|Georgian Icon of St. David the King and Psalmist. This icon is by the hand of Ilya & Michael Balavadze and can be purchased here at Come & See Icons. The great King David's psalms testify to his intimate dealings with sin, repentance and ultimately the joy of God's love.|
Today marks the beginning of the Nativity Fast for Orthodox Christians in America. Not only is it 40 days of keeping a primarily vegan diet, and but also a time of increased prayer, self-reflection leading to repentance, almsgiving and especially an increase in Bible reading apart from the normal daily readings we read together as a Church. We use the 40 days to prepare ourselves for one of the biggest feasts in the Orthodox Christian Church, the Birth of our Savior Jesus Christ, the very incarnation of God's Divine Word ( John 1:1-5 ).
Although to most people, the food element of the fast seems like it would be the hardest, but for me it is the easiest. The much more difficult part is taking a long honest look at myself and routing out all the junk that resides in my heart and making time for increased prayer. (I have heard that fasting without prayer is called a demon's fast, because demons neither eat nor do they pray. That's scary and not something you want to do!) It's the pulling myself away from life's daily distractions, like the Internet and TV, and making the time for God that I struggle with the most. I have to force myself to chose God and the kingdom of heaven and not the world's ephemeral delights. The Scriptures speak to this very idea here:From my own personal experience I KNOW that this 40 day time period is absolutely essential to my spiritual health. I have found a spiritual lightness and true joy (Godly joy is not happiness or some sort of emotional "Golly I feel good" rush by the way, it is something completely other) that I have not been able to attain by any other means. This divine joy is truly inexplicable. To quote the Psalmist David the King who exhorts (Psalm 34:8-9):
12 And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force (Matt 11:12)
8 Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good; Blessed is the man who trusts in Him!
9 Oh, fear the LORD, you His saints! There is no want to those who fear HimTaste and See! I can't taste and see for you, it's something you have to do for yourself. I teach my children this very thing about Christ and His Church. I can tell them about my own experiences but at some point they must let go of my hand and taste and see and trust in Him for themselves. It's a deeply personal experience that transcends words. Again, it's not emotional or happy, it's something else, and it stays with you for as long as you allow it. The world is transfigured, life is somehow different in an awesome way.
I realize that many of my Christian readers are not Orthodox, but that shouldn't stop you from treating these 40 days prior to Christmas a little differently this year. Perhaps increase the time you spend in prayer, spend more time with your Bible, be a little more merciful with others and maybe even try to take an honest look at the things that separate you from God and make an effort to eradicate at least one of those things. Participating in these sorts of spiritual exercises is never a bad idea for anyone! Of course, if you are Orthodox, then I'm preaching to the choir for you know that our church "has no want for those who fear Him". (see psalm 34 above) The healing sacraments of confession and communion and our beautiful worship services leave no one in want if one truly desires it.
Oh, and there just one more thing to remember, and it's kinda important. The most essential part of fasting and all that goes along with it is that it is must be done in love and for love. Love for God, love for humanity and even love for yourself. It is not something one does to "get favor" with God, that's something for the Big Bully Deity believers. God doesn't need your fasting to love you. He desires your fasting because it will be during this time that you turn to Him and seek Him more diligently. Remember the Apostle Paul's words to the Corinthians:
1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)That is "the catch" you could say. All of this will profit you ZERO, NADA, NOTHING if not done in love. I guess I should have disclaimed that at the beginning of the post.
And so my friends, my desire for you is that your days preceding the celebration of the Birth of Jesus Christ be ones filled with Godly endeavours and once you have arrived to this marvelous feast day that you truly understand the Lord's words (John 15:11)
11 “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full."
Oh that joy, that joy! If everyone would chose this joy and remain in it!