The Cave of the Heart
Having begun the Nativity Fast and survived Thanksgiving, we begin in earnest to prepare for the Nativity of Christ. I would like to ask you to consider this season, for a moment, in light of the icon of the Nativity. It is a very “busy” icon, meaning that there is a lot going on in it: angels proclaiming, shepherds searching, magi traveling, midwives washing, Joseph and the devil debating. It is bustling with activity.
But in the midst of all of that activity, at the center of the icon, lies the infant Christ with his Most-Holy Mother. It is an image of stillness. Not a stillness that is an absence, a nothing, but rather a stillness that is a fullness, a presence. It is a stillness that is peace, the Peace of Heaven descended to earth, as the angels proclaim to the shepherds.
What we must see about this icon is that it is not only an image of the birth of our Lord, but it is also an image of our life in Him. For what is our Christian life as it is defined in the scriptures and by the fathers except activity arriving at stillness, movement coming to rest, and labor giving way, at last, to peace?
What does all of this have to do with fasting and, specifically, the Nativity Fast of 40 days leading up to Christmas? Simply this, that we are taught by the Church to make of these 40 days a movement toward that cave which is within each one of us, our heart. True fasting is a movement, a voluntary self-emptying, moving toward the space within us where Christ can be born. All of the externals of that fasting - abstaining and limiting our food and drink and other bodily pleasures - are put in place for no other reason than to help us discover the inner shrine and dwelling place of God within us. It is that place where we, like the Most-Holy Mother of God, can become the throne of the Living God.
In our culture this season is very active. We go in circles around the edges of our lives, shopping, socializing, engaged in a whole host of school and work events. If we are going to experience this lenten season as something spiritually beneficial and actually preparatory for Christ’s birth, it will not happen because our culture facilitates it. It will require deliberate, spiritual effort. If we are to find, that is, that cave that is our heart within ourselves, we will need to empty ourselves in this season through prayer and stillness, fasting and almsgiving, directing our mind and our activity toward the center of our lives, awaiting there the coming of Emmanuel, God with us. With love in Christ, Fr John