Nativity Fast: Preparations begin for Orthodox Christians

Crowd standing, of men, women and children, candles in front

An Orthodox Christian Christmas (Nativity) service in Russia. Photo courtesy of President of Russia

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 15: The season of preparation for Christ’s birth begins for Orthodox Christians today, as the faithful enter a 40-day abstinence period known as the Nativity Fast.

Observed annually from November 15 until December 24, Orthodox Christians are encouraged to regard this fast as a joyous time. By placing emphasis on the spiritual, adherents are encouraged to release worldly desires and dependence on material possessions.  The most successful fasting includes prayer and almsgiving, and is performed by those who are physically able. Observant families give up meat, dairy, fish, wine and oil—all in anticipation of the birth of Jesus. (Occasional permissions are granted for wine, oil and fish throughout the fasting period.

Woman with baby, surrounded by other figures, in iconic ilustration

An Eastern Orthodox Christian depiction of the Nativity. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

NATIVITY FAST: PROPHETS & PARAMONY

Throughout the Nativity Fast, several key figures are highlighted with feast days—in particular, the prophets who Eastern Christians believe laid the groundwork for the Incarnation: Obadiah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Daniel and the Three Holy Youths. Sundays leading up to Nativity also bring attention to ancestors of the Church and righteous men and women who pleased God.

The Forefeast of the Nativity begins December 20, with the chanting of Nativity hymns every day until the Eve of the Nativity—or, Paramony. On Paramony—called Christmas Eve in the Western Christian Church—no solid food is partaken until the first star is seen in the evening sky. The fast is joyously broken, and while many head to the traditional All-Night Vigil, others attend the Divine Liturgy for the Nativity of Christ on Christmas morning.

On December 25, the Feast of the Nativity, fasting is forbidden; a fast-free period, or Afterfeast, lasts through January 4.

NEWS: RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH SPLITS FROM CONSTANTINOPLE, IN RESPONSE TO PATRIARCHATE’S DECISION

Headlines around the world have been reporting what is commonly being called “quite possibly the greatest divide in Eastern Orthodoxy in recent history”: Russian Orthodox Church leaders have announced that the church is cutting ties with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the historical seat of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. (ABC News has the story.) In response to the Constantinople Patriarchate’s decision to allow Ukraine to establish an independent church with self-governance and without the need for authority from the Patriarchate, Russian Orthodox representatives are relaying the opinion that, by overturning a centuries-old agreement and allowing Ukrain’s church, the Constantinople Patriarche destroyed its authority and its role as the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church. (The Economist reports on the split and the 17th-century agreement.) Various voices are speaking out, as countries with populations of Orthodox Christian followers are affected by the rift.

 

 

 

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Meatfare Sunday: Orthodox Christians eliminate meat & look to Great Lent

Hand and fork jabbing at white meat poultry on plate of food

After Meatfare Sunday, Orthodox Christians do not consume meat until Pascha (Easter). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 15: Lent is on the horizon for the world’s 2 billion Christians, and today, Eastern Orthodox churches take gradual steps into the Lenten fast with Meatfare Sunday. After Meatfare Sunday, no meat may be consumed until Pascha (Easter); in one week, Cheesefare Sunday will discontinue the partaking of dairy products until Pascha. For Orthodox Christians, Great Lent begins on Clean Monday—this year, February 23.

Though commonly referred to as Meatfare Sunday, this third Sunday of the Triodion Period is more formally known as the Sunday of the Last Judgment. In services, emphasis is placed on the Second Coming and Last Judgment—a time when Christ, in Matthew, refers to coming in glory with the angels to judge the living and the dead. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) While the opportunity exists, the faithful are encouraged to repent. The parable of the Last Judgment points out that Christ will judge on love: How well one has shared God’s love, and how deeply one has cared for others.

On the Saturday prior to Meatfare Sunday and on the two Saturdays following, a liturgy and memorial service is held for the faithful departed. These days are known as the Saturdays of the Souls.

Interested in some delicious new meat recipes for this final opportunity ? Find recipes at Allrecipes, Cooking Light and Food & Wine.

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Nativity Fast: Eastern Christians prepare for birth of Jesus Christ

Cathedral building of light browns and beige colors, ornate with dome tops and Orthodox crosses, on sunny day

Nativity of Christ (Orthodox) Cathedral in Riga, Latvia. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 15: Preparations for Jesus’s birth begin in the Orthodox Christian Church as adherents begin the 40-day Nativity Fast.

The faithful are supposed to undertake this challenging tradition with joy and in a spirit of earnest anticipation. By fasting, Orthodox Christians embrace their own humanity and, at the same time, the moment at which God became human, according to Orthodox teaching.

