Why We Fast Before Christmas

Why We Fast Before Nativity

The time of preparation before Christmas is intended to be a time of purposeful asceticism, almsgiving, and learning to say yes to God while saying no to our own desires.

But Christmas, and especially in present day America, has become a time of great anxiety and materialism, despite the fact that most every song one hears, most every retail ad one reads, and most every film that is produced–with “Christmas” as a theme–will try to convince us that it’s a time for warmth, joy, spending time with family, and even taking a break from the regular hustle of everyday life. If only this were the case.

On the contrary, Christmas — a period of time that seems to grow longer and more arduous by the year — is preceded by ominous social media status updates that lament: “I can’t believe it’s already November … Christmas is just around the corner,” or “My children won’t stop bothering me about [insert the latest gadget here] … I can’t wait until Christmas is over,” and so on. Many will also complain: “Wow. I am not ready for Christmas. Where has the time gone?”

This grief and anxiety should not be. No, we have certainly missed the purpose of this feast — and the time of preparation and fasting that precedes it — if all we can do is approach it with stress and sorrow.

As I mentioned above, the time before Nativity — Advent (or “Coming”) in the West, and the Fast of St. Philip the Apostle (due to its beginning on the eve of this Saint’s feast) or simply “the Nativity fast” in the Orthodox Church — is intended to be utilized for one’s Spiritual benefit (and indeed, for the life of the world), not for remorse or regret.

The Nativity fast dates to the year 1166 and a synod at Constantinople, where our fathers inaugurated a forty-day period of fasting and preparation before the annual celebration of Christ’s Incarnation. This period of forty days is analogous to the forty days that Moses fasted before receiving the commandments from God.

Of this connection, St. Symeon of Thessaloniki (ca. A.D. 1381–1429) writes:

The Nativity Forty-day Fast represents the fast undertaken by Moses, who — having fasted for forty days and forty nights — received the Commandments of God, written on stone tablets. And we, fasting for forty days, will reflect upon and receive from the Virgin the living Word — not written upon stone, but born, incarnate — and we will commune of His Divine Body.

If nothing else, then, the time of prayer and fasting before Nativity reminds us that we, as Orthodox Christians, are given the immense and unthinkable blessing, privilege, and honor of receiving the very Body and Blood of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. But as we say yes to Christ in the holy mysteries, we must also learn to say no to ourselves, making a point to both follow Christ and serve those in need.

It is no coincidence that Christ, in one of the Gospel readings during Nativity exhorts: “Whoever does not bear his cross” as well as “forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27,33). While the faithful prepare to receive Christ anew in his Incarnation, we must also be prepared to relinquish whatever it is we possess that keeps us from the glory of his everlasting kingdom.

But even as the faithful are called to a period of spiritual quietude and even asceticism during this fasting period, we should not engage in asceticism and bear this cross as an end unto itself. Rather, we learn to say no to ourselves so that we can say yes to God. And in saying yes to the poor and the needy, we are saying yes to Christ, so that we might share in the vision of Cornelius, hearing: “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4).

An effective remedy for the anxieties and desires of this time of year is found in a concern for our fellow man. Rather than being so caught up in the materialism and “me too” nature of contemporary celebrations, Orthodox Christians should play a pivotal role in showing a wholly better and more noble way forward.

Incidentally, the other Gospel readings throughout the Nativity fast remind us not only why we are participating, but also how we can make the most out of it. For example, we should not lay up treasure for ourselves, while neglecting God (Luke 12:16–21), but should rather be “rich” towards God — and by consequence, towards those who are in need. We should not make excuses when it comes to serving or helping those in distress (Luke 13:10–17). And, of course, we should be willing to “sell all that [we] have and distribute to the poor” (Luke 18:22).

It’s in these virtues, and in a genuine concern for others, that we can be released from the empty cares of this world, especially as they are emphasized during the holiday season. If we give to the poor, we are giving to God. If we say no to our own desires, we can fulfill the needs of those who are looking for someone — anyone — that is willing to say yes on their behalf.

As families, we can help our children give or donate to a family, friend, or even a complete stranger in need, rather than providing them with more and more stuff.

