Questions and Answers About the Nativity Fast
Published by Orthodoxy and the World
Pravmir: The Orthodox Church prepares the faithful for the Nativity of the Lord by the 40-days fasting period. The secular world has its own spirit of Christmas preparation: parties, presents, Christmas markets, early decorated stores… How not to be involved by the secular pre-celebration of Christmas and to keep the fast not only in food, but in spirit as well?
Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov: First of all, I would warn against building too high a partition between the “Christian world” and the “secular world.” In the true sense of the word, there is no such thing as the secular world; there is only one world–that which was created by God and corrupted by sin. Trying to “flee from the world” may be a lofty aspiration indeed, but one that in its purest form would require us to abandon our employment, family, relationships, oh, and probably the internet as well. Yet it is unthinkable that the Church would want all of us to become monastic hermits—Christians would simply die out within a generation or two!
Unlike the somber Great Lent, which is a preparation for the Passion Week, the Nativity Fast is full of joy, as we prepare for God Himself to enter this sinful “secular world,” and to dwell among us—not only among the Essenes, the Nazarites, and other desert dwellers—but among us also. Like a pregnant woman who knows what the result of her labors will be and smiles in anticipation, the Church cannot but know what joy awaits us at the end of the Nativity Fast and rejoices in anticipation of God’s love and abundant mercy. Christ tells us not to look dismal when we fast, but to anoint our heads and wash our faces (Matt. 6:16-17), that is to say, to act in normal ways expected of us in our society.
There is nothing inherently sinful in parties or presents. That is not to say that gluttony or addiction to shopping are not sinful diseases–that they are in all seasons—Advent and any other; and if we feel that we should not be doing something during Advent, we probably should not be doing that before or after the fast either. Having said that, I certainly realize that many people experience what is called “peer pressure” as our friends, classmates, or coworkers invite us to their Christmas parties where non-fasting dishes and alcoholic beverages are served on days when we cannot have them.
Thankfully, in America it is very much acceptable to be different. Most people actually understand and respect their friends’ dietary preferences. Sometimes, Orthodox Christians excuse their own desire to break the fast by citing some story from the life of some ascetic who broke his fast in order not to offend the people who offered him food. These Christians usually forget that the said ascetic led a very strict life before the incident, and that he fasted for forty days after tasting of the chicken which was brought to him by some poor people who gave him the last of what they had. Our situation is incomparably different. We have a lot of control over what is served at a party: we can ask the hosts ahead of time to prepare certain fasting dishes, we can bring some dishes to the party, or we can respectfully and discreetly excuse ourselves and not go to the party at all. In most cases, people will understand and respect our choices in the same way that we understand and respect theirs.
Pravmir: What would you advise those who face the problem of celebrating two Nativities (in a case where one spouse is a non-Orthodox or where one member of a family converted to Orthodoxy and attends a parish which follows the Old Calendar)?
Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov: If our spouse celebrates the Nativity of Christ according to the Gregorian calendar (I shall not address the “New Julian” conundrum here), we should show to them our utmost love and respect and celebrate with them. Of course, we do so without breaking our fast; but a true celebration can be equally joyful even without our eating a piece of duck or ham. And if we show acceptance of their customs, traditions, and beliefs, our loved ones will be likely to accept ours. In any case, what we must avoid is any division in the family. “No house divided against itself will stand” (Matt. 12:25), and if we want to have a strong family, we must learn to respect each other, including each other’s choices in celebrating the Nativity.
Pravmir: How to deal with the problem of two dates of celebrating of the Nativity in the Orthodox Church, if one follows one calendar but attends the nearest parish who follows another?
Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov: This is a very difficult and painful issue. I do not know whether Christ was born on December 25, January 7, or some other day, but I think that it is very important that the Church is united. Adopting a new calendar not recognized by the fullness of the Orthodox Church has clearly caused divisions and strife within the Church. As members in the Body of Christ, we must see divisions and separations as one of the greatest evils that can be endured only in cases of great necessity. And I do not feel that the calendar issue presents such a necessity. For me, this statement goes both ways: those who instigated the calendar reform had no right to do that, unless the entire Church was in agreement; but in the same way, we have no right to separate ourselves from our brothers and sisters in Christ over the calendar issue.
Liturgically, however, a person cannot celebrate two Nativities in one year any more than he can celebrate two Liturgies in one day. We can certainly be present at both services (although, I would strongly advise against that), but we can fully participate only in one. In other words, if we choose to attend a new-calendar parish, we should celebrate Church feasts and fasts according to the customs of our chosen parish. If we worship with them in the same church, commune with them from the same Cup, ask them to baptize our children, but think that their Nativity is not the “correct” one because the “correct” one is two weeks later, then we are driving a wedge between ourselves and the Church and are guilty of schism. We can choose to make matters very complicated when clergy of different jurisdictions concelebrate together, but for most lay people, the principle of Orthodox unity should be primary to any astronomical, historical, cultural, or any other arguments presented by proponents and opponents of the New Calendar.