Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we have recently commenced the Christmas fast. Although one of the later fasts introduced into our Church’s calendar (there are canons attributed to St John the Faster of the sixth century regarding this fast and in 1166 a council gathered in Constantinople, certifying the length of the fast to forty days) this is nonetheless one of the four most important fasting periods of our yearly cycles. We, as Orthodox Christians are called each year, but especially now, in the midst of particular challenges, to re-discover this truly beautiful season. This period of the Christmas fast, is one of preparation for the arrival of the Messiah, the birth of the incarnate word of God, Jesus Christ.
By fasting, we are called to shift our focus from ourselves to others, spending less time worrying about what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, in order to use our time in increased prayer and care for others. While abstaining from certain foods, we are primarily challenged to fast from sin; from gossip, from jealousy, from anger, and from those other things which, while could well be within our control, we all too often allow them to control us and drag us down. These sins lead us astray and afar from the wonderful and holy purpose of the creation of the human being; to love.
So we are all once again called to this opportunity of transformation, of participation in the very mystery of the incarnation of our Lord, through our own voluntary offerings of prayer, charity, forgiveness and love. We may not be able to indulge in all the elements we associate with Christmas this year due to unforeseen circumstances, however in a way this offers us a chance to explore and embrace His truth and joy, ‘written in our hearts’ (Jer 31:33) in a more humble, quiet and contemplative way. After all, our Lord was placed into the most simple manger. Likewise, let us use this year’s Christmas period to humble ourselves, appreciate and care for our loved ones, simplify our lives, descend into our hearts, where Christ awaits each of us.
‘I will give you a new heart.’ (Ez 26:36) ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it’ (Proverbs 4:23)
Let us take a look at the icon of the Nativity. We can easily identify the Magi, who were led by the star, bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Lord. Opposite the wise men we witness the humble shepherds. An angel proclaims the good tidings and a young shepherd plays an instrument; both glorifying God with gladness.
However, in the midst of all this joy and glory – God uniting with humanity – we simultaneously witness harrowing scenes. Opposite the bathing of Jesus, we see a rather worried Joseph. He is not part of the central group the Christ Child and the Theotokos. Joseph, as we know, is not the natural father. He is troubled and despondent. There is an old man talking to him, and that old man is a depiction of evil, of the devil. He is tempting Joseph and disturbing him, telling Joseph that the virgin birth is impossible. Dear brothers and sisters, wherever there is Godliness and the presence of our Lord in our lives, wherever there are these opportunities for repentance and renewal, we can be assured to also expect temptations or evil. We often forget that in the midst of Christ’s birth – God uniting with humanity – we witness harrowing scenes of the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ ( Matthew 2:16–18) in which Herod the King orders the execution of all male children two years old and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem.
We are all, to some extent, tired, upset or frustrated with the current global circumstances. Perhaps we are unable to fully enjoy school’s social elements, not able to meet up with friends at our favourite cafes or attend various events. However, in each instance of fear, of uncertainty, of frustration, our Lord comforts us with the angelic words ‘Do not be afraid… (Lk 1:29-31) ‘Do not fear, for I am with you,’ (Isaiah 41:10) for under ‘His wings will we find refuge.’ (Psalm 91:4-5) He is indeed the ‘Emmanuel,’ meaning ‘God is with us.’ (Matt 1:23) Let us use this period to live out this reality.