The Nativity Fast: from November 15 to
The Feast of The Nativity of Our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ
Guidelines and Suggestions
The Fast period of the 40 days before the Great Feast of the Nativity reminds us of the necessity of wholeness of being which the life of the Kingdom demands. The Incarnation unites the Creator and His creatures in the Person of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and demonstrates the goodness of matter and the interconnectedness of the whole cosmos: physical, living and spiritual
The Age of the Holy Spirit which began at Pentecost calls all who have been Baptized into Christ and Sealed with the Holy Spirit to live the life of the Blessed Trinity here and now, through love of God and neighbor, worship of the Trinity, Prayer, Fasting and Good Works (Philanthropia). It is in this last that we most closely mirror the work of the Trinity in the world, since God is, par excellence , the “Lover of Humanity.”
Fasting allows us to become ever more aware that what happens to any one part of ourselves (body, soul, spirit) affects all the other parts as well. We cannot claim to have “a wonderful prayer life,” and live a life of oppression of others, cruelty, or misuse of the body or mind.
By feeling mild pangs of hunger, I realize that I am not sufficient to bring myself into being, or to sustain myself. The desire for food can be a sign to me of my even greater need for God. Every time I pass a “Jack-in-the-Box” or other fast-food hamburger emporium and want to get an “Ultimate Cheeseburger,” I am also reminded of the season of the year, of my commitment to The Lord, and that nothing is “Ultimate” except God. Some may complain that these are artificial or external methods; but, after all, as embodied creatures, we need external stimuli to help us interpret and understand the world. There is nothing bad or degrading about the physical universe: only in its misuse!
Our guidelines are just that: the guiding advice of the Holy Canons. We do not understand Fasting to be “bound under sin.” If one were to completely disregard the Church’s seasons of fasting, however, it would be the same as ignoring the Doctor’s advice: no one is going to put you into jail, but you will not get well, either!
If, because of genuine health problems, or work situation, etc., you cannot keep the strict Fast, modify it as need be, in consultation with your Spiritual Father or Mother. Those who might not be able to fast from foods at all, should remember that there are other kinds of fasting: from sin (first of all!), but also from entertainments, etc. Additional prayer, both liturgical and private, are also appropriate during a Fast Season. Everyone can keep the season in some way. All Christians should have a Staretz (Spiritual Guide)
The Holy Canons specify the following guidelines:
On these days there is no regulation of the number of meals or quantity of food taken:
Wednesdays & Fridays, and all weekdays
On Wednesdays and Fridays, food should not be eaten between meals, and meals themselves should be moderate in quantity. It is often customary to eat only one meal a day. During the Christmas Fast, from December 13 to December 24 inclusive, the Fast becomes stricter, and olive oil and wine are permitted only on Saturdays and Sundays. Fish is not permitted from the 13th to the 24th.
In the Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Churches, the period from November 15 through December 24 is a period of Fasting, Abstinence, and Preparation for the Great-Feast of the Nativity of Christ. One of the four major fasts of the year, it is variously called the Nativity Fast, the Christmas Lent, or the Philipine Fast (since it begins the day after the feast of St. Philip).
No matter what it is called, however, it is one of most difficult fast periods for people living in the Western world to keep. The pre-Christmas period in America is generally one of parties, social events and general excess. How is the Orthodox Christian to follow the Tradition of his Church, but also live in his native culture?
Part of the difficulty lies in our society’s inability to understand the necessity of anticipation and waiting. We are so used to instant soup, instant replays, and instant gratification, that the concept of pre-paring for a feast by fasting does not set well.
Coupled with this is a loss of a strong sense of sacred time and season. We move holidays (and Holy Days) to accommodate to “practical life,” rather than vice versa. “A time for everything and every-thing in its time,” has become “Everything all of the time…when I want it.”
As in many other aspects of life, then, the Orthodox Christian must be prepared to be counter-cultural, that is, to live in a different way than those in his surrounding milieu. In doing this he must realize the dangers involved:
How then can we keep the Christmas Fast in America today? Here are several suggestions; you may have others. No matter what else happens, however, do not abandon the preparation for the Nativity!
Take seriously the food requirements of the Fast, tempered by your health and situation. In Northern California, a normally healthy person can live very well within the borders of even the traditional fast: we have so many restaurants and stores which provide Tofu, shellfish and other seafood. Remember that different days have different fast requirements. Check these carefully, and use whatever is given for that day.
If you cannot keep the whole fast, do the best you can. Most people refrain from meat at the most basic level, though some, because of health or situation, can only do this on Wednesdays and Fridays, or only during the day and not at night. Some decide to go ahead and use dairy products, but not in combination with other foods (i.e.: A Cheese pizza, but not with anchovies or shrimp). Others generally concede dairy products in things like Tuna salad sandwiches, but give up cream in their coffee.
In cultural festivals, such as Thanksgiving, Kwanza ,Posadas and Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, enjoy yourself, and then return to the fast after the celebration.
Don’t fall, get discouraged, and give up. An important aspect of the Fast is to keep the Season in our minds often during the day. While we are not encouraging slacking off, the occasion when there is nothing more “fasting” at the corner deli than a cheese sandwich, can also provide a reminder of the time and season. Not eating between meals can be a powerful reminder to those of us who are compulsive nibblers!
At office and other pre-Christmas parties, do the best you can to eat hors-d’oeuvres and entrées which contain as few non-fast products as possible. But remember, eat what is set before you (without taking unfair advantage of St. Paul’s dictum). In most circumstances there are choices. Ideally, alcohol is avoided on many days of the fast, which also accords with safe driving!
Do not throw pre-Christmas parties yourself. Instead, plan post-Christmas festivities. The English-speaking & Celtic worlds have the wonderful tradition of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Make it more than a popular party carol! Most people will welcome a happy gathering between Christmas and Theophany, especially one that they don’t have to run! This also helps to alleviate those “after the holidays blues.”
Emphasize a more regular pattern to your day, including times for prayer and reading. Cut down on frivolous TV or other entertainments. This does not preclude, however, the many very worthwhile concerts and performances common in most areas, which, because of their religious nature, are most appropriate, and provide a healthy boost to our preparations.
Carefully follow the Liturgical calendar of the six weeks prior to Christmas. The many feasts give us many examples of holiness and images of grace. Celebrate these with creative cooking and appropriate observances in Church and at home. Use the several excellent books listed above to help in keeping the fast periods, and in coming to feel comfortable with being part of “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a nation set apart.”
Conaris, Anthony Making Christ real in the Orthodox Home
Archimandrite Lev Gillet The Year of Grace of the Lord [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press.] Hopko, Fr. Thomas The Winter Pascha [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press 1984]br /> _________________ A Lenten Cookbook for Orthodox Christians (St. Nectarios Press)br /> Melkite Eparchy Guide to the Domestic Church [West Newton, MA: Eparchy of Newton]br /> Russo, Fr. Romanos Kenosis: A Byzantine Understanding of Christmas [West Newton, MA: Eparchy of Newton, 1989]