THE AMERICAN SHOPPING SEASON is at hand. Some people will spend it jostling for bargains; others will pass the time lamenting the commercialization of Christmas. The Eastern Churches, on the other hand, encourage their faithful to prepare for this feast by fasting. Each of these Churches has a pre-Nativity Fast, but each Church observes it to a different degree.
Like the feast of Christ’s Nativity itself, this fast originated in the West. In ad 380 the Council of Saragossa in Spain mandated daily church attendance beginning on December 17. Pope St Leo the Great (400-461) described four Fasts, one in each season, “so that over the course of the year we might recognize that we are constantly in need of purification.” He indicated that the “winter fast” was to begin when the “ingathering of the crops was complete.” In France it was specified in the next century that this Fast begin on November 11, the feast of St Martin; the Fast was called “St Martin’s Lent.”
The Eastern Churches are first documented as observing this Fast between the sixth and the eighth centuries. Originally this Fast lasted one week, as in the Armenian Church today. In the eleventh century Pope Christodoulos of Alexandria lengthened it to forty days for the Coptic Church. The Byzantine Church followed suit in the next century. The Syrian Churches (Chaldeans, Indians, etc.) keep it for three to four weeks in December, climaxing the Season of Annunciation.
Why Do We Fast?
St Simeon of Thessalonika, writing in the fifteenth century, explained the purpose of this Fast in terms of its length. “The Nativity Forty-day Fast represents the fast undertaken by Moses, who—having fasted for forty days and forty nights—received the Commandments of God, written on stone tablets. And we, fasting for forty days, will reflect upon and receive from the Virgin the living Word—not written upon stone, but born, incarnate—and we will commune of His Divine Body.” As Moses received the Law after his forty-day fast, we will receive the living Word incarnate at the end of this Fast.
One thread running through this Fast is the remembrance of the time before the Incarnation. Mankind was in one sense disconnected from God, having lost the intimacy with Him which we were meant to have because we were created in His image. Fasting is our way to express our sorrow at man’s loss of fellowship with God.
The process of recovering this intimacy with God climaxed with the Incarnation, but was prepared for centuries by the Old Testament prophets. During the Nativity Fast we commemorate the prophets Nahum (12/1), Habakkuk (12/2), Zepheniah (12/3), Daniel and the Three Young Men in the Furnace (12/17). On the second Sunday before the feast we remember all those in sacred history who came before Christ and prepared the way for Him – His ancestors and ours.
When and How Do We Fast?
Each patriarchate and other local Byzantine Church has a slightly different way of keeping this Fast. According to one tradition a person should fast from meat and dairy for the forty days, but only need fast from fish after December 17. Another tradition holds that fish may be eaten throughout the Fast, but only on Saturdays and Sundays.
In Greece and the Middle East it is customary to mitigate the fast on Tuesdays and Thursdays until December 12 (Greece) or December 19. In the Melkite Church the fast has been shortened to begin on December 10 but to continue uninterrupted after then.
The number of feast days at the beginning of the forty days may account for these practices. Besides the Great Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple (November 21 to 25), we observe feasts in honor of these popular saints: the Apostles Matthew (11/16) and Andrew (11/30), Sts Catherine of Alexandria (11/25), Barbara, and John of Damascus (12/4), Saba the Sanctified (12/5) Nicholas the Wonder-worker (12/6), the Maternity of St Anne (12/9), and St Spyridon the Wonderworker (12/12). In addition, of course, we in the U.S. also have the national holiday of Thanksgiving during this time. That doesn’t leave much time for fasting!
There are no penitential services appointed for this Fast like those we know during the Great Fast. Greeks, who do not generally do so otherwise, have the custom of serving the Divine Liturgy daily during these forty days. This practice echoes the idea that the Nativity Fast is a joyous fast, celebrating the immanent coming of Christ. Other Churches may serve the Akathist or the Paraclisis to the Theotokos during these days.
Character of the Nativity Fast
Many contemporary Eastern writers have encouraged the observance of the Nativity Fast in contrast to the popular Western “pre-celebration” of Christmas, which focuses on decorating, spending, and partying. They emphasize preparation for the feast in quietness and a simplified way of life. Instead of a harried pursuit of gifts and cards for people who will likely “re-gift” them for the next Christmas party, the Fast enables believers to focus on the mystery of the Incarnation, the “reason for the season.”
Many see this Fast as essential for us at this time of the year, to shift our focus from ourselves to others, spending less time worrying about our appearance, our cuisine and our home decor in order to use our time in increased prayer and caring for the poor.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, John X, emphasized the Nativity as the “feast of almsgiving” in which we celebrate and perpetuate Christ’s love for mankind. “The Nativity of Christ is primarily the feast of divine dispensation – the feast of charity and of almsgiving… Through acts of mercy, extended to one another and to everyone, no matter what race we belong to, we implore the tender mercies of the divine Child, whose springs of mercies and bounties we will never be able to surpass. As the pious Augustine says, “the lamp of our love toward our neighbors causes the divine compassion to abide in this creation.”
Pre-Nativity Hymns from the Menaion
Isaiah, dance for joy: receive the word of God. Prophesy to the Virgin Mary that the bush burning with fire will not be consumed by the radiance of our God. Let Bethlehem be prepared! Let the gates of Eden be opened! Let the Magi come forth to see wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger of beasts the salvation which the star has pointed out from above the cave, the life-giving Lord, who saves mankind! (Vespers, Nov 30)
Bethlehem, receive Mary, the City of God: in you will be born the Light that never sets. Let the angels stand in wonder in Heaven, and let mankind glorify the Lord on earth! O Magi from Persia, prepare your illustrious gifts! Shepherds, who pass the night in the fields, sing a hymn to the thrice-holy God. Let everything that has breath celebrate the Creator of All. (Matins, Nov 30)