My beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE. Ο ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΜΕΣΩ ΗΜΩΝ! ΚΑΙ ΗΝ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΙ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΑΙ.
A PRAYER TO THE ALL-HOLY THEOTOKOS (MOTHER OF GOD)
Saint Gregory of Neocaesaria
All-Holy Virgin Mother of God, we humans cannot offer to You the hymn and the praise that is appropriate to You, for Your proper praise is superior to any human melody. From You God Himself received flesh and was born as a human being. The totality of nature in heaven and on earth offers to You its boundless respect. For You have become an Angelic Throne of Cherubim. As reflection of Light, You shine brightly in the imperceptible world and in all the ends of heaven and earth and in the whole universe, where the Unoriginate Father is praised, Whose power always overshadowed You; where the Son is worshiped, the Son to Whom You gave birth; where the Holy Spirit is glorified, the Spirit which enacted in Your womb the birth of the Great King. Through You, who are full of grace, the Holy and Consubstantial Trinity is revealed in the world to become known by human beings. We pray to You and beseech You, Most Blessed Theotokos, to make us also worthy of Your perfect grace that we too may partake of it with You in Christ Jesus, our Lord, in Whom the Glory and the Power abides unto the ages of ages. Amen.
As we begin the Holy Nativity (Christmas) Fast on November 15th we are reminded by our Holy Orthodox Church that it is the time for our spiritual preparation and renewal. In their wisdom, the Holy Fathers of the Church, tell us that this time is intended to be a time of purposeful asceticism, almsgiving (charity), and learning to say "yes" to the Almighty God while saying "no" to the evil one and to one's passions.
The fast of the Holy Nativity, (November15th through December 24th) is first mentioned historically in the 7th century. The only universal fasting rules (Holy Canons) of the Church that exist refer to Great Lent (40 days before Pascha or Easter); which is the most severe fast of the ecclesiastical year. The fast of the Holy Nativity on the other hand, varied in duration and degree of severity throughout the Church. The Holy Nativity fast is less severe than Great Lent. The following is presented as a guide to fasting during the 40 days leading to the Birth of Christ.
* Meat is not to be eaten for the duration of the fast.
* Wine, fish and oil are allowed except on Wednesdays and Fridays.
* The last 7 days (December 17th -24th) are to be kept as strict as possible.
* A strict fast consists of no meat, fish, dairy products, wine and olive oil.
"The Nativity Forty-days Fast represents the fast undertaken by Moses, who--having fasted for forty days and forty nights--received the Commandments of God, written on stone tablets. And we, fasting for forty days, will reflect upon and receive from the Ever-Virgin Mary the Living Logos (Word)--not written upon stone, but born, Incarnate--and we will commune of His Divine Body." (Saint Symeon of Thessaloniki)
"If nothing else, the time of prayer and fasting before the Holy Nativity of our Savior reminds us that we, as Orthodox Christians, are given the immense and unthinkable blessing, privilege, and honor of receiving the very Body and Blood of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. But as we "say yes to Christ" in the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments), we must also learn to say "no" to ourselves and to make it a point to both follow Christ and to serve those in need.
It is no coincidence that Christ, in the Holy Gospel reading on the eve of this fast (according to the "old" or Church Calendar), exhorts the Church with "whoever does not bear his cross" as well as "forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple" (According to St. Luke, 14:27,33). While the faithful prepare to receive Christ through His Incarnation on the feast of Nativity (and through the Mysteries of the Orthodox faith), one must also be prepared to relinquish whatever it is one possess or "holds onto" that might keep them from the Uncreated Light and Glory of His Everlasting Kingdom."
The Holy Nativity Fast is also a time for true reconciliation with God through Repentance and Confession. Saint Theophan the Recluse says, "It would seem that turning away from yourself to God ought to be an easy and simple matter, like, for example, turning from west to east. But, after all, the sinner turning towards God is not an entity independent from Him, and he does not approach Him without anything trailing behind. No, like a runaway slave returning to his master, he appears as one guilty before the King and Judge. He needs to approach in such a way that he will be accepted. In human affairs a master accepts his slave, and the king has mercy on the guilty when each of them approaches admitting his guilt, repents of it and gives a sincere promise to be henceforth completely changed.
It is the same for a sinner returning to God. He will be accepted by God if he (a) admits his sins, (b) repents of them, and (c) makes a vow not to sin. These are the necessary acts for ardent unification with God, upon which depends the steadfastness of the new life, perfection of it, and good hope for faithful action according to its demands. When the Prodigal Son returned to his father, he said: "I will say, I have sinned--admitting the sin; I am not worthy--repenting; make me as one of thy hired servants--the promise to work (cf. St. Luke 15:18, 19)."
KNOW YOUR SINS
Saint Theophan continues: "Thus, having returned to God, know your sins. In the inspiration of the resolve to abandon sin, you knew that you were sinful, for why else would you need to contemplate a change in your life; but this sinfulness then appeared in a confusing way. Now you must discerningly come to know that you are definitely sinful, and you must know to what degree--clearly, individually, and as if quantitatively, know your sins, with all attendant circumstances that diminished or magnified the sinfulness of the action. Critically review your entire life with a strict and impartial judgment."
