Why fast during Advent?
A brief discussion of Nativity Lent
Meditation on a bike ride
This past summer I took a ride on my bicycle down a very steep, serpentine trail through a local cemetery. Zooming down the trail, gaining speed as I went, I quickly realized that if I looked directly in front of me as I maneuvered the turns, I would easily wipe out. I forced myself to look ahead of me by about 15, even 20 — looking at where I wanted to be as soon as I got around the next hairpin turn. By a series of near mishaps, I realized that if I gazed only at the pavement right before my front tire as I took the turns, I was going to end up on that pavement with my bike on the ground, next to me.
There’s a lesson to be learned in that bike ride. It applies to many things in life — in fact it could even be a metaphor for life. But for now, I’d like to apply it to Christmas and Advent: As you ride, keep you eye on where you want to be, not where you are.
Christmas — The Winter Pascha
The Feast of the Nativity of Christ is known to have existed in some form from the middle of the third century. By the fourth century it was often coupled with the feast of the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan — a double commemoration of the manifestation of Christ’s glory (i.e., January 6). Christmas on December 25 was not observed universally until late — the Christian East receiving it from the Christian West around the fifth century, when it was eventually connected with (nine months after) the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25.
Christmas has come to be known as “The Winter Pascha.” Its liturgical shape, its hymnography, its themes are largely taken from the Feast of Feasts (Pascha) and applied and adapted to the incarnation of the Lord: it is preceded by a period of lenten preparation; it calls for a strict fast on the Eve of the Feast; it is followed by a post-festal season (i.e., the “Twelve Days of Christmas” that conclude with Theophany); etc.
Fr. Thomas Hopko, in his book The Winter Pascha (pg. 49) writes: “The Church’s Typikon speaks of the celebration of the Lord’s Coming in the flesh as a ‘splendid Pascha.’ It was Father Alexander who added the adjective ‘winter’ for those of us who celebrate it in the darkness of wintertime, when the light is just starting to shine more brightly and the nights begin to shorten, heralding the victory of Light and Life in the springtime Pascha of the Lord’s Death and Resurrection.”
The Pascha of His Cross was prepared by the Pascha of His Coming. The Pascha of His Resurrection was begun by the Pascha of His Incarnation. The Pascha of His Glorification was foretold by the Pascha of His Baptism. If you were to compare the hymnography of these three feasts, you would immediately see the intimate connection and deep significance alluded to here.
By the way, The Winter Pascha is an excellent book to have and read year after year. It contains short readings for each of the days of Advent that should be incorporated into one’s daily Rule of Prayer.
Advent in the West:
The term “advent” derives form the Latin “adventus” for “coming” (of the Savior) and is an exact equivalent of the Greek word “parousia” — though the Greek term generally refers to the Second Coming.
It is interesting to note that St. Benedict of Nursia (+547) makes no mention of a pre-Nativity fast in his Rule — though he treats the Lenten Fast in great detail.
The first authoritative mention of Advent is at the Synod of Lerida, Spain (524), where it was referred to as the beginning of the Western ecclesiastical calendar.
In 567, the Second Council of Tours legislated that the monks were to fast from the beginning of December until till Christmas. This practice soon extended to the whole forty days, even for the laity. It is said that this custom originated with Celtic monks (who themselves received their spiritual tradition from the monks of Egypt.)
However, the First Council of Macon in Gaul, held in 582, stipulated that during the interval between St. Martin of Tour’s day (November 11) and Christmas, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays should be fasting days. This season was commonly called St. Martin’s Lent because it immediately followed the Feast of St. Martin. St. Martin’s feast was a special day of celebration that corresponded with mardi gras before Paschal Lent.
A collection of sermons by St. Gregory the Great (+604), begins with one for “The Second Sunday of Advent.”
The first allusion to Advent’s being reduced to four weeks is to be found in the ninth century, in a letter of Pope St. Nicholas I to the Bulgarians, and later by an encyclical of Pope Gregory IV (+1085).
Advent in the East:
Oddly enough, there appears to be nothing that documents the Nativity Fast in the Christian East prior to the 900s, where it was only possibly alluded to by St. Theodore of the Studion monastery in Constantinople. He simply spoke of annual feasts and fasts.
It appears that the first mention of a Lenten fast being legislated was not until a Council in Ruthenia (Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1720. The Nativity Fast / Lent as such was a 40-day preparation period before the Winter Pascha. It begins on November 15, the day following the Feast of St. Philip the Apostle and deacon, thus it is often called Philipkova, of St. Philip’s Fast / Lent.
Beyond this, there is little that can be found to spell-out the gradual adoption, development and practices of the pre-nativity season.
The Spirit of Advent Fast
“Fast” means literally to refrain from eating. We break-fast with some food in the morning. “Abstinence” means to refrain from eating certain foods. When we think of lent (nativity, paschal, dormition or apostles) we tend to reduce our image of lent to food and drink. But this is far from what we should do.
The Shepherd of Hermas —
The “Shepherd” or “Pastor” is an allegory. It was written by an individual named Hermas during the first or second century. This book had great authority in ancient times and was ranked with the Holy Scriptures. Though it was considered by some to be controversial (i.e., not “canonical’” it was publicly read in the churches even up to the third century. St. Irenaeus listed it with the books of the Bible. It was included in some copies of the New Testament (especially the Codex Sinaiticus). St. Athanasius mentions it in connection the Dicache, and with many of the Deutro-canonical books of the Old Testament.
