Preparing for the Feast

Family-Friendly Advice on Fasting, Prayer, and Giving

In our modern, secular society, preparing to celebrate the great feasts of the Orthodox Church requires great effort. Spiritual efforts must co-exist with the necessities of work and school, lessons and sports practices. Worldly commitments are written in the squares of the month-ly calendars we keep in our pockets or posted on the fridge, while activities that feed our souls are left for another day, when we might have some "free time" or a cancellation in our hectic schedules. Unless we make a conscious effort, our focus remains in the world rather than on God. And even if we decide to make the effort, we're often at a loss as to where to begin.

The Orthodox Church has always prescribed three activities to acquire that elusive "spiritual focus" we need to prepare ourselves to participate in the joy of the feasts: fasting, prayer, and giving.

Fasting: Do without to make room for God.

Fasting allows us to "empty" our bodies and minds of worldly things, so that we are better able to fill ourselves with the Word and the Spirit, and come closer to the Father. The "emptying" starts with diet - food is both a necessity and an indulgence, and so is the perfect "starting point" - but includes other things as well.

The way each of us fasts depends heavily on what we saw our grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles doing when we were children. For example, my mother's family lived in a coal mining town in central Pennsylvania, where the rule of abstaining from meat, fish, and dairy for the duration of the fasts was followed almost exclusively by women. The men (predominantly Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic) who worked the mines did not abstain from meat or dairy during the traditional fasting seasons because of the strenuous physical labor required of them. They reduced the amount of food they ate and abstained from smoking and drinking alcohol instead. (The "company clubhouse" where the men gathered after work actually shut down during the fasts.) On Holy Thursday and Holy Friday, the miners took unpaid leave so they could fast and pray. They did not follow the dietary rule prescribed by the Church, but they made an effort to do something.

As a child, I saw my mother abstaining from meat, fish and most dairy, and from all food on Holy Friday (as she had done to keep her father company while he fasted). My own father, a school teacher, fasted according to my mother's lead: whatever she packed for lunch or cooked for dinner, he ate. We seldom ate at restaurants or at friends' homes during fasting seasons when I was a child, though I don't know if this was for piety or convenience.I think that many people who were born and reared in Orthodox households have similar experiences, where fasting is practiced, but not analyzed. Those who have embraced Orthodoxy or seriously started to practice their Orthodox Faith as adults, I think, more consciously use the rule of the Church as their personal guide in fasting.Either way, discuss well before the fast begins how you plan to "keep the fast" as a family, and then stick to your plan. Parents should always seek the advice of their parish priest/Spiritual Father and receive a blessing for any deviation from the prescribed rule of the Church.

Here are some ways to "empty" yourself:
Abstain from eating meats and dairy each day of the fast, and avoid fish, olive oil, and wine except on the days when they are permitted - the Church's rule of fasting.
Reduce the amount of food you do eat. Cut out "seconds" and snacks. During the fast, you should never be "full" or "stuffed".
Keep your food preparation simple. Don't spend any more time planning menus, cooking and serving, or eating than is absolutely necessary.
Cut out non-essential activities (e.g., take a break from gymnastics class), and minimize the time spent on non-Church-related commitments.
Turn off (or at least cut back on) the television and radio, and stop the bombardment of noise that serves as a backdrop for our daily lives. If you must listen to something to concentrate or relax, play recorded liturgical music.
Curtail your entertainment. Cut out movies, theater visits, video games, surfing the internet, and "junk reading" (novels, magazines, hobby newsletters, etc.), and use the time for more spiritually-enriching activities.

Prayer: Invite God into your life.

What takes the place of the worldly food and pursuits during a preparation period? Christ! And the "spiritual food" he brings! Try some of the following ways to expand your family's spiritual efforts:
Add to your daily prayer routine. If you normally ask God's blessing only before meals, add a prayer of thanksgiving after meals, too. If you normally say "bedtime" prayers, add the morning prayers. Pray more. Use your "family altar" as the place for prayer, and put an icon on the kitchen table.
Take the time to read the "daily" Epistle and Gospel selections each day at the dinner table. (These are published on the Orthodox Christian calendars given out by many Churches at the secular New Year, and in many weekly bulletins. If you don't have access to these sources, ask your parish priest for a list or check out one of the Church calendars available on the internet.)
If you don't already have one, make it a family project to compile a "prayer list" of those you will remember each day. Use two columns, one for the living and one for the departed, and include relatives, god-family, teachers and co-workers, friends, and those you've heard are currently suffering. Families with younger children may want to make a "picture" list, so little ones can actually see the people for whom they are praying. Make a copy for each family member, and keep the lists in your icon corner.
Replace the novels, magazines, and hobby newsletters you read at bed-time with the writings of the Church Fathers or the lives of the saints. Children might enjoy reading about the life of St. Innocent, the first resident Bishop and Apostle to America - who was a teacher, linguist, ethnologist, architect, carpenter, clock-maker, world traveler, and outdoor adventurer (though not by intention).
Make an extra effort to get to Church for Vespers and Matins, and during Great Lent the special weekday services: the Canon of St. Andrew, Presanctified Liturgy, Akathist. The readings (from the Old Testament, Psalms, Epistles, and Gospels) of these services were selected to provide abundant "spiritual food" to keep us strong during the fast, and direct our thoughts toward the meaning/significance of the feast to come.
Take advantage of the any special talks and seminars scheduled during the preparation periods. Our local OCA Deanery hosts several series each year, usually coupled with Vespers, as does our greater-Akron-area Orthodox clergy association. (Each session in a series is hosted by a different parish, so we have the opportunity to meet and socialize with brothers and sisters in Christ we don't see often, too!)

