The Nativity fast is under way. Pravoslavie.ru talked with Archpriest Alexei Kruglik, an instructor at the Sretensky Monastery Seminary, about this special period in a Christian’s life.
Fr. Alexei, the Nativity Fast lasts forty days, and some Christians dread the fact that during this time, especially, their relations with the people around them will become worse—at home and at work. Can you tell us what this is connected with?
The fast is a special time when a person ought to work on himself more—his life, his soul, his relations with people close to him and distant, his relationship to work, to prayer and to God. And not everyone, of course, is equal to this intensified work, and therefore—perhaps not right off—but sooner or later some kinds of trials begin. When a person is taught to pray, he is rarely taught to work on his own mistakes, and so the time during a fast, when a person has to work on himself, may give rise to aversion, irritation, and even failures. It happens sometimes that a person gets irritated, quarrels with his friends and relations, and that conflicts and quarrels arise at work. Sometimes a person can’t even stand through a whole service. In other words, work that a person isn’t used to, but that he is obliged to perform, upsets his routine. And, nevertheless, if a person walks the right path, realizing that he needs to do this, then, by his prayers and the prayers of his spiritual father all these temptations will be overcome, and the work itself will bring worthy fruit.
When embarking upon a fast, each person needs to be ready for what is called “temptation” or “trial” in the spiritual life. The thing is, that a fast is essentially the cleansing of one’s interior “I”—the cleansing of one’s soul. And it is not just a cleansing, but also becoming filled with a special spiritual content. The people who fall into the most difficult situations are probably those who have cleansed their soul but have not filled it with anything. For according to the word of the Gospel, if you clean your house, but do not fill it with the correct content, demons will come, temptations will come.1
How was the Nativity Fast established?
As early as the Apostolic Constitutions we find an indication that Christians celebrated the feast of the Nativity of Christ. At that time it was integrated with the Baptism of the Lord (or, Theophany). And in the first centuries we already find writings about the fact that Christians try to fast before this great Feast: some seven days, some more. St. Ambrose of Milan and Blessed Augustine also write about this.
In order to make this time a unified fast for all Christians, at the Council of Constantinople in 1166 a resolution was made, that the Fast should last exactly 40 days, and that the last week before the Nativity of Christ should be stricter and more important.
Do you often have occasion to give a blessing to relax the Fast?
According to the Ustav, or Church (monastic) regulations, xerophagy2 is prescribed for the Wednesdays and Fridays of the Nativity Fast. On the other days of the week boiled food is allowed, sometimes with oil, and on Saturdays and Sundays even with fish. But at present, especially in cities and for people who work and study, such a full-fledged implementation of the monastic rule is not always tolerable, so church people turn to the priest before the Fast in order to receive a certain easing of the rules.
Some funny things also happen.
When I was quite a young priest, they sent me to serve in another parish. The rector there fell ill, and the dean said, “Go and serve there, but please, don’t change any customs or traditions, because their confessor is very strict. Leave everything just as it is.”
And wouldn’t you know, I had to begin serving right before the fast. So we’re serving the last service before the fast, and people are coming up and asking a blessing to lighten the fast. They come with children and say, “The children are in school, Batiushka, please—even if it’s only a little cheese, a little kefir, a little cottage cheese or a cheese sandwich, please bless it. Our confessor allowed it!”
Well, if he allowed it, I’m not going to interfere, so I bless it.
Then come people who are of age, not children, and they ask, “Batiushka, could we have a little fish on days when it’s not allowed?”
“Well,” I say, “did your spiritual father allow it?”
“Yes, he did.”
“Well, may God bless it.”
And then at the very end comes a little old grandmother, she looks at me quizzically and says, “Batiushka, allow me to have fish because of my age. My father-confessor allowed it.”
I answer, “Well, since he allowed it, go ahead.”
She looks at me intently again and says, “You know, Batiushka, as a matter of fact, I need dairy for my bones. My confessor allowed it.”
“Well, all right then, since he allowed it, may God bless it.”
Now the little old grandmother ponders, then looks at me and says, “Batiushka, look, you know I just can’t do without sausage, I will simply drop and that’s it—I won’t have any strength. Bless me to have some sausage.”
But at this I say, “You know, please go to your spiritual father with this question.”
Of course, a lightening of the Fast is possible, but it must be with a blessing and with prayer—not so that a person would somehow relax, but so that he would be able to completely fulfil the duties placed on him by life, his family, and him himself.
What should you do if you have a blessing from your spiritual father to relax the fast, but all the same your conscience bothers you?
If a person has gotten a blessing to relax the Fast, then, in principle, this is not breaking the penitential discipline—there is no need to feel sorry about this. But if something troubles you or causes doubts, it’s better to tell your spiritual father about it in confession, and your confessor himself will look at it, depending on the situation. He may give you some kind of stricter penitential discipline.
Do people ever ask a blessing to make the fast stricter?
Yes, there are instances where people—both young and old—come up to me and ask to make the fast stricter—for example, to literally live on bread and water on Wednesdays and Fridays. In this case you have to ask the person what the aim of this intensified strictness is. If it’s in order for the person to humble himself more, and extinguish his passions and irritation, or else to define the extent to which he is able to enter into the spiritual life, then this is entirely possible. But if the goal is to become higher than others, to become proud that you fast not as others fast, then this, of course, is not acceptable. Therefore the priest also has to ask about the aim.
Fr. Alexei, we’d like to hear your blessing for those beginning the Nativity Fast.
I would like to remind all who are beginning the Nativity Fast that it was established in memory of the Nativity of Christ. We are preparing ourselves both inwardly and outwardly so that the Divine Christ-Child would be born not only in our soul, but also around us. It is very important to remember the fact that you and I are the preachers of grace, the witnesses of Christ’s Nativity who are called to share this joy with the world around us. And if you and I have some free time, we should direct it towards matters that are needful, towards the right spiritual reading, towards the story of Christ and the Faith, towards 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 of those around us.
I wish for those beginning the Nativity Fast God’s blessing, quiet Christmas joy, and the grace-filled gifts that people receive when they go to God, to the Divine Christ-Child.