Monday, November 21, 2011

Un-Theological Talk About the Nativity Fast

I don't follow Orthodox blogs because everyone seems so much Orthodox-smarter than I am. I'm definitely a beginner, even after being in the Church nearly five years. I think I'm a bit unique in that my path to the Church was much more emotional than intellectual. It made no difference to me that the way we worship in the Orthodox Church is the same way Christians worshipped after Pentecost--what mattered was that when I told Chris, "I don't know how much longer I can pretend that I'm not going to convert," I was washed over with the feeling of, "YES! You've made the right decision!" It still doesn't matter to me that it's the same way of worshipping--it's a comfort, and I don't make an idol out of it.

Anyway, I wanted to talk about my favorite fast, the Nativity Fast--the 40 days leading up to the Nativity of Christ (Christmas). When I was growing up as an Episcopalian, Advent had to be my favorite season. There was such wonderful anticipation of something great about to happen, and really there was: We were going to celebrate the fact that God became man for our sake. It's a magnificent miracle, one worthy of lighting the Advent wreath, of hanging fresh greens from the rafters until the smell made the church positively bucolic (you'd think we were out in a forest instead of the middle of town), of such beautiful hymns as "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel". In children's choir, we asked our director why we didn't sing Christmas songs leading up to Christmas. The answer was simple: It wasn't time yet.

Fast forward to high school, when our Sunday school teacher Elaine presented us with the idea that Advent was a time like Lent, and asked us to give up something for the season. I gave up "Dragon Ball Z" (I've always been an anime nerd--an otaku, if you will), and that lasted about a week. (Saying it was a week may be quite generous.) I just didn't associate the depravation of giving something up (no matter how minute) with the spiritual gluttony of the time. This was a wonderful season of the Church--how could I rearrange my life around that?

Fast forward again to the days of Orthodoxy. What used to be depravation is now discipline: Take your mind off of food, off television commercials, off the daily distractions that keep us from a good spiritual life, and instead focus on THE ONE THING NEEDFUL. (I highlight that because it's a phrase that runs through my mind a lot.) Starting November 15th, Orthodox Christians begin a fast from meat, dairy, eggs, oil, and alcohol in order to prepare for the coming miracle of Christ's birth. Ah ha, astute readers of the blog already notice a problem! Most vegans get asked the question, "Where do you get your protein?" The question Chris and I get the most is, "How do you fast?" Yes, we're meatless, eggless, and dairyless all the time, but fasting is about more than what you eat. Chris and I strive to pray more, to cut out things like television and valuable time with the Wii, and like everyone else we cut out oil and alcohol. When we were out west in Marfa, our priest Father John was diagnosed with diabetes and had to eat meat during Lent. He said that it's hard to remember that there are other parts to the fast like praying more, and that's stuck with me as I converted from omnivore to herbivore. In the omnivore days, I was stuck with the common problem of focusing on diet only and forgetting the rest. Now I can focus on other things.

But enough of this blather--how does this relate to Advent?! My love for Advent as a child and young adult has translated into my love for the Nativity Fast. Christmas is like a warm fire in a cold season, and the fast is us making that journey towards it. It's strange: When you become Orthodox, every act you do is part of the church. There is no personal life versus church life--it's all life. Everything you put in your mouth, every time you pray, every room in your house that does or doesn't have an icon--all that is Church. To me, even letting the dogs out for their late-morning romp is a spiritual act. I am a part of something huge at all times, no matter what I'm doing. Had I known this when I was Episcopalian, then giving up a TV show during Advent would have made perfect sense. How much more would the hanging of the greens meant to me if my whole life had been focused on it? Would the pine boughs have smelled sweeter?

Like I said, this is un-theological and highly emotional drivel. That's just how I am. And frankly, there needs to be more in the Orthodox conversation than patristics or graphs tracing all of Christianity back to Orthodoxy. As Orthodox Christians we must look to our beautiful heritage, but can we not also ask, "How am I now?" How am I now? I'm suffering the consequences of having no prayer life, I'm weakened by a frustrating diet that's taken away everything I loved, I'm struggling to impress other people who don't matter, but I've got enough in me to say during prayer, "God is the one thing needful." And suddenly nothing else matters.

Have a blessed Nativity Fast, and may it be fruitful for you.

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