One of the lesser known fasting cycles in Eastern churches begins on November 15 and ends on December 24, Christmas Eve.
Many people readily identify Advent with the approach of Christmas. So it may be new to learn of another fasting period called Phillip’s Fast. It is also called the Nativity Fast, and like Advent, is a period of time focusing on spiritual preparation for the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Phillip’s fast overlaps with Advent – the four weeks prior to Christmas traditional in the Roman Rite. The Eastern tradition starts earlier on the liturgical calendar – the day after the feast of St. Phillip (which is the source of its name but only that in common). Phillip’s Fast is a full 40 day period in which abstinence and penance are recommended disciplines. Unlike the Great Fast of Lent, this pre-Nativity fast is voluntary.
Voluntary fasting allows the faithful the option to abstain or not abstain from certain foods on days aside from what is normally required on Fridays. One of those options is to abstain from meat on Mondays and Wednesdays in addition to Fridays. As with any fasting cycle, spiritual value is seen in formative practices such as acts of charity or service, and reserving time for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The intention of Phillip’s Fast is to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and the significance to our redemption and salvation. All throughout the Old Testament prophecies, the hopes and promises of a Messiah are foretold with long awaited anticipation, the span of which can only be realized in looking back in time. In the New Testament, we see again, many examples of waiting and hopeful expectation, of disciplined patience expressed by Jesus himself, even exasperation over human misunderstanding of his message to others. Jesus emphatically reminds his own apostles and disciples of the importance of prayer and fasting in affecting change, whether in self or others.
Hopeful expectation requires slowing down and patient acceptance of the wait. The goal of the Phillip’s or Nativity Fast period is to move deeper in personal interior preparation at a time when everything is moving faster. This involves using our time and resources in ways different than what others want us to believe is important. Jesus came in complete humility and in doing so modeled to his followers the Way to eternal life. The challenge during Phillip’s fast is to enjoy the anticipation during this season (as there is much joy in it) while retaining what makes this waiting time distinctly Christian. It’s also a reminder that the church recognizes this time before Christ’s birth as a penetenial period, with the true celebration of Christmas reserved for Christmas and the time following.
An even greater challenge is keeping and making time amid the busyness of shopping, decorating, and gathering with others, to reflect on what God wants, and less on what we want that is apart from God. Doing so is to grow in Christ and the means to do this is through prayer, reading Scripture, participating in the Sacraments including Confession, making sacrifices, and sharing with others (almsgiving). But hardest of all, is finding distraction free quiet. Noise and distractions pull us in other directions, and these are the background static we habitually lean upon to avoid what we fear, and that is realizing the personal relationship God wants with each of us. What God desires is very different than the temptations that are more prevalent at this time of year.
♥ It is necessary to make a conscious choice to see past what the world identifies as Christmas and instead see with spiritual eyes.
One of the benefits of a fasting period before Christmas is it helps us form this deliberate awareness. With renewed awareness, and without contradiction in enjoying this time of year, is found the ability to maintain a clear focus. The world may glorify a manufactured joy, but we as Christians can celebrate the Glory of Our Lord in the time appropriate for celebration. Our joy then becomes the “joy of the Gospel” — the kind expressed by the early disciples of Christ — a joy that is continued in our present age, in our discipleship as Christians now. In doing so, we affirmatively acknowledge that Christ’s birth celebrated on Christmas Day is just the beginning. The Nativity of Jesus Christ is not merely a one day event, but a revelation leading to the greatest gift of all.
♥ Let us prepare our hearts to welcome Jesus, the true Light of the World.