eve of the Resurrection—cf. Dan. 3:24-90).
The song of the three youths is not included in the Hebrew Masoretic text of the Bible, but it is part of the Greek Septuagint, which is used at Orthodox services. And this miracle of the three youths’ preservation in the Babylonian furnace is sung in one form or another all the year round, in the 7th or 8th song of any canon. In the Nativity Canon, the beginning of the 7th and 8th odes is as follows:
The children brought up together in godliness scorned the impious decree of the tyrant. They were not afraid of the threat of fire, but standing in the midst of the flames, they sang: «Blessed art Thou, O God of our fathers!»
The furnace moist with dew was an image prefiguring a wonder beyond nature, for it did not burn the children whom it had received, nor did the Fire of Divinity consume the Virgin’s womb when it entered it. So let us raise the song: «Let all creation bless the Lord and exalt Him throughout all ages!»
Moreover, the two Sundays before the Nativity are dedicated in general to all the prophets and righteous men of the Old Testament and according to the church canons, they are called The Week of the Holy Forefathers and The Week of the Holy Fathers.
And, finally, on January 2nd begin the last five days of the Nativity forefeast, the last of which is Christmas Eve.
Therefore, the liturgical and prayerful content of the pre-Nativity fast is quite rich. That is what we should turn our attention to, rather than to the dietary side, which, despite not being the most important, is nevertheless what often worries contemporary Orthodox believers the most! Yet we cannot do without the latter, so we will now turn from the more sublime and poetic side to the more prosaic and quotidian one.
The meaning of the corporeal, physical fast can lie in only one thing: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Deut. 8:3; Mat. 4:4).
Bread itself, from a formal and canonical perspective, is a food that is fully appropriate for the fast—it’s not a meat or milk-based product, which fasts exclude. It is clear that in a wider sense, bread can be understood as any food. It’s quite another matter that food can be fatty and tasty—certainly undesirable for fasting—or can be modest and simple; bread itself corresponds, without a doubt, to the latter.
But when an Orthodox person pigs out on starchy food and sweets during a fast, preoccupied with all kinds of delicacies from the “fast-friendly menu,” and along the way even manages to put on some weight, there is clearly something wrong with the fast.
The ascetical fast is directed toward the spiritual side, which presupposes a partial overcoming of one’s corporal needs! So that man, bearing the image and likeness of God, may not merely walk under the reins of his physical nature, but may at least in some small way surpass himself, and all for a single goal: to better hear and listen to the word of God!
But the measure of this effort to surpass oneself will be inevitably different. One for beginners, another for mature Christians. One for teenagers, schoolchildren, and university students (it’s usually difficult to find something on university cafeteria menus that corresponds to classic fasting regulations), or for workers occupied in heavy physical labor, and another one for those who constantly labor in Orthodox temples, especially for the monastics. One for the young and healthy, another for the elderly and ill.
Unfortunately, in current Russian church life there prevails a formal approach in this regard. Many priests and spiritual fathers give instructions more often than not according to the simple «can/can’t,» «yes/no» outline, indicating the corresponding notes of Orthodox calendars and the Tipikon, which was originally oriented toward monastic life and hasn’t been edited in the Russian Church since the time of Patriarch Joachim (late 17th century). Formalism among pastors inevitably gives rise to a corresponding formalism among parishioners, who worry about missing the mark and breaking the fast, who inspect cookie packages at the store for potential additives like egg powder and dried milk, who ask the same questions year after year.
But such an approach inevitably gives rise to two extremes. The first is fasting like a Pharisee: precisely observing all canonical dietary and other prescriptions while openly or secretly humiliating those who do not observe them. Such people go to church for years, decades, yet do not therewith discover the main gifts of the spirit, for which the corporeal fast is meant to be a tool and help.
This begs the question: is such a fast necessary at all? And these doubts can inevitably lead to the other extreme, which completely ignores fasts and is expressed among certain Orthodox people who are disenchanted with many features of the church’s way of life or have grown cold to it. This extreme gained a foothold long ago among, for example, the Catholics of Western Europe, where among the laity fasts as such no longer exist.
Father Alexander Men pointed this out in one of his letters:
The only thing that I decidedly oppose is the abrogation of fasts, which I learned about long ago. Perhaps this does correspond to the Western way of life, but I cannot in any way endorse it and I urge you to live according to our Orthodox canons…You know that I am an ecumenist, but this does not at all mean that I consider Western customs to be in all ways better than ours. They too could learn a thing or two from us. (Men, Alexander. “Letters to a Spiritual Daughter—Alexandra Orlova-Model.” Christianos vol. XIV. Riga (2005): pg. 84)
How can we avoid both extremes? It is a difficult question, and taking into account the means and abilities of each person, individual answers will be preferable. At the same time, I would like to emphasize the following.
“The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”5 These words from the Gospel are read, incidentally, on the first Saturday of Great Lent, clearly setting all priorities. As important as the fast may seem to many Orthodox people, man is not for the fast, but rather the fast is for man himself. It should not be “an unbearable burden” for him, but is meant to train and strengthen him in his physical as well as spiritual health.
Indeed, ascesis (from the Greek άσκησις) is literally “training, exercise.” Someone who is overdiligent in such exercises will inevitably overstrain himself and harm his health! But someone who makes a small, yet accessible effort to train his will can by all means achieve a good result.
The fasting period is the most suitable for attempting to overcome all kinds of dependencies, and not just on some types of food. If someone feels within himself not one, but many different weaknesses, let him make the maximum possible effort to surmount that which troubles him the most! Because, as the proverb says, “if you chase two hares, you won’t catch any.”
If someone has a weakness for smoking, let him cut back on the quantity of cigarettes, but let him eat a little meat and not pay attention for the time being to the dietary strictness. If someone has a weakness for sweets, let him exclude them from his ration, but partake of dairy products. If someone has a weakness for alcohol or beer (from a formal standpoint, wine is a fast-friendly product, allowed even during Great Lent on Saturdays and Sundays!), let him refuse the slightest use of it without fail. These are all examples, to be sure—it’s better to discuss one’s concrete questions with a priest or spiritual father with whom one has established a fully confidential relationship.
Dear co-brothers and co-servants, especially those who are young and just starting out, if any of you are reading these lines: taking into account all the aforementioned, please show great flexibility in relation to each person who asks you about fasts, considering the age, physical health, type of work, and many other things, leaving it to his conscience to fast in an accessible way. So that it doesn’t turn out like the story that a good friend and priest’s wife told me:
One priest would often tell me this one. He served many years ago in a village parish; it was his first assignment, and he was young. He was sitting and reading the lives of ascetics, drinking tea. A little old lady came to him: “Father, bless me to lighten the fast; I have diabetes.” But the father’s book was open precisely in an impressive place where a certain ascetic says that it’s better to die than to break the fast. So the father decided that this was the hand of God. That’s what he said to the little old lady, word for word. She accepted this without a complaint and went home. And pretty soon she did actually die. Then they had to hold the widower back because he wanted to strike the priest dead. But what was the point, you can’t bring a person back…
Translated from Russian by Katia Shtefan
1 Translator’s Note: this is an excerpt from the troparion of the feast.
2 T. N. This is the first of the nine irmoi of the Nativity Canon and it too is sung at Vigil for the Entrance of the Theotokos.
3 T. N. Ps. 96:11.
4 T. N. As this article was written by a Russian priest, all of the dates reflect the Julian Calendar, which is 13 days behind the commonly used Gregorian Calendar. Hence, in the Western world, this holiday is usually celebrated on November 21st rather than December 3rd.
5 T. N. Mark 2:27.