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Preparing for the Birth

adapted from an article in the November 1992 issue of The Word
by Francine Phelan


Since the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25th, when the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to give birth, we have looked forward in our hearts for the Great Feast of Christmas.    As the time gets closer we anticipate this event with preparations, just as a woman expecting a child prepares to give birth.  A mother-to-be has much to do to make sure that when the baby comes into the world there is a comfortable place to begin this new life. 

Likewise, we prepare our lives for the Birth of Christ, for he is born in our hearts to live and grow.   So how do we prepare our lives for this wonderful miracle to occur? How do we make this life-giving event actually happen in our hearts?   The Church in all her wisdom has set down guidelines for us.   But do we really see the wisdom, the real virtue, in these teachings?    Do we take these disciples seriously, or do we excuse ourselves, saying the rules are only for those people in monasteries?  Do we really believe that we, as simple Christians, were meant to follow the Church in those teachings?   Each year our priest reminds us that we are beginning the Nativity Fast.   Do we ignore him?   Or do we start to prepare as an expectant mother preparing for the great event that is about to happen.

Let us recall that the Eastern Church, many centuries ago instituted and still maintains the period between November 15th and December 24th as a time of preparation so that we, her sons and daughters, may receive our Lord Jesus Christ into this dark and sinful world, so that our whole being will be formed on the awareness that he has come into the world for us – for each one of us.  Why do we put ourselves through the bother, the inconvenience?   What does it do for us anyway?   Maybe we prepare, so that on that cold December night, when the fire of the Holy Spirit cuts across history, we will know how desperately we need this Birth, and how much we need his saving presence among us.

So we may ask how do we prepare ourselves for the coming of our Lord?    First of all, we pray.  This is the rule of the spirit.   We open ourselves to God, our Father.   We speak to him in the secret recesses of our hearts and he rewards us openly.  Bishop Theophan the Recluse, one of the greatest Orthodox spiritual guides of the 19th century, teaches us this about prayer: 

“Prayer is the test of everything.  Prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is also the director of everything.  If prayer is right, everything is right.  For prayer will not allow anything to go wrong….. without inner spiritual prayer, there is no prayer at all, for this alone is real prayer, pleasing to God.    It is the soul within the words of the prayers that matters, whether the prayer is at home or in Church.  If inner prayer is absent, then the words have only the appearance and not the reality of prayer.”

Without prayer we are nothing.  When we pray, we stand at that very instant before the face of God, we experience the Holy Spirit, we touch eternity.   So, during the days of the Nativity Fast increase your prayer life, practice the rule of the Spirit.  Get up 15 minutes earlier each morning to give yourself some time in prayer with our Lord.  At night, give up a few minutes of television or computer and use that time for prayer.   

Now, the rule of the mind.  The mind or the rational part of our nature reveals the spirit of the physical world.   The mind is the bridge between the finite, ever-changing material world of time and space and the infinite changeless world of the Spirit.   It is through the mind, the rational soul, that the ways of the spirit are given expression.   So during the Nativity Fast, select something of the life of the Church to read and study.   Perhaps one of the Gospels or the Psalms. But keep it simple so that you will do it.  If it is too long or intense, you may start out OK, but tire of it before the time of the celebration of the Feast.

Now, the rule of the body.   As the mind gives expression to the world of the spirit, it does so through the body.   The body is the highest, most complex expression of the world of matter.   But as we are aware, the body will all its cravings and passions will dominate and rule our will.   This is part of our fallen nature.   More often than not, we lose the battle.  So, the best way to prepare and control the body is to meet it face to face.   For 40 days we simply stop eating meat, dairy products, olive oil, and drinking wine.   Why?   When we control our eating and drinking we realign our material body with the spirit and the mind.   We need to be aware that in this day and time we give a lop-sided emphasis to fasting because we are so materially oriented.   We should pray, study, and fast as a single unit of endeavor and never allow one or the other to predominate.   We are all children of the Faith.   We must crawl before we run.  And returning to our practical journey with the expectant mother, we might think of how a pregnant woman will change her diet as she carries the baby so it will have a healthy development.   The new mothers of this age are particularly careful about their eating habits.   How even more careful we should be in our preparation for the most important and precious Birth of all time.

We find it difficult to do these things that our Holy Church instructs us to do when everyone around us is going about their preparations in such another way, a materialistic way.   It would be so much easier if our associates were striving to practice the same disciplines.   Let us begin each day of the Nativity Fast with a prayer that God will guide us and make us strong in our efforts to pray, study and fast.  Remember that we are in this world but we are not of it.   We are sons and daughters of our heavenly Father, and he will help us if we ask and if we are serious in our efforts.

In focusing on the true event, we will bring our minds, hearts and bodies in tune with the real meaning of Christmas.