THE FEELING OF REPENTANCE IS A BRIDGE TO A VOW
Saint Theophan writes, "The feelings of repentance obviously have a sundering effect. The Word passes unto the sundering of soul and spirit, limbs and marrow, and judges the thoughts of the heart. But the goal for which, by God's grace, this has been wrought in a man is not simply to destroy, but so that by destroying the old the new can be created. The new is conceived by a whisper of hope in the possibility of changing."
Saint Theophan describes the feelings of true repentance. He says, "tormented by feelings of regret and repentance, the sinner reveals in church his incorrigibility and confirms a vow to correct himself. Melted wax pours down indiscriminately, but when you pour it into a mold or press it with a seal, something comes of it. We also need to press a seal into our inner man, so that he will take on a specific image. This happens to him during the Sacrament of Repentance and Confession--he is sealed with the Divine grace of the Spirit."
WHY THE MYSTERY (SACRAMENT) OF REPENTANCE IS NECESSARY?
The Saint answers this question. "What makes the Mystery of Repentance so necessary is on one hand the nature of sin, and on the other hand, the nature of our conscience. When we sin, we think that the traces of sin do not remain on the outside or the inside of us. Meanwhile it is leaving deep marks on the inside and the outside of us--on everything around us and especially in heaven, in the ledgers of Divine Judgment.
"And the hour of sin", writes the Saint, "it is decided there what the one who has sinned has become; in the Book of the Living he is written in the list of the condemned, and that has been bound in heaven. Divine grace does not descend upon him until he is erased from the list of the condemned in heaven, until he has received absolution there. But it was pleasing to God to make heavenly erasing from the list of the condemned dependent upon the absolution of the sin that have been bound on earth. So, receive the Sacrament of Repentance, that you may be freed by absolution on all sides and open the door within yourself to the spirit of grave. Now that the conscience has been cleansed and has regained its tenderness and sensitivity to good moral order, it will not give any peace until we are decisively ensured of forgiveness. Thus it is in the usual course of our lives it will not allow us to show ourselves to the person we have offended until we are sure that he has forgiven us."
HOW TO PREPARE FOR A SALVIFIC CONFESSION
According to Saint Theophan the Recluse, "For a salvific confession, one must prepare himself sufficiently. Whoever has read this narrative thus far is ready. Proceed with reverence and faith!
(1) Firmly convinced of the necessity of this Sacrament, go to it--not as though it were some new part of your life or just a simple custom, but with complete faith that for you as a sinner, this is the only possible way to be saved. By skipping it, you will be numbered among the condemned, and, consequently, you will be outside of any mercy...
(2) By these convictions engender the desire for this Sacrament. Go to it not as to the slaughter, but as to a fountain of blessings. Whoever vividly represents to himself the fruit born in us through Confession could not but long for it...
(3) Shame and fear will come up--let them! That is why this Sacrament was created, to bring shame and fear upon us--and the more shame and fear, the more it will save us. Desiring this Sacrament, desire great shame and great trembling. If someone wants to be healed, does he not know how painful the treatment is? He knows, but resolving to be healed, he also determines to endure the attendant pain in the hope of recovering. And you, when you were tormented by the feelings of regret that came upon you and you rushed to come closer to God, did you not say: "I am ready to endure anything, only have mercy on me and forgive me!"
(4) Then, again recalling all the sins you have committed and renewing the now ripened, inner commitment not to repeat them, rise up in the living faith that you stand before the Lord Himself Who receives your confession; and tell everything that burdens your conscience, without holding anything back...
(5) Now the confession is over. The spiritual father lifts his epitrachelion, covers the head of the penitent with it, and keeping it in his hand, pronounces the absolution of all sins, making the sign of the Cross on the head. What occurs at this moment in the soul is well-known to everyone who sincerely repents. Streams of grace pour from the head into the heart and fill it with joy. This is not from human beings, not from the penitent, not from the absolver--this is the mystery of the Lord Healer and Comforter of souls…
(6) With this everything is done. All that remains is to fall at God's feet with feelings of thankfulness for His unspeakable mercy, and kiss the Cross and Gospels as a sign of your vow. Go unwaveringly along the path shown to you in the Gospels, with the commitment to follow Christ the Savior, as described in the Gospels, under his blessed yoke, only now taken upon yourself. Having completed this, go in peace, with the intention to intently act according to what you have promised, remembering that the judgment over you from now on will be from your own words. You have made a promise--keep it. It has been sealed by the Sacrament, and therefore you must be ever more faithful to it, so that you do not fall again into the ranks of those who have wasted grace.
(7) If the spiritual father gives you a penance, accept it with joy. If the spiritual father does not give you one, then ask him to. This will be not only a send-off to you as you depart on your good path, but also a shield and protection from outside enemy attacks on your new way of life."
MY BLESSING TO ALL OF YOU
The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God