Book 2, Similitudes, Chapter 3:
Fasting is very good, provided the commandments of the Lord be observed. Thus, then, shall you observe the fasting which you intend to keep.
First of all, be on your guard against every evil word, and every evil desire, and purify your heart from all the vanities of this world. If you guard against these things, your fasting will be perfect.
And you will do also as follows. Having fulfilled what is written, in the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord.
If you observe fasting, as I have commanded you, your sacrifice will be acceptable to God, and this fasting will be written down; and the service thus performed is noble, and sacred, and acceptable to the Lord.
These things, therefore, shall you thus observe with your children, and all your house, and in observing them you will be blessed; and as many as hear these words and observe them shall be blessed; and whatsoever they ask of the Lord they shall receive.
Roberts-Lonaldson translation — see:
Going a step further:
Fasting is not only to give our money and our time — not only what we have, but what we are. It is to give a part of ourselves.
Fasting is meant to be partnered with prayer and attendance at divine services, almsgiving and works of mercy, and confession. This is intended as a preparation of the whole person (mind, body, soul) for the upcoming feast of the Birth of the Savior in much the same way we should prepare properly for the Second Coming of the Lord.
Bishop Kallistos Ware, in his Introduction to the Lenten Triodion writes that the “primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God…to make us ‘poor in spirit,’ aware of our helplessness and of our dependence on God’s aid.” (p. 16)
Fasting is not a simple matter of food and drink. It is moral / ethical as well as physical. True fasting is to be converted in heart and will. St. John Chrysostom stated that when one fasts, one must not only abstain from foods, but one should also abstain from sin: “The fast should be kept not only by the mouth, but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all body parts.” (Homilies on the Statues 3:3-4)
The outward regulations for the Advent Fast are given at the end of this article. But we must not overlook the inward, spiritual significance of the Advent Fast.
Fasting and abstinence, almsgiving, works of mercy, prayer, attendance at divine services, confession — all of these help us in our preparation for the advent of the Savior’s nativity. We are called to cast away the works of darkness (i.e., our self-indulgence) and put on the armor of light. The Church’s liturgy reads: “Make ready, O Bethlehem, for your Savior comes to you…” Our participation in this readying is made by entering into the spirit and the practice of Nativity Lent. We can demonstrate our anticipation and expectation of the Lord’s Advent by what we do outwardly and inwardly.
So, in addition to the gastronomic and culinary “rules, rules, rules” of the Advent season (see below), we should take on specific acts of almsgiving and works of mercy. We should step up our prayer and attendance at divine services. We should do an interior assessment of our lives and come before God in confession.
The possibility of a winter house-cleaning is beneficial on many levels. Whenever we anticipate anything important, we prepare for it. Whether it is vacuuming the rugs and washing the floors before guests come, or it is working-out and training for a half-marathon walk or run, or it is studying and reviewing for a test or exam or annual review, or it is planting bulbs, bushes and flowers in anticipation of Spring — we all engage in preparations.
Advent is just that sort of thing.
And there are plenty of opportunities available here at St. Nicholas.
Hampers will be found in the narthex during the Season of Advent. These are intended to receive new coats, gloves, hats, blankets to be distributed to those in need. St. Francis Dining Hall (which was begun by the Catholic Worker Movement a few decades ago) serves meals every weekend. We have customarily participated in this on the third Sunday of each month. Why not consider making this a weekly discipline in your own life? (These are only two of a multitude of actions we can take to put into practice the admonition given in the Shepherd of Hermas, above.)
There are more services during Advent than would be found during the rest of the liturgical year. At St. Nicholas, we have the Akathist of Thanksgiving and the Thanksgiving morning Divine Liturgy. We have a period of Quietude following Vespers on the Tuesdays of Advent. We have pre-Nativity services scheduled on the days immediately preceding the feast.
Additionally, at St. Nicholas there is a specific opportunity for confession following Vespers on Thursdays and Saturdays (as well as by appointment) during Advent.
So whatever your Advent discipline will be this year, may you engage in it to the glory of God and to the up-building of your spiritual life. May it be a blessing not only to those who benefit from your gift of self — may it also be a blessing to you and yours.
So, specifically, Eastern Christians have a 40-day period of fast and abstinence before Christmas, the Winter Pascha of the Savior.
The rules, rules, rules (for food and drink):
Advent begins on the 15th and goes through December 24.
Monday, Wednesday, Friday: no dairy, no meat, no fish, no oil, no wine;
Tuesday, Thursday: no dairy, no meat, no fish (but oil and wine are OK);
Saturday and Sunday: no dairy, no meat (but fish, oil and wine are OK);
Except on the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotoks into the Temple, November 21, as well as St. Nicholas day, December 6: no dairy, no meat (but fish, oil and wine are OK);
From December 20 to 23 inclusive only wine and oil are allowed;
December 24 = a strict fast day…so that means: no dairy, no meat, no fish, no oil, no wine (just like Holy Saturday, the eve of Pascha).