Giving: Care for God's creation and creatures.

Traditionally, the "giving" has been interpreted as "almsgiving". When I was in Church School, I remember taking home a little cardboard canister each Advent and Lent, and dropping in a dime or quarter every day. I returned the canisters to Church School at the end of each preparation period, and had no idea what was done with the money. My friends in Roman Catholic parochial school had the same canisters, which sometimes ended up being used to hold marbles, jacks, or Barbie shoes.

If you think of "giving" in a larger context - that is, giving back to God according to His commandment that we "love one another" - the experience becomes one of great spiritual enrichment and growth that lasts well beyond the fasting season. Here are some ideas for parish and family "giving":
As a parish (or Church School class, or family), adopt a specific charity or mission project for your increased monetary giving. Then learn all about the project, why it's needed, and how your contributions will be used. Quantify and set a goal for your giving. For example, a house built by Project Mexico costs $2000, so you can give a house instead of 8000 quarters.
Look for projects that coincide with the theme of the fast and feast, so the effort becomes a teaching tool. Our Church School makes a practice of adopting a "local" mission that deals with infants and children during Advent, the Nativity Fast. In the past, it has supported a crisis-pregnancy care center (which provides counseling and layette items to pregnant women who decide to keep their babies despite great hardship) and provided new clothing, books, bedding, and toiletries. (Remember the inn that was full when Mary and Joseph stopped by?)
Begin or renew a family or personal commitment to a long-term "giving" project that uses you talents and time as Christ directs us - to help feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, or comfort those in despair (see Matthew 25:34-46) - such as:
  1. serving at a soup kitchen or "hot meal" program
  2. making re-heatable meals or cleaning/doing chores for an elderly or ill person in your parish or neighborhood
  3. sewing (if you're blessed with that talent), buying, or collecting and "spiffing up" clothing for distribution to the needy
  4. volunteering at a local mission center/hospitality house, doing anything from cleaning and preparing beds to training and becoming a job or skills counselor
  5. getting involved with your local Habitat for Humanity or refugee-relocation program (In greater-Akron, for example, the local IOCC chapter is outfitting apartments for refugee families from Bosnia, and needs lots of help collecting and organizing furniture and household items.)
  6. visiting parish shut-ins or those in the hospital just to talk and pray together
  7. volunteering for a neighborhood youth-mentoring or literacy program
  8. donating blood (if you are able), and helping with local Red Cross blood drives
Organize a youth program for your parish to teach about the Creation story and the basics of environmental stewardship (i.e., we must take care of the earth that God made and gave to us to use for His glory), or focus on these ideas for a time in your existing SOYO, GOYA, or Scouting groups.

Kids of all ages love to recycle (my Katie loves to squash and sort soft drink cans, and fishes things out of the trash that should go in "the bin"), and can make a big difference with a park or highway clean-up project. This approach places the politically-correct "green-ness" and environmentalism we hear about in its proper context: as the stewardship of God's creation.
Remember, when you "give" during a preparation period, it should be over and above what you as a parish, family or individual already do throughout the year: it is an additional sacrifice of money, talent, and time.

Don't "pre-celebrate" the Feast!

The hardest part of any preparation period is keeping the focus on the spiritual aspects of the season, then knowing when to "wind down" to celebrate. Here are some tips for staying out of trouble:
Keep any religious commemorations that occur during a preparation period simple and appropriate. This includes parish banquets and family dinners commemorating patron saint's days, Baptisms, etc.
Avoid secular celebrations and parties. If you absolutely must attend, put in just a brief appearance. (Use your common sense regarding the meal/refreshments served, but leave before the dancing or other "lively" entertainment begins.)
If your family's celebration of a certain feast includes decorating your home (e.g., putting up a Christmas tree and lights for the Nativity, or displaying spring flowers and decorated eggs for Pascha), don't put out the decorations early. Wait until the eve of the feast, when the Church is also anticipating its celebration. As a child, I remember putting up our family's artificial Christmas tree with my father while my mother prepared Holy Supper (a special Lenten meal eaten before the Nativity Vigil, a Slavic custom). In our parish today, Fr. Stephen insists that the tree in the vestibule not be decorated until the Sunday before the Nativity, for just this reason.

by Nichola Toda Krause

© 1999 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).
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