One of the lesser known fasting cycles occurs in Eastern churches and 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 the Nativity Fast. It is also traditionally called the Philip’s Fast, and like Advent, is a period of time focusing on spiritual preparation for the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Nativity fast overlaps with Advent – the title given to 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. Philip (which is how the more traditional name – Philip’s Fast – came into use). Either title is an acceptable choice. The fast is a full 40 days similar to the 40 days of the Great Fast of Lent, however this 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. In the Byzantine Catholic church, all Fridays unless otherwise designated, are days the faithful are required to abstain from meat. Since the Nativity fast is voluntary, a voluntary addition to regular fasting may be to abstain from meat on Mondays and/or Wednesdays.
As with any fasting cycle, spiritual intentions are foremost and these are found in formative practices such as acts of charity or service, frequent participation in confession — the Sacrament of Reconciliation — and many other faith enriching uses of time and resources. Any practice that can draw us closer in relationship to God is encouraged not only during fasting periods, but throughout the year.
The Nativity fast is a quietly joyful and reservedly expectant period, a time for contemplation. A time to prepare, but not in an overwhelmingly secular manner. Instead, it calls all faithful to emphasize what makes this time different as seen through a Christian and Catholic frame of reference. It is a time for a little more thought placed on the events unfolding: the role of Mary’s obedience to the will of God, the anticipation of the birth of Jesus, and the great love God has for us in humbly taking on human nature so we have the opportunity to share in eternal life.
One of the intentions of the Nativity Fast is to ponder the mystery of the Incarnation of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and its relevance to our personal redemption and salvation. It is plan of God that began long ago. All throughout the Old Testament, the hopes and promises of a Messiah were foretold in prophecies, the span of which can only be realized in our time now looking back upon it. 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 Nativity Fast 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 the Nativity 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. Both Advent and the Nativity Fast help us to remember in this waiting time we are “anticipating” Christ’s birth. The Nativity Fast is a purposeful and disciplined time to advance our personal appreciation of the whole story of salvation, including the role of Mary and Joseph in abiding in 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. Doing so is to grow in Christ and the means to do this is through prayer, reading Scripture or religious books, again as suggested earlier, 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 beyond 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. Although it is voluntary, the smallest efforts and attempts on our part are welcomed and beneficial. Our focus is a matter of approach to everything this joyful season has to offer, a way to keep the spirit of the fast. With renewed awareness, and without contradiction in enjoying this time of year, is found the ability to be different and to stand apart as Christians and Catholics. The world may glorify a manufactured joy, but we 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 forgotten and thrown away with all the wrappings the day after, but a revelation leading to the greatest gift of all.
♥ Let us prepare our hearts to welcome Jesus, the true Light of the World.