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The Nativity Fast: Philip’s Fast

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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 difference between the Nativity Fast and Lenten Fast.   The Lenten fast is a very solemn, mandatory fasting period with specific practices in abstinence from food.  During Lent the dominant theme is penitential.

The Nativity Fast anticipates a joyful event.  It may be described as a joyful fast.  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.
  • The practice of almsgiving (providing and helping the poor) is advocated as equally important as the discipline of fasting.

 

Normal practice is that all Fridays unless designated on the liturgical calendar, are days Byzantine Catholics are required to abstain from meat without exception.  During the Nativity fast the faithful may choose to abstain from meat on other days, such as Mondays and/or Wednesdays or perhaps abstain even more.   This is a voluntary fast.  What is important is that we not become anxious and focused on rules of fasting.   We cannot equate the practices of faith for what really matters to God, what is in our hearts.  We must guard against extremes of scrupulosity least we develop Pharisaical attitudes in which we consider ourselves more worthy than those who do less.   We turn to Scripture for the wisdom in all 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, and less on what we want that is apart from God.  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 that what happens in the culture around us.

♥  It is necessary to make a conscious choice to see beyond what the world identifies as Christmas 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

 

¹  Incarnation Icon: Icon of the Sign

 

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