The Nativity Fast is divided into two periods: November 15-December 19, and December 20-24. Both fasting periods follow the traditional fasting discipline (without meat, dairy, fish, wine or oil), but each also allows for fish, wine and oil on specific days. Several other holidays will fall within the Nativity Fast, such as St. Andrew’s Day, St. Nicholas Day, the Sunday of the Forefathers and the Sunday of the Fathers. (Wikipedia has details.)

Orthodox theology holds that bodily fasting ultimately influences the soul. During the Nativity Fast, the faithful turn away from worldly desires and toward God. The fasting includes not only bodily abstinence, but also fasting from negative emotions, hatred and greed. Prayer and almsgiving are a major part of the spiritual discipline. (Learn more from Orthodox Church in America.)

Note: The Nativity Fast is observed November 15-December 24 in the Gregorian calendar and the Revised Julian calendar. Followers of the Julian calendar, which is currently 13 days behind the Gregorian, will begin the fast on November 28 of the Gregorian calendar.

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Nativity of the Virgin, Birthday of the Theotokos: Christians honor Mary

Depiction on wood of woman in bed holding baby, women gathered around to assist the new mother, pouring water and folding items

The Birth of Mary, artwork circa 1470. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 8: From East to West, most of the world’s Christians wish “happy birthday” to the person whom Catholic and Othodox Christians believe links the divine to humanity: today is the Nativity of the Theotokos, or the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

One of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Eastern Orthodox Church and a liturgical feast in the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, the Nativity of Mary has been celebrated from the earliest centuries of Christianity. Unlike most saints’ days in the Western Christian Church, only three figures are commemorated on the day of their birth, thereby indicating their pivotal role in salvation: Jesus, John the Baptist and Mary.

THE STORY OF MARY’S LIFE: FROM UNKNOWN TO RENOWNED

As this traditional Christian story goes: Mary’s life began piously in Galilee, Nazareth, as a baby born to elderly and previously barren parents. Though they remained faithful to God, Joachim and Anna were without children for many years—a characteristic regarded, at the time, as a punishment for sin. One fateful day, when Joachim had traveled to the temple to make an offering, he was chastised by the High Priest for being childless; his offering was turned away. The distraught husband and wife prayed to God, and the Archangel Gabriel appeared to them, promising a child whose name would be known throughout the world. In nine months, Anna bore a child.

No record of Mary’s birth or childhood exists in the Gospels, but is found in later Christian works. Because these details are not in the New Testament, most Protestants do not observe the holiday. In fact, Eastern and Western Christians also diverge in their understanding of Mary’s birth. For Catholics, Mary’s birth is connected with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a dogma formally established by the Vatican in 1854. Eastern Christians believe that while Mary wasn’t without original sin, she was spared actual sin by God’s grace.

Note: For those following the Julian Calendar, this feast day falls on September 21 of the Gregorian Calendar.

Closeup of clump of green and purple grapes hanging from vine

In France, winegrowers bring their best grapes to church for a blessing on the Nativity of Mary. Photo courtesy of Flickr

OUR LADY OF THE GRAPE HARVEST
& OTHER IDEAS FOR CELEBRATION

In several regions of the world, Mary’s Nativity is marked with seasonal customs and the start of the Indian summer, or “after-summer.” The winegrowers of France regard today as the Our Lady of Grape Harvest, bringing their best crop to the local church to be blessed; seeds for winter crop are blessed in many churches across Europe; in the Alps, cattle and sheep are herded in grand procession from their summer pastures down to the valleys and stables, where they will reside for the cold season. (Wikipedia has more.) In some areas of Austria, milk from these cattle and sheep is given to the poor, in honor of the Virgin Mary.

Some Catholic groups, including Women for Faith and Family, suggest ways that families can celebrate today:

  • Bake Mary a birthday cake, with white and blue icing to symbolize her purity and fidelity. Place a small figure of the Virgin Mary in the center of the cake.
  • Eat foods containing blueberries or anything else blue, as blue is the common Marian color.
  • Decorate a Marian altar at home.
  • Learn and sing hymns to Mary, such as the Immaculate Mary and ‘Hail Holy Queen.’

PLANS FOR A MOVIE? Hollywood interest in biblical stories is rising, experts report. Christian Science Monitor has the story. A new movie about Mary’s early life reportedly is in production for 2014 release, called Mary, Mother of Christ. Israeli-born Odeya Rush is slated to star as Mary. Other stars booked for the production include Peter O’Toole and Ben Kingsley.

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