As individuals, we can honor the fast, spend more time in prayer, and make a conscious effort to love our neighbors as ourselves, dedicating this season to be a time for true, spiritual growth. We can practice the religion of St. James that is “pure and undefiled” before God: “… to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). Instead of overeating for the next month, spending countless hours at parties and other premature celebrations, we can fast from our regular intake of food so that we have more time and resources to give to those who are truly in need—not to mention more focus and attention for prayer and spiritual growth.

Rather than approaching this Nativity season with anxiety and distress, dedicate yourself to the true spirit of the season and the greater purpose that lies within: the salvation and healing of the world through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

G. V. Martini

About G. V. Martini

G. V. Martini works as a senior product manager for a software company and is a subdeacon in the Orthodox Church. He and his family attends St. Innocent Antiochian Orthodox Church in Everson, Washington.

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9 comments:

  1. Thank you for this good start to the season, in particular for the fine St. Symeon quote!

    I do have some confusion about one thing you mention.

    The Luke passage you give here for the eve of Advent Old Calendar is not what is shown on this one, for example:

    http://www.holytrinityorthodox.com/calendar/

    can you explain where you got it and how it would be ‘no coincidence’.

    By ‘no coincidence’ do you mean that the lectionary was deliberately set to give us these particular verses on the eve of Advent, and if so was it set that way at the time the Advent fast was introduced in 1166? Or did you only mean that the verse is appropriate to the eve of the fast– a providential coincidence?

    thank and have a blessed Advent fast.

    1. Thank you for your comment. This was originally penned in 2012, and apparently the Gospel readings aren’t quite on the same date. Those readings do occur during Nativity, but closer to the feast itself. I’ve updated the post to reflect that, but yes, I do think its either providential or intentional that the Church has us focus on the ascetic ideal during this season—a call to cast aside our own cares, and follow Christ in service to others!

  2. Thank you for another wonderful post, Gabriel.

    I would like to suggest two points for clarification, however.

    First, the feast of the Apostle Philip is celebrated on November 14/27. Therefore it would be more accurate to say the Nativity Fast (Advent) begins not on the “eve” of his feast day (i.e., the evening of November 13), but at the “conclusion” of his feast day.

    Second, with regard to your statement, “The Nativity fast dates to the year 1166 and a synod at Constantinople, where our fathers inaugurated a forty-day period of fasting” — it may be fair to say the Nativity Fast was formally institutionalized then, but its origins are surely far more ancient. Here is a succinct survey of the earliest documented (fifth-century) origins of the forty-two day (seven-week) advent fast in the Orthodox West (surely the fast was similarly evolving in the East):

    “The oldest document in which we find the length and exercises of Advent mentioned with anything like clearness, is a passage in the second book of the History of the Franks by St. Gregory of Tours, where he says that St. Perpetuus, one of his predecessors, who held that see about the year 480, had decreed a fast three times a week, from the feast of St. Martin until Christmas. It would be impossible to decide whether St. Perpetuus, by his regulations, established a new custom, or merely enforced an already existing law. Let us, however, note this interval of forty, or rather of forty-three days, so expressly mentioned, and consecrated to penance, as though it were a second Lent, though less strict and severe than that which precedes Easter.

    “Later on, we find the ninth canon of the first Council of Macon, held in 582, ordaining that during the same interval between St. Martin’s day and Christmas, the Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, should be fasting days, and that the Sacrifice should be celebrated according to the Lenten rite. Not many years before that, namely in 567, the second Council of Tours had enjoined the monks to fast from the beginning of December till Christmas. This practice of penance soon extended to the whole forty days, even for the laity: and it was commonly called St. Martin’s Lent….”

    See: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/resources/advent/history/the-history-of-advent/

    1. Thanks for the helpful information!

      I could’ve gone further back in history for justification for the Nativity Fast, but decided to stick with the later date in order to avoid any accusation of stretching the case. Like you, I agree there’s earlier precedent.

  3. Thank you for this article, Gabe. The world’s idea of being “festive” involves materialism and gluttony, during a specific time of year when the Holy Spirit calls His Church to fasting, prayer, repentance, and selflessness. Thank you for reminding us of this. May we all take it to heart . . . and to action.

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