A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away ….
Ok,not really. Actually in 1054 ce, the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Bishop of Rome split ways. Commonly known as the Great Schism, this created a divide in Christendom between the Eastern and Western traditions. Over time, these two traditions have grown apart in their practices. Liturgical traditions in the Western church (Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, and mainline Protestant denominations) observe Advent. Churches in the Eastern church observe the Nativity Fast.
In many ways, the Nativity Fast is similar to Advent. It is a time of preparation and anticipation of the coming of Jesus. It encompasses both a remembrance of Jesus birth in Bethelehem, and the eschatological hope of his return in glory.
But unlike the four weeks of Advent, the Nativity Fast is forty days. This period of abstinence and penance begins on November 15, and concludes on December 24. In this way, the Nativity Fast is similar to a Lenten fast to which many Western Christians are accustomed. Special services are held. Greater religious discipline is expected. The liturgical colors are somber, usually purple. Adherents are asked to fast from rich foods including red meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, fish, oil, and wine.
The focus of the time of the fast is to prepare for the Nativity (the birth of Christ). Many of the extra Bible readings are from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and lift up the prophets who foretold the incarnation: Obadiah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Daniel and the three who survived the fiery furnace.
During the Nativity Fast, several feast days are celebrated. These include the feasts of Saint Nicolas (Dec. 6), Saints Spiridon & Herman (Dec. 12), and Saint Ignatius (Dec. 20). During a feast day, the fast is broken and feasts are observed.
What can Western Christians learn from our Eastern brothers and sisters? Certainly it is a complicated question, and has many answers.
First, the Nativity Fast is truly a season of preparation – of fasting and getting ready. With the exception of the few feast days sprinkled through the forty days, Christians are encouraged to focus on getting ready. The Nativity Fast reminds us that it is not yet time to celebrate – that time will come, but it is not yet here.
Second, Nativity Fast is broken by feast days. On those days, the fast is lifted and the full bounty of our world can (and should!) be experienced. As we think about our lives as Western Christian – about office parties, family gatherings, and the intense period between Thanksgiving and Christmas – we find encouragement in the Nativity Fast. Yes (of course!), observe the season of Advent. But at the same time, participate in the joyous celebrations – the feasts – happening around you.
Although Advent is a period of preparation, we cannot – nor should we –completely separate ourselves from the world around us. Even in the midst of a fast, we find cause to enjoy God’s good gifts at the feast.