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The Nativity Fast: Philip’s Fast

Tetrapod Candle - Purple ps (737x1024)

A blessed candle softly glimmers on the tetrapod for Nativity Fast.  The angel image visible next to the candle is an inverted reflection of an icon from above the altar. ¹   The reflection is captured on the glass cover of the tetrapod.  During Nativity Fast, we can reflect on the announcement by the Angel Gabriel to our Blessed Virgin Mary. Photo taken in St. Michael Church, Pittston, Pennsylvania

One of the lesser known fasting cycles occurs in Eastern Catholic churches and begins on November 15 and ends Christmas Eve.

Many people recognize Advent as the approach of Christmas.  Advent is the title given to the four weeks prior to Christmas in the Latin rite of the Catholic church. But there is a another tradition called the Nativity Fast.  Nativity Fast is a spiritual practice followed in Eastern Christian churches.

  • It is a time set aside to spiritually prepare for the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • The emphasis is reflecting on the mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
  • The Nativity Fast starts earlier than Advent.  It begins the day after the feast of St. Philip on the Eastern Catholic liturgical calendar on November 15.    This is how the fast became known by another title: Philip’s fast.  Either title is used.
  • The fast period is a full 40 days corresponding to the full 40 days of the Great Lent fast.

There is a bit of a difference between the Nativity Fast and Lenten Fast, though both are considered a penitential period.   The Lenten fast is a very solemn, mandatory fasting period with specific practices in abstinence from food and participation in Lenten services.  During Lent the dominant theme is penitential and sorrowful as a reminder of Christ’s death for our sins.

The Nativity Fast anticipates a joyful event.  It may be described as an expectant fast in the wonder and mystery of the coming of Our Savior.  Yet, it is a time of reserved joy in which practices of fasting and almsgiving are still encouraged.  Abstinence or fasting is suggested as a spiritual discipline, as an invitation and a response.  It is our “yes” to being open to welcoming Christ.

  • During the Nativity fast, the faithful may choose to abstain beyond what is normally required in the Byzantine Catholic church.   Abstaining from meat every Friday the entire year is mandatory for Byzantine Catholics.  There are occasional exceptions during some feast day periods.
  • The practice of almsgiving (providing and helping the poor) is advocated as equally important as the discipline of fasting.

In our Ruthenian Metropolia, Philips Fast may be observed voluntarily, partially, or in its entirety.     Entirety would mean strict abstinence on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; lesser abstinence on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but more strictly from Dec. 10th or Dec. 20th depending on local tradition.  There would be mitigated abstinence (wine and oil) on Saturday and Sunday.

The faithful may voluntarily choose to abstain less strictly.   For example, in addition to Friday, they may abstain from meat on Mondays and/or Wednesdays or perhaps abstain from other foods in addition to meat.  It is voluntary in terms of level of fasting determined by each person.

What is important is that we not become anxious and focused on rules of fasting.  Our fast should be meaningful.  We should not equate the formalities of practice for what may really matter to God, what is in our hearts.  We must guard against practices for the act of practices alone taken up superficially for the wrong intent, least we develop pride in doing so.  We turn to Scripture for the wisdom that God teaches and values.  The four Gospels and Epistles have much to offer for reflection during this time.

As with any fast, a God-directed focus is the virtue behind the discipline.   Fasting or abstaining is a powerful deliberate act when “supercharged” with other formative practices.  The renewal of our minds and opening of our hearts can lead us to a closer personal relationship with God.   During the Nativity fast, we can be both other-directed (in service) and inner-directed (contemplative).  Examples are almsgiving, acts of charity, going to confession (the Sacrament of Reconciliation), engaging in Bible or religious groups, replacing time spent passively in secular pursuits with reading Scripture or religious books and articles, watching Catholic homilies and lectures readily available online, journaling, and of course prayer.

Any practice that brings us closer in relationship to God is a good thing.   When we abstain or fast (from food or activities) God knows our hearts and recognizes our efforts.  God loves us no matter how weak in our failings we are when we seek His mercy.

The Nativity fast calls us to be quietly joyful and reservedly expectant as well.  It is a perfect time for contemplation.  A time to prepare, not in an overwhelmingly secular manner.  Our frame of reference should be as Christians and Catholics.

This is a time for us to ponder and give a little more thought to events unfolding: the role of Mary’s obedience to the will of God and the anticipation of the birth of Jesus.  We can contemplate the great love God has for us in humbly assuming human nature – the greater plan through which each of us is offered a share in eternal life.

The Nativity Fast is about the mystery of the Incarnation of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and its relevance to our personal redemption and salvation.   It is a plan of God that began long ago as we read in Old Testament Scripture the hopes and promises of a Messiah as foretold by the prophets.

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.  He teaches that these are the means to affect change, whether in self or others.

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Jesus is very patient.   And in waiting we must also be patient.  Hopeful expectation requires slowing down and acceptance of the wait.  Keeping the intent of the Nativity fast can help us stay on track as Christians during a time when everything is moving in a frenzy.  We can use our time and resources in ways different than what the culture wants us to do.

The paradoxical challenge during the Nativity fast is really a balance between two worlds, heaven and earth.  God became human so we could become more like God (attributes of all Jesus calls us to be).  The Nativity Fast is a purposeful and disciplined time to advance our personal assimilation of the plan of salvation in our own life.   We can look to the role models of Mary and Joseph in abiding to the will of God.

Yet, an ever growing and modern day dilemma for all Christians is reserving time amid the busyness of shopping, decorating, and gathering with others, to reflect on what God wants for us.  And that is a call to holiness.   Often though, we find ourselves tempted and sidetracked  towards more of what we want that is apart from God.  Noise and distractions pull us in these other directions.  This is the background static we habitually turn towards to avoid what we fear — changes in being open to all that a personal relationship with God may require.   What God offers and asks from us in return is very different than what the culture we live in wants us to believe and offers.   During this time of the Nativity fast, we can see how our Blessed Virgin Mary and Joseph responded in total faith to accept their call, to stay the course, a journey they had no knowledge of in advance.

♥  It is necessary to make a conscious choice to see beyond what the world identifies as worthy and important, and instead see with spiritual eyes.

The world may glorify a manufactured joy at this time of year, a joy without substance, but we can hold to our Christian beliefs in the midst of the secular disparity.   We can follow tradition.  We can celebrate the Glory of Our Lord at the exact time for celebration, beginning with our Christmas Vigil.

Our joy 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 forgotten and thrown away with all the wrappings the day after, but a revelation leading to the greatest gift of all.   One that God gifts to all who accept his Truth.

♥    Let us prepare our hearts to welcome Jesus, the true Light of the World

For additional details on the Nativity Fast practiced in the Byzantine Catholic rite of the Church:
Click Here:  Metropolitan Cantor Institute, Nativity Fast

¹  Incarnation Icon: Icon of the Sign

Light of the World Graphic