e have begun the joyful and holy Nativity Lent. It begins on November 28, forty days before the Incarnation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and ends on the feast day of the Nativity on January 7, according to the civil calendar. Just as the Jewish people had wandered for the desert for 40 years before reaching the Promised Land, so does the Holy Church lead us through a forty-day Lenten wilderness before we enter into the promise of God, revealing the Nativity to us. For the Jews, roaming the desert was necessary in order to throw off the chains of slavery—physical, mental and spiritual chains. An entire generation of people which had been born and reared in slavery had to die, before those who already had no memory of enslavement, or were born free, could be permitted to enter into “a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). We, too, must throw off the chains of enslavement by sins and passions—physical, mental and spiritual slavery. We must cease to be servants of sin and become friends of Christ through the fulfillment of His testament (John 15:14).
Lent has several important and interdependent aspects. The first, which many think most about, is the limitation in the quality and quantity of food. Nativity Lent is not as strict as some others—fish is allowed on Saturdays and Sundays except for the last week before Nativity (January 2 and 3) and on Church holidays: the feast of the Entrance into the Temple of the Most-Holy Mother of God (December 4), and the Apodosis of the Entrance (December 8), the feast day of the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God (December 10), St Savva the Blessed (December 18), the Conception of the Theotokos (December 22), and the feast day of St Herman of Alaska and Holy Martyr Peter the Aleut (December 25).
Why do we observe a dietetic fast? Because we are whole beings. Christ did not come to save only our souls, but our entire nature: the soul, the body, the mind, the spirit and the will—and all the “parts” thereof one would wish to list. He took upon Himself our humanity and made man “every whit whole” (John 7:23). In the Divine order of things, our spirit must lead us to God, and the soul must find inspiration in the striving of the spirit, and the body must be nourished by doing the will of the Father (John 4:34, Matthew 4:4). Sin distorts the Divine order, and our body is fed by the despoiled, and becomes a servant of desire, our soul seeks inspiration from the things of the flesh, and our spirit no longer then thirsts for God but chases the passions of the soul.
The Holy Church gives us this Lenten time in order to help us heal and restore our damaged nature. An athlete does not win a prize without patiently training with discipline, and “is temperate in all things” (I Corinthians 9:25). If we wish to obtain the “incorruptible crown” we must also lay the foundation of restraint, beginning with material things, and, in reestablishing the Divine order, reaching that which is spiritual. If we cannot even control our stomachs, how can we hope to humble our tongues and thoughts, how can we take up our struggle against passions? We must teach our bodies this discipline, because without this foundation we cannot erect the walls of the temple within our souls. And just as any foundation has no value in and of itself, but depends upon that which is erected upon it, so is the meaning of the subjugation of the body found in freeing the soul from being subjected to it.
This year, Nativity Lent began on the days after the American Thanksgiving Day. I know that for some people, the main dish of the day was not turkey and pumpkin pie, but the people whom they tore apart and consumed with their rumors, judgments and the wicked words spoken behind their backs. What good is Lent to them, if they continue to “consume” others? What is the benefit to those who do not eat meat, if their tongues are used for slaughter like a butcher’s cleaver?
The King and Prophet David said: “Keep thy tongue from evil” (Psalms 34:13), and “I will bless the Lord at all times: His praise shall continually be in my mouth” (Psalms 34:1). If we wish that our Lent will become something greater than simply a diet to lose weight, then we must follow the words of the prophet. We must learn to hold our tongues and protect our thoughts through communion with God. We must always, but especially during Lent, “be sober and vigilant,” because our enemy, the Devil, “as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). But in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, we have a dependable Protector against any adversary.
Run to Christ in prayer, but be mindful that your prayers are not “as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1). Heed every word of prayer in earnest, so that these words are not simply foreign sounds which you repeat, but your own words, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Matthew 22:37).
Come to Christ when you read the Gospel, but be careful that this does not become a simple pastime, the meaning of which is forgotten as soon as the book is closed. Beseech the Most-Holy Mother of God to help you preserve the words of the Gospel and keep them in your hearts (Luke 2:19, 51), glorifying God for His abundant mercy towards us.
Run to Christ when you read the lives of His saints, but heed that your life also follow the path upon which the holy men and women trod. We do not enjoy these writings of their lives as artistic works and do not use them as bedtime reading. The lives of saints serve as living examples of what it means to be a Christian, to love God and one’s neighbor.
Most importantly, come to Christ by communing of His Body and Blood, but approach Him in humility and repentance, so that after the Host, Satan does not also enter you, as he entered Judas (John 13:27).
May the all-merciful God bless you during our Lent. May he accept our frail human efforts and by His Divine grace “healeth, that which is infirm, and completeth that which is wanting” [from the Prayer of Ordination to the Priesthood], and straightens our lives to commit His testament. May God illumine our souls, “sanctify our souls, purify our bodies, set our minds aright” [from O Lord, Receive Our Supplications], so that we together with the assemblies of the Angels and the choirs of the Martyrs, glorify the Holy Spirit [from the Prayer for One’s Spiritual Children on the Nativity of Christ].
Priest Sergei Sveshnikoff