The Nativity fast has begun, and as often happens during days of spiritual trial, many are troubled by a tricky question: is it really necessary to fast for so long—for forty days? A correspondent of Pravoslavie.ru posed this question to Archpriest Alexander Saltykov, the rector of the Church of the Resurrection of Christ in Kadyshy and author of many books and publications. Why is fasting necessary for a Christian, and what is the meaning and significance of the fasts in general and the Nativity fast in particular? Here is what Fr. Alexander has to say:
Fasting makes people disciplined
—Why is fasting necessary? For several reasons. The most obvious (and I think the most understandable) reason consists in the fact that a person simply needs to have inner discipline. And in this sense, fasting is a disciplinary measure. We cannot simply live according to the principle of “I want”: I want this, I want that. For example, children who are never given any strictures by older and more experienced people often grow up to be criminals. This doesn’t always happen, but it does happen, and not rarely. Therefore it is very important to have disciplinary measures in every person’s life.
In the Christian life, this disciplinary measure is the fasts. Moreover, note that they are strictly observed in the Orthodox Church. In fact, they are strictly observed only in the Orthodox Church. This is a great plus, and the strength of the Orthodox Church!
But many people say that it’s hard for them to fast.
I remember, once I was in Italy and had some pocket calendars with me that had the fast days marked in them. I began passing them out to our Catholic friends. They were curious and asked, “What is this marked in blue? What are these little blue squares?” I explained, “The blue squares are fast days, and the red ones are feast days.” They answered judgmentally, “So many fast days—too many…”
Yes, we have many fast days, and that is our Church’s strength, because people need self-restraint. Only through self-restraint does a person become truly human! He becomes a struggler, a warrior, and acquires strength. This is very good.
Refusing to fast weakens our resistance against the evil spirits
—Fasting is one of the rules of the Church and very beneficial for cultivating the spirit. However, apart from the disciplining side of fasting there is also the sacred side. Fasting becomes a certain spiritual discipline when we do it for spiritual aims. Why is that so? Holy Scripture answers this question with the Lord’s words: “This generation (the devil’s) comes out only by prayer and fasting.”
That many people refuse to fast citing their inability to observe it is something that greatly weakens their resistance to the evil powers, both inward and outward. This generation, dear friends, cannot be cast out by anything but fasting and prayer. Everyone should understand that. Each of us in our lives meets up with many serious situations and we often sense the activity of some kind of enemy power. Someone is strangely hindering us, something does not seem to work out right for us, and we often do not think, “apparently the demon is leading us around and spinning us here and there,” as the great poet Alexander Pushkin once very correctly remarked. Therefore, in order not to get whisked up in this hurricane, stranded in this desert, where we meet many people in our times, we need prayer and fasting.
It’s a narrow path to the Kingdom of Heaven
As we see, the first of each year (even earlier, from the previous December) consists of fast and feasts. The spiritual load on an Orthodox Christian is extremely great. I do not know where one could find such a high degree of spiritual engagement! But this is very good…
We have very many fast days, and I repeat—in this is the Church’s strength.
We must understand: is Christianity something relevant to us or not? Every reasonable person should ask himself about this honestly. After all, as a result of the shaking events of the 20th century we have departed to an enormous degree from traditional Christianity. It has become for us no more than ordinary custom, and in this very sense we have departed from its traditionalism. Well, of course as Orthodox Christians we adhere to the Orthodox prayer books, but we have long since departed from the everyday side of Christian life. Therefore all of us must ask ourselves, “What does Christianity mean to me? How important is it to my life?” If it is truly important to us, then we need to formulate exactly what this importance is, what it gives us, and why we need it. But if you do not see in Christianity anything important to you, if there is nothing wonderful about Christianity to you, then—the door is open! No one drags anyone into it; no one forces anyone! The human soul is free, just as Adam and Eve were free. When they wanted to obey God, they did; also when they wanted, they obeyed satan. So, take your pick: everyone has his own choice.
But if we choose in favor of God, if we choose the Lord and the path of the Lord, then we should understand that this is a difficult path; that, “narrow is the way and straight is the gate that leads to the Kingdom of Heaven.” This means that we must prepare ourselves for hardships and trials. But we are afraid of them, aren’t we? Old fashioned songs used to stir us to acts of courage. Earlier, young people were taught to go the hard way.
We love to talk about this, but what do we do in reality? You see, the strength of Christianity consists precisely in the fact that it leads us unconditionally along the narrow path!
If we remember Christ, we must limit ourselves
—But you ask: Where does this narrow path lead? After all, there are so many joys in life, so much that is pleasant… Well, this just begs the question: What is eternity for me? Is there eternity at all? And what can I expect from eternity?
People in general think very little about eternity; but life is so short! When you are young it seems that life will go on forever—and that is true in the sense that it really does go on forever. Life seems endless even for the aged if they are believers, because death is actually against nature. Nevertheless, death is inevitable…
Because we cannot overcome the unnaturalness of death, we have to understand what it is and what comes after it.
