About Why We Keep this Fast

          Brothers and sisters!

          A few days ago our Holy Orthodox Church began preparing us for the Nativity of Christ with a fast of six weeks duration, a fast which ends on the eve of the feast.  All of you understand the immense significance of Christ’s Nativity, as well as the general importance of fasting, and especially of fasting in preparation for such a great feast, so I will pass over these topics today.  Instead, I would like to say a few words about another, lesser-known reason why we fast at this time.  That reason is to honor and, in some small measure, to participate in the sufferings and sorrows the Most Holy Theotokos endured in the last weeks before she gave birth to God the Word, and especially the sufferings she endured because of the reproaches against her on the part of the scribes and Pharisees during this period.

          Sacred tradition informs us that not long before the righteous Joseph and the immaculate Virgin set out for Bethlehem, they underwent a terrible temptation.  A scribe named Ananias came to Joseph’s house and saw that the Virgin was pregnant.  He was scandalized and rushed to the High Priest and the Sanhedrin, crying, “Joseph the Carpenter, whom you call a righteous man, has sinned!  He has polluted the Virgin taken from the Lord’s Temple and entrusted to his safekeeping, and now she is carrying the fruit of iniquity.”

          The High Priest sent servants to Joseph’s house, and they found Mary to be pregnant, just as the scribe said, so they took her and Joseph back to their master and the Sanhedrin.  Before the whole council, the High Priest rebuked and condemned Mary and Joseph mercilessly.

          “As the Lord my God lives,” swore the Virgin, “I am pure and have never known a man.”  The blessed Joseph also denied any wrongdoing.

          The High Priest, however, refused to believe them and insisted that they drink the “Water of Accusation,” a ritual described in the fifth chapter of the Book of Numbers.  In accordance with this, a man or woman suspected of adultery was brought into the Lord’s Temple and compelled to drink this water in conjunction with certain ceremonies.  If, after these were performed, the thigh of the accused dried up and his belly rotted, then he was deemed guilty.  In the present case, neither party suffered any harm, so the High Priest was compelled to let them go in peace.  However, the members of the Sanhedrin remained doubtful, wondering how the Virgin could both be innocent and pregnant.  As for the Virgin’s neighbors, we can imagine what they thought of the situation.

          The difficulties of the Holy Virgin did not end with this.  Before long, she had to make the three-day journey with Joseph to Bethlehem, where no one would take them in.  She found shelter only in a cave that was being used as a stable for livestock.  In this humble place, she continued in prayer and reflection on God until the time came for her to bring forth her timeless Son.

          From this, brothers and sisters, we see that the last days and weeks before the Nativity were not a time of rest and consolation for the immaculate Theotokos.  Yet, despite her tribulations, the Virgin always remained in a prayerful, contemplative state, her mind uplifted to God.  Never did she allow her troubles to drag her down from the condition of constant inner communion with the Lord appropriate to her calling.  This should be a wonderful inspiration and encouragement to us whenever our tranquility and spiritual equilibrium are threatened by some temptation or trial.

          To remain constant in prayer and intent upon God and higher realities even when we are faced with disturbance or trouble this is a difficult challenge, requiring considerable strength and effort of will.  To aid us in developing this strength and to teach us to exercise our will for good, the Most Holy Spirit of God has ordained for us the struggle of fasting.  By consistently cutting off our relatively weak desire to eat certain foods whenever we wish, we begin to learn how to deny ourselves generally.  The will, thereby strengthened, becomes capable of greater feats, with God’s help, such as controlling the thoughts and feelings during times of temptation and tribulation.  The Christian thus becomes capable of remaining true to his high calling regardless of circumstances, like the Holy Virgin, our exemplar for every virtue.

          Dear Christians, as we keep this fast, may we all bear in mind the grievous temptations the Theotokos endured before experiencing the supernal joy of giving birth to God the Word.  May we all learn to emulate her in compelling the will to ascend to what is higher, regardless of circumstances.  And to our outward fasting, may we all add what is even more important:  abstinence from sin.  May these weeks be, above all, a season of spiritual fasting:  that is, of almsgiving; of restraint from criticizing and condemning others; of regular attendance at the divine services; of attentive, fervent prayer at home; and especially, of patience with others, even if their behavior is galling to us.  This way, having shared, in a sense, a little of the Theotokos’ struggle during these weeks, we will also share in her joy on the bright feast of the Nativity!  Amen.