Today—November 15—we begin the forty day Nativity Fast, one of four seasons of the year during which we are called upon to intensify our spiritual lives through prayer, fasting and almsgiving. I would like to expand on this by emphasizing the necessary virtue of patience that accompanies any period of preparation in the life of the Church. We are directed to observe a fast as we prepare for the advent of the Son of God in the flesh. This is only for forty days, but that can seem like a very long period to make some alterations and adjustments in our lifestyles! Clearly, it has its challenges, all of which we are very much aware of. We know that the “sacred” number of forty – years or days – is a very scriptural number, always implying a period of expectation and fulfillment, a movement begun and completed in accordance with the express will of God. That could be the forty years of Israel’s wandering in the desert, or the Lord fasting for forty days in the wilderness. Yet, less specifically, we need to understand the great length of time that Israel was forced to wait for its deliverance. If we think in terms of Abraham to Christ, we become aware of the 3 x 14 generations that Saint Matthew lists in the opening genealogy of his Gospel. That is a long history indeed, filled with God’s providential care for His chosen people, but also filled with apostasy and betrayal on the part of Israel—a history embracing Israel’s victories against its surrounding enemies, but also its subjugation and humiliation at the hands of other enemies.
While this tumultuous and even torturous history of Israel was unfolding, the prophets were both exhorting and chastising the people, but also speaking of deliverance. Although this is a very complex development, there were clear indications among the prophets of a Messiah figure – sometimes very human, but at times a transcendent figure – around whom and in whom these longings for deliverance were concentrated. He would be the Lord’s Anointed, and as such he would proclaim deliverance and salvation to Israel. That profound and poignant sense of longing for deliverance is beautifully expressed in the two hymns found in the opening chapters of Saint Luke’s Gospel, the first from Saint Zechariah [Luke 1:67-79) and the other, the Magnificat of the Theotokos [Luke 1:46-55]. One needs only to read the Book of Isaiah to get a sense of this messianic longing which took on universal dimensions, so that all the peoples of the earth would come to know the one true God and then come to Zion to worship Him. We read of the Son of Man, the Suffering Servant of the Lord, and of the Messiah throughout the prophetic books of the Old Testament. This basic human longing for regaining a “lost paradise” in one form or another was gathered around these mysterious figures “promised” by the prophets who, in turn, were those chosen by God to deliver God’s word to the people of Israel. But many generations were disappointed that these prophetic promises were not fulfilled in their time.
If we can appreciate this sense of waiting and longing, we can understand better how we, as contemporary Christians, in a very modest sense, are re-living or actualizing the experience of Israel as we await the advent of our Lord in a specially designated period known as the Nativity/Advent Fast. This designated forty days serves as a microcosm of Israel’s testing and preparation. Waiting implies expectation, perhaps even a certain sense of excitement. (Ask your children about that!). But it also implies patience, stabilized and strengthened by trust and faith in God, especially when we encounter obstacles, temptations, doubts, diversions and distractions. Therefore, if Israel waited for the Lord’s Anointed, so will we as the New Israel of God. Of course, we know and believe that the Messiah has come as Jesus of Nazareth, and our festal cycle again allows us to also re-live and actualize that advent on an annual basis, so as to renew our sense of fulfillment of the prophecies of old and to again “greet” the newborn Christ Child with great joy and thanksgiving to God for working out our salvation “in the midst of the earth.” All Christian believers of all ages can experience a child-like joy in the birth of Christ, the Son of God Who became flesh. We have the decided advantage of knowing all of this in advance, and this has been expressed very powerfully in the Epistle to the Hebrews, wherein the author, after reminding the early Christians of the great faith of the saints who lived before Christ, further reminds them of the great privilege of having lived in the time of fulfillment: “And all these, though well-attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” [Hebrews 11:39-40].
We cannot join “the world” in its indifference to Christ. And we cannot descend to the level of the crass commercialization of Christmas. We are, after all, Christians! Our goal is to fulfill the words of the Apostle Paul” “I therefore… beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” [Ephesians 4:1-3]. This will test our patience, our trust in God, and our faith. It has never been otherwise.