There is no doubt that death is the final trial of human life. But after all, man is never reconciled to the brevity of his life. He always protests against it and wants it to go on forever. That is, he wants eternity. And there is eternity! Because there is God, and “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living,” as Holy Scripture tells us.
But in order to prepare ourselves for this most great passing, for this most serious trial, we need to take some preparatory steps. We need to think about how and by what means we will strengthen ourselves. But we cannot get around this obstacle, and that means we must meet it “head on”, as they say. I use this military expression intentionally, because that is just what the Church fathers have always taught from ancient times. They always compared the Church with the military, and the Christian with a soldier. A soldier always has to endure depravation: he does not eat to satiety, he cannot always get enough sleep, he may be attacked, even killed, as we all know. Well, spiritual death is of course not at all desirable to us, but there are many dangers on this path.
Thus, we must go down the military path—the difficult path of a Christian, the dangerous path, the “path that is dangerous like the paths of war” (that is how it’s been said, and that is how it is). This is how we look at the path to eternal life. It is symbolized by the Crucifixion of Christ.
This is because the Crucifixion of Christ is the only religious symbol in the world that speaks of what is most important. There are many symbols in other religions as well, but they are all empty in comparison… However, man’s suffering is truly an important theme for all mankind—the main theme. Therefore, the Crucifix, which portrays the suffering Man, is the authentically living and true symbol of the God-Man. It explains everything to us.
So, approaching the Crucifix, we must in at least something, in at least a little, restrict ourselves. If we remember Christ, if He is dear to us, if we need Him, if we read with at least partial attention the Gospel texts that tell us in detail about Christ’s sufferings for man, then let us follow them if only in something. Let’s restrict ourselves if only a little in our often not entirely good appetites and often utterly unnecessary desires. Then we will be closer to Christ and become more worthy people, because then we will be able to bridle our passions, our burning (often unnecessary) desires, and follow a higher calling in life.
We must prepare ourselves for the Nativity of the Savior
The Nativity fast is under way. It began on the feast of the Apostle Philip, and this is no accident. Apostolic labor is, of course, the labor of people who are especially dedicated to Christ and are closest to Him. Apostolic labor has always been connected with depravations, sufferings, with the courageous striving to overcome all obstacles, to fathom any depths, fearing nothing, in order to witness Christ to all.
It is with the memory of the Apostle Philip and out of God’s special Providence that we begin our journey toward the Nativity of Christ. Let the Apostle Philip show us the way. And let his holy memory be for us as a guiding star on this path. We know that the prayers of the apostles illumine all roads leading to Christ, because these roads were initiated by these same apostles.
Not long after the beginning of the fast comes the feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple. On this day, which according to the civil calendar falls on December 4, the Nativity verses, “Christ is born, give ye glory!” begin to be sung in the churches. The Most Holy Virgin, as a small child, was taken into the temple, wholly dedicated to the Lord, and the angels sang and prophesied the particular service of Holy Virgin, who was chosen from the race of man.
Then come other feast days: the feast of the Apostle Andrew, of Saint Nicholas, and then we commemorate the holy forefathers, the generations before Christ, which testify that Christ truly became the God-Man. He took on human flesh; He was not a phantom spirit or some other thing—he was precisely the God-Man. He was born as a man, and that is what is so important to all of us. There are very many sects, Islam for example, which consider that this was all just a phantom appearance; that He was some sort of chosen being specially created by God, but not the Son of God.
No, we do not agree with this belief. The most important thing in God is love, and the love of Christ in that He came down to earth, took on human flesh, and was born as a man. This was the kenosis of Christ; that is, His voluntary self-humiliation. In this was His divine labor, which was crowned by His crucifixion. Therefore it is important for us to remember the physical nature of Jesus Christ’s origin. He was born as a man, but at the same time, not like a man: the Most Pure Virgin did not experience the pain of childbirth.
She was as if a receptacle; she gave her flesh to the Divine Logos—the Word of God, Who came to earth. But the pangs that attend the births of all people, she did not know. This occurred under the action of God’s grace—that is why she is so great, why she is higher than the angels, more honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim. That is why we especially revere her through the Nativity of Christ.
The second day of the feast of the Nativity of Christ is the Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos.
This is the launching point of our veneration of Christ, His coming to earth through the Nativity, for which we can only gradually prepare ourselves.
In order to understand this, we must contemplate this divine will, His greatness, His mysteriousness, His full and final singularity. For this we need time, and concentration of spirit.
Time is given to us by the days of the fast, and concentration of spirit is given to us by fasting and prayer. It is also given to us by service to God and repentance.
It is to all of this that we must turn—in order to approach the Nativity of Christ this year with a new, higher understanding, having made if only a tiny step toward a deeper penetration into the meaning of the teachings of the New Testament; in order to approach the commandments of God, which we must fulfill in order to pass through various trials, even unto death, and enter into eternal life.
This is not a simple task, but the Lord calls us to it, and He will help us complete it.