For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you will be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”
November 15 marks the beginning of the Nativity Fast, or Advent, in the Orthodox Church. The rest of the Christian world calls the pre-Christmas period Advent, the Orthodox call it the Nativity Fast. In Western Christianity, Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas, so it lasts for a different amount of time each year. For the Orthodox, the Nativity Fast always begins November 15. It is supposed to be a period of fasting for forty days. With fasting is supposed to come increased prayer and worship. Forty days of solemn preparation preceded Christmas (which we call the Feast of the Nativity). The Nativity is then celebrated for twelve days, culminating in the feast of Theophany (Epiphany) which commemorates the Baptism of Christ.
This is counter to how the western world commemorates Christmas. Advent is the season of Christmas parties and gatherings, decorating, shopping, and overall stress. So that when December 25 gets here, there is a collective sigh of relief that the stress of the season is over. Christmas trees are disposed of shortly after Christmas, the Christmas carols stop on December 26, and people give funny looks if greeted with the words “Merry Christmas” after the holiday has passed.
Our lives are a contrast of emotions. We know we are happy because we know what it means to be sad. We know we are at peace because we know what it means to be stressed. We will never feel peace if we’ve never felt conflict. We will never feel happy if we haven’t felt sad.
In terms of our faith, these contrasts work in the same way. The church calls on us to fast, to show more discipline at certain times of the year, so that when significant feasts come, we can celebrate them with ever greater joy. If every day is a celebration, then in reality no day is a celebration. Because celebration contrasts to times of preparation, even deprivation. Fasting, as we know, is more about discipline than deprivation. But feasting is even sweeter after we’ve had a period of fasting.
When people spend the month of so before Christmas moving around, joyfully or stressfully, when the actual feast gets here, they will be exhausted rather than renewed. However, when someone spends some time before Christmas being quiet and still, then when the feast comes, they will not only feel like feasting, but will feel renewed. Because when all of life is just noise, then Christmas and it’s carols and even joy, becomes just more noise.
Let’s look at this another way. Had the angels appeared over noisy Bethlehem two thousand years ago, they wouldn’t have even been noticed. Because their glorious song would have blended in with the noise of the people gathered for the census. It was the shepherds sitting in the quiet of the night, who had ears to hear the hymns of the angels. They also had eyes to hear them, and hearts that were open to their joyous message. It was the magi on their patient journey who offered adoration to the Christ.
Our lives look more like busy Bethlehem more than the quiet of the countryside. We are being conditioned to never be silent, to never be at rest. We are being overstimulated, and overstimulation is becoming the rule rather than the exception. There is so much technology available, we are encouraged to multi-task, and when you put all of this together, we are losing the ability to do a single task at a time, like praying. We are losing the ability to be still, and silent.
People are struggling with the idea of praying as just being with God. Prayer has become like so many other things in life, a deal, a transaction. Except that prayer is neither of those things. It is a chance to just “be” with God. In prayer, and in Scripture reading, we can also hear God. But He is not heard in the noise. Rather He is heard in the silence and stillness of our minds and hearts which starts with the stillness of our bodies. I love this verse from Isaiah 30:15, that in quietness and in trust in God is where the real strength lies. We’ve reflected over the past week on the idea of intimacy with God. Being quiet is definitely an important part of the equation.
As we begin this season of the Nativity fast, we can approach it one of two ways. We can get caught up in the idea “only forty shopping days left until Christmas” and join the rat race that Christmas has become. Or we can spend forty days with more deliberate preparation, carving out some quiet time each day. So that when we arrive at the Feast of the Nativity, we arrive not with exhaustion, but we true joy.
Lord, today we begin the journey to Bethlehem, as we begin the period of preparation for the Nativity. Lord, help me this year to slow down, to carve out time to reflect on You, and on Your glorious Incarnation. Help me to be efficient in my tasks and not to get caught up in the stress and frivolity that this season has become. Guide me to arrive at the manger with renewed joy. Help me find strength in silence and to find confidence in trusting You. Amen.
Have a blessed and renewing season of the Nativity!