As our New Calendar brothers and sisters started their fasts and our Old Calendar brothers and sisters are just about to begin their fasts, I thought it would be timely to post about how to make the most of fast.
Fasting in the Orthodox faith comes down to increased prayer, almsgiving, going to the services, seeking confession, holding our tongues and fasting from most animal products or eating very similarly to veganism. It doesn’t sound too bad, right? But many of us struggle with it and believe it or not, that’s okay. Father may seem jubilant or as if he’s holding expectations for us at the start of a fast but he too knows we’re not perfect. God knows we’re not perfect. The idea is to put some effort into your fast and try a little harder than what you did over the last Fast. Or at least try. Think of the eleventh hour. Some believe we’re already living in the eleventh hour before Jesus’s return but regardless of what you believe, perhaps awareness that Jesus may come at any given time may perhaps be motivation enough to assess our spiritual life.
Let’s talk about the Christmas fast or the Nativity Fast. As Orthodox, we commemorate St Nicholas and the Nativity or in memory of the Nativity of Christ. According to the Archpriest Alexei Kruglik, “We fast to prepare ourselves inwardly and outwardly so that the Divine Christ-Child would be born not only in our soul, but also around us. As witnesses of Christ’s Nativity, we are called to share this joy with the world around us. And if you and I have some free time, we should direct it toward matters that are needful, toward the right spiritual readings, toward the story of Christ and the Faith, toward helping other people to see the wondrous mystery of Christ’s Nativity. For if we are trying to grow spiritually, then this must be not only for our own good, but for the good around us.”
Fasting shouldn’t be overwhelming. Below are some suggestions, myths and tips one can try to make to endure a more fruitful Nativity Fast. Once you master one suggestion, add on something else and another… and another…and you get the idea. All of these little things will add up into discipline.
1. “We don’t discuss our fasts.”
Kind of but let me break that down a bit. We don’t discuss every detail on how we fast but we can discuss what the Fast entails to help converts and anyone who is sincerely interested. Some strict Orthodox will not even discuss their fasts with their spouses but will only mention it with their priest or spiritual father/mother.
1. “Don’t obsess over exotic vegan ingredients.”
Meal planning during fasting periods often requires some moderate to extreme overhaul in most Orthodox households. We get out vegan cookbooks and read vegan blogs (like this one) to find healthy recipes to feed ourselves and our families so we’re not living on rice and bean burritos or Asian. But it becomes obsessive when it’s all we find ourselves talking about or we’re stealing from our charity budget to supporting our grocery budget.
Orthodoxy is not a path to becoming enlightened by veganism or vegetarianism nor should it be appealing for that sole reason. There may be some Orthodox who have experimented with vegan or vegetarian recipes and just felt a lot better about eating that way so they choose to do full time and that’s entirely up to them. I have been vegetarian for 3 and a half years since adjusting to a Mediterranean diet where I consume minimal meat and I’m mostly content.
That’s why I hope you’ll find Crumbs helpful as I post some of my favorite recipes healthy, seasonal and very affordable. I do work with processed vegan ingredients and I do work with some exotic ingredients like bee pollen and chia seeds but I also hope I’m trying to be economical and reasonable to the average single Orthodox Christian or family. If not, my comments thread is always open for suggestions or constructive criticism. Criticism, on the other hand, may be deleted without notice.
If anything, establishing a diet regimen help create awareness to how we should be eating. As Christians who work on purifying our bodies and minds and souls, it simply does not make sense to throw junk food, caffeine and alcohol in our bodily systems that work hard tirelessly 24/7 to sustain us in work, church and life. We simply can not be at our very best if we don’t nourish ourselves properly.
3. Teach children about St Nicholas, not Santa.
Santa Claus, I know him! as Buddy the Elf would always say…but do we really know him and his story?
We commemorate St Nicholas of Myra. Read with and teach your children about his story. His feast day is always on December 6th. The night before, children will lay out their shoes so St Nicholas “can come to fill them.” On the morning of his feast, try to take your children to church in the morning if you can do they can listen to and sing along to his hymns. Most churches even get a visit from St Nicholas himself who comes to give the children of the parish candies or small toys or books. Once you come home, the children may discover that St Nicholas was around as well as they may see a small gift by their shoe. Small gift ideas usually are candies or a small toy or book.
Try to reserve big gifts for the Nativity – but even then resist spoiling your children. You cannot control what other loved ones may do but what the children see most at home will set the prime example for them. You also do not have to deny yourself in going to Christmas dinner with your parents, in laws or extended family if you are fasting or they are non orthodox or even if you are old calendar. Don’t even mention you’re fasting or old calendar if it’s going to create an issue. The main idea is when invited to remember the hospitality rule and that’s to accept what’s offered to you with temperance and appreciation.
4. “Be a humble, cheerful giver.”
Our secular culture puts a heavy emphasis on gifts that we expect it or immediately feel bad when we or our children get less than the other children seemed to get on Facebook on Christmas morning. Some people find no problem with this, but this can create a stir of negative emotions especially on social media and have a variety of people who can see everything.
Why do we have to tell our friends and “friends” (Is anyone who has over 1,000 friends on Facebook really close with every single one of them?) what we’ve got or who got it for us? Gift giving isn’t discouraged and as we know, most children love to be somewhat spoiled. Gift giving however should be thoughtful.
The emphasis of gift giving should be thoughtful remembering the old four gift rule for children: “something they need. Something they want. Something to wear. And something to read.” with an emphasis on charity towards our parish, the church as a whole and any causes that are dear to our heart. We don’t brag. We don’t gloat. We don’t pat ourselves on the back counting our deeds and proudly boasting how good we are. Just do for God knows and that’s all that matters.
The thing I don’t like about social media is that it is easy to do just that even if that may not really be our intention. To humble yourself is to deny the ego.
Most Orthodox know how lengthy even our morning and evening prayers can be. Some read the Psalter (or the Psalms) and do an Akathist in addition but again just an example. Others have prayer corners. The idea is to start by developing a thirst for prayer and conversation with God that it’s the first thing we feel we have to do in the morning and at night.
6. “Try your best with attending all of the services.”
Saturdays and Sundays are one thing, but making Liturgy on feast days which often fall during the work week is difficult for many. Most clergy do and should be able to understand this which is why you shouldn’t guilt yourself into not making it if you work to make a living or if you work to make a living and provide for a family. Do your best. Even so, read about the saint’s life that day.
6. “Get in the habit of confession.”
Confession helps us become totally honest with ourselves so we’re able to find true repentance and be at communion with God without a weighted conscience. Between listening to the Canon of Saint Andrew during Great Lent to listening to the hymns at church during Nativity Fast, it often leads to great cause to our own personal reflections so we can thoroughly prepare ourselves for confession.
I hope the following above suggestions will be of help to you and may you find solace and joy in the spirit of the season.