Thanksgiving and Fasting During Advent

This week, Kristen suggested we talk about what Thanksgiving has come to mean for our family over the last few years. To do so requires that we begin with Advent.

Advent/The Nativity Fast

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Charlie examining the icon of the Nativity, and of St. Nicholas.

“Advent” is taken from the Latin word adventum that can be glossed as “arrival,” or, better, “approach.” It refers to the time in which we prepare for Jesus’s approach in terms of his birth on Christmas. Now, unlike the West, the lands in which most members of the Orthodox Church live today have relatively few historical ties to the Latin language. For this reason, many theological and liturgical words with Latin roots are referred to differently by Orthodox Christians. Thus, the time spent in preparation for Christmas (or, in Orthodox speak, The Feast of the Nativity According to the Flesh of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ) is commonly referred to as the Nativity Fast. Of course, we Orthodox Christians who live in the West do use a number of terms that are traditionally associated with Western Christianity, like Lent, Transfiguration, Dormition, etc.

While our (Western) family tends to refer to this season as Advent, we can’t help but acknowledge that a defining characteristic of the Orthodox observance is fasting (hence the name, Nativity Fast). For the forty days prior to Christmas (beginning on November 15), the standard practice for Orthodox Christians is to abstain from eating anything that comes from an animal with a backbone (e.g., meat, dairy, eggs) for the entire forty days, and on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to abstain from olive oil and wine, as well. In addition, portion sizes are to be decreased. The money saved from fasting is to be given to the poor. Naturally, time spent in prayer and contemplation of the birth of Jesus is increased.

This sort of fasting also occurs during Lent (in preparation for Pascha, or Easter), in preparation for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in June, in preparation for the Feast of the Dormition of Mary in August, and nearly every Wednesday and Friday of the year.

It would be misleading for me to claim that my family (and, in particular, me – John) is diligent in our fasting. I will say that we are diligent in our intentions, and in resuming the fast when we fail to keep it for whatever reason. We have come to appreciate that a significant part of the value of the fasts is the humility learned by failure alongside the desire for perseverance. In addition, how a family fasts, and how that will differ for members of the family, varies based on a number of things – pregnant and nursing mothers, infants, and very young children (among others) are exempt from the expectation of fasting, and children are weaned into fasting. Orthodox Christians are encouraged to discuss the fasts with spiritual advisors (typically their parish priest) to determine how best to keep the fasts in their own unique contexts.

The reasons for fasting are numerous, and beyond the scope of this post. The most straightforward explanation for the Nativity Fast is that Christmas is likened to a second Easter (or Pascha), in the sense that Christ’s incarnation is the necessary antecedent of his death and resurrection (Fr. Alexander Schmemann coined the phrase “Winter Pascha” to describe the Nativity). And just as Lent precedes Pascha (being the period in which the Church prays and fasts as a community in preparation for receiving initiates into the Church on Easter), the Nativity Fast precedes the Nativity.

Thanksgiving

Charles Maximus at four months (left) and Judah Severus at four months (right).

We are commonly asked how, as Orthodox Christians who fast from November 15 to December 24, we celebrate (or do we even celebrate?) Thanksgiving. The Nativity Fast had been around for some time (to say the least!) before Orthodox immigrants to the U.S. encountered this holiday and the traditions (i.e., foods) associated with it. Since there are a number of Orthodox hierarchies in the U.S., this issue is handled slightly differently, depending on the hierarchy. For the most part, there is either an explicit dispensation granted, or a more implicit understanding that the intents and purposes of fasting are commensurate with those of the Thanksgiving meal (when celebrated appropriately), and that the meal is therefore acceptable.

Orthodox Christians see obvious and significant value in celebrating, as President Lincoln stated in 1863, “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” The core of Orthodox worship is Holy Communion; another term for this is Eucharist, from the Greek εὐχαριστία (eucharistia, “thanksgiving”). The verbal form, εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteō, “to give thanks”) is used in the earliest reference to the institution of the Lord’s Supper: “When he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘Take, eat. This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in memory of me'” (1 Corinthians 11:24).

The heart of Orthodox worship, then, is participation with Christ in the offering of thanks to God for his body, broken for us. And this, of course, extends to offering thanks for all that God has given us, a practice that I, for one, could stand to be much better at doing. A helpful reflection that has had a significant effect on me is to imagine what I would lose if God were to take away everything for which I had not given thanks.

Another practice that has developed in many American Orthodox communities and/or families is gathering to pray and sing a hymn entitled “Glory to God for All Things,” or the Akathist of Thanksgiving. An akathist (taken from a Greek word indicating that it is to be sung while standing) is a hymn that takes a specific form, sort of like a sonnet. This particular akathist was written by Metropolitan Tryphon of Turkestan in 1934, during the height of the Communist persecution. It is often attributed to Archpriest Gregory Petroff, who died in a Soviet prison camp in 1940; the image of someone praying this in the gulag is incredibly powerful.

Here is a recording of this hymn being sung, and here is the text in full. A few highlights:

How glorious You are in the springtime, when every creature awakens to new life and joyfully sings Your praises with a thousand tongues! You are the source of life, the destroyer of death. By the light of the moon, nightingales sing, and the valleys and hills lie like wedding-garments, white as snow. All the earth is Your promised bride awaiting her spotless Husband. If the grass of the field is like this, how gloriously shall we be transfigured in the Second Coming, after the Resurrection! How splendid our bodies, how spotless our souls!

Glory to You for the warmth and tenderness of the world of nature.
Glory to You for the numberless creatures around us.
Glory to you for the depths of Your wisdom–the whole world a living sign of it.
Glory to You: On my knees, I kiss the traces of Your unseen hand.
Glory to You, enlightening us with the clarity of eternal life.
Glory to You for the hope of the unutterable, imperishable beauty of immortality.
Glory to You, O God, from age to age.

How near You are in the day of sickness. You Yourself visit the sick. You Yourself bend over the sufferer’s bed; his heart speaks to You. In the throes of sorrow and suffering, You bring peace; You bring unexpected consolation. You are the Comforter. You are the Love which watches over and heals us. To You we sing the song: Alleluia!

What sort of praise can I give You? I have never heard the song of the cherubim, a joy reserved for the spirits above. But I know the praises that nature sings to You. In winter, I have beheld how silently in the moonlight the whole earth offers You prayer, clad in its white mantle of snow, sparkling like diamonds. I have seen how the rising sun rejoices in You, how the song of the birds is a chorus of praise to You. I have heard the mysterious murmurings of the forests about You, and the winds singing Your praise as they stir the waters. I have understood how the choirs of stars proclaim Your glory as they move forever in the depths of infinite space. What is my poor worship? All nature obeys You, I do not. Yet while I live, I see Your love, I long to thank You, pray to You, and call upon Your Name:

Glory to You, giving us light.
Glory to You, loving us with love so deep, divine, and infinite.
Glory to You, blessing us with light, and with the host of angels and saints.
Glory to You, Father All-Holy, promising us a share in Your Kingdom.
Glory to You, Holy Spirit, Life-giving Sun of the world to come.
Glory to You for all things, holy and most merciful Trinity.
Glory to You, O God, from age to age.

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Charlie and Judah on Charlie’s birthday (one day after Judah’s birthday).