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Archive for November 15th, 2005

Colossians 2 and the Nativity Fast

A friend contacted me privately to ask me about these verses that are assigned from the lectionary today:

If then ye died with Christ from the elements of the world, why, as if living in the world, do ye subject yourselves to regulations–“Do not touch, neither taste, nor handle,” which things are all for corruption in the using–according to the injunctions and teachings of men, which things indeed are having a reputation of wisdom in self-devised worship, and humility of mind, and unsparing treatment of the body, not showing any honor for gratification of the flesh? If ye then were raised with the Christ, be seeking the things above, where the Christ is seated at the right of God. Be minding the things above, not the things on the earth. For ye died, and your life hath been hidden with the Christ in God. (Colossians 2:20-3:3)

Knowing, as he does, that the Nativity Fast begins today, he asked me how Orthodox reconcile these verses from Colossians with their fasting practices.

Given that Pentecost is a movable feast, and thus the enumeration of the weeks after Pentecost will vary each year when one reaches the Nativity Fast, it is surely serendipitous that these are the verses with which we begin the Fast this year.

My reply, slightly edited, was the following:

For Orthodox who coordinate their fixed feast/fast days with the civil calendar, today is, indeed, the beginning of the Nativity Fast. (Orthodox who follow the Church’s calendar for fixed feast/fast days will begin their Nativity Fast in about two weeks on the 28th.) You rightly note the items from which one is to abstain during this time–though as a matter of pastoral economy, the personal rule of each Orthodox will vary according to the direction and counsel of his or her spiritual father and of their own prayer and reflection. Generally the sick, elderly, pregnant or nursing mothers, or perhaps persons with other serious concerns (such as, perhaps, eating disorders) are generally gently encouraged not to maintain a strict fast, for health reasons, or in some cases they may positively be forbidden to fast. In such cases their spiritual father would doubtless have discerned that to adhere to a fast would harm their health or might even damage them spiritually. The practice of fasting is not a magical charm toward instant maturity in the faith.

But how does one reconcile the Orthodox fasting practices with this text in Colossians.

First of all, our Lord himself said, “When you fast . . .” not “if you fast . . .” implying quite distinctly that his followers would fast. And, indeed, we see this of the early Christians in Acts, when St. Paul and St. Barnabas were set aside for their ministry in 13:2-3; and when St. Paul and the Churches he had planted installed their presbyters in 14:23. St. Paul mentions that the foregoing of sexual intercourse in marriage is to be accompanied with prayer and fasting in 1 Corinthians 7:5, and he also references his own frequent fastings (2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27), though in context, these are likely involuntary fastings (being without food due to persecution, hardship or circumstance). In fact, St. Paul mentions the rough treatment he gives his body so that he not be disqualified from the prize of salvation (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).

So, clearly, however we may want to handle Colossians 2, we need to do so in the context of these verses.

Thus, I would say, in short, that Colossians 2 does not forbid fasting, but the wrong sort of fasting. If we look again at the text, we see that the wrong sort of fasting is that which has a reputation for ethelothreskeia–that is, “self-willed worship.” And note, also, that it is according to the traditions of men and not that which has come down to the Church from Christ and his apostles. In other words, ethelothreskic fasting is the sort of fasting in which we focus on the self and on external appearances and reputation. Christ demanded that our fasting be in secret and not for a show, but ethelothreskic fasting is all about reputation, honor and appearance, the self-satisfaction that comes from self-mastery. It does not focus on the things above, on our life which is hid in Christ in God. True fasting, as we know from Isaiah, is to care for the widow and the orphan, and is done secretly.

Most of all, Christian fasting is not self-directed. It is received from the Church through her ministers. One does not settle on a fasting rule on one’s own, but always under the direction and authority of one’s priest or spiritual father, who, as a spokesman of the Church, binds and looses.

So, not all fasting is wrong or unhelpful for our growth in Christ. Only that which is self-directed and self-gratifying.

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Domesticating Men

According to an article in the Harvard Gazette, Marriage lowers testosterone:

A man’s testosterone levels drop significantly when he holds an infant. Even holding a baby doll can decrease levels of the male virility hormone.

Married men, whether fathers or not, have markedly lower testosterone levels than single males, according to one of the first studies of how the hormone changes when men marry and become fathers. Results of the study, done by a team of Harvard University anthropologists, increase our knowledge of human biology and may have implications for so-called “male menopause.”

Researchers have long suspected that levels of the hormone largely responsible for fighting, competing, and mating decrease when men settle down and start a family. Other studies have shown that testosterone begins to decline shortly after marriage, but surges upward when unions end in divorce.

“It makes sense,” notes Peter Ellison, professor of anthropology. “Lower levels of testosterone may increase the likelihood that men will stay home and care for their wives and kids, while decreasing the likelihood they will go out drinking with the guys and chase other women.” . . .

Go ahead, play that marriage “emasculates” men card. There. Feel better. If one thinks parenting is “women’s work” then let’s do a comparison between a “man’s day at the office” and a “woman’s day with the kids.” I can tell you this: I’ll take one of the twelve hours days of hard labor at my late grandfather’s farm than an eight-hour day chasing rug rats and saying “No” three hundred and forty-three times for the exact same request.

Furthermore, we are designed to be parents. It is the norm. It is most good and pleasing to be normal.

“These results suggest that testosterone levels involve a trade-off between mating and parenting efforts,” says Gray. “Single men invest only in mating, while fathers decrease their mating efforts in favor of parenting.” . . .

Not sure about this “mating vs. parenting” thing, but I do know that I have absolutely no time–and no energy whatsoever, let alone any inclination–to go “skirt chasing.”

So, does this decrease in testosterone become the equivalent of menopause?

If testosterone levels flatten out at age 60, does that mean males undergo a menopause? “No,” answers Ellison. “Male testosterone lessens with age but there’s no discrete end. No cliff that it falls off as when women use up their finite supply of eggs. For men in places like Boston, the testosterone drop is greater because the starting point is higher.”

One physician puts it this way: “Men don’t have menses to pause.”

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