For those from western countries, the concept of Orthodox Christian fasting is a novel one. The weeks leading up to Christmas in the West are typically a roller coaster of workplace Christmas parties, gorging on chocolates and shortbread from the company’s suppliers, drinks and dinner with friends, and a frenzy of consumerism as people spend more money than they can afford on gifts that the recipients don’t really need.
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the six weeks before Christmas are typically much more subdued. Alcohol consumption is curtailed and eating of meat and dairy products is reduced or ceases. Why, when a joyous Christmas celebration is impending, would this self-denial be required?
Theologians far more authoritative than the author can elaborate on this issue with greater clarity. In a nutshell, removing alcohol and luxury foods (and meat and dairy were indeed luxuries for most people until the 20th century) seems to have a beneficial effect upon prayer. One’s mood is more stable and distractions are more easily controlled. One strives to maintain a mood of calm and forgiveness in the season before the Nativity Feast, and for reasons known for thousands of years by the Early Church Fathers, and the Prophets before them, abstaining from alcohol and rich foods seems to facilitate this mood.
Another effect of the fast is creating a sense of anticipation for the great feast to follow. How many people in the West do you hear complaining that they are dreading Christmas, the endless round of Christmas parties and drinking binges, buying gifts for all and sundry, and enduring the company of irritating relatives? In an Orthodox Christian society, such complaints are very rare. People are preparing themselves for Christ’s arrival on Earth, not as a commemoration or ritual but witnessing the event first-hand, as if it were happening here and now. The Orthodox concept of a sacrament involves the Hand of God reaching through time and space to effect a change amongst His people. If one accepts this as true, then desisting from drinking and eating rich food is a small price to pay in order to prepare correctly for such an earth-changing event. One is also inclined to keep very close track of how many days until the Feast if one is tired of eating beans instead of meat 🙂
An unintended consequence of fasting is that, on Christmas morning when one breaks the Nativity Fast, one can freely enjoy the Feast with no guilt. Six weeks of vegetarian diet with less alcohol is generally conducive to dropping a good deal of weight, so a few days’ indulgence won’t do any harm. The custom of feasting on Christmas Day in the West has arisen from the custom of fasting for six weeks beforehand, which used to be commonplace in the West (and even a legal obligation in many countries) but now has fallen out of favour.
A key issue is being modest and unobtrusive with fasting, and not condemning others for not keeping the fast. That issue emanates from pride and is counterproductive to the general need to maintain humility in advance of Christ’s arrival.
It should be made clear that fasting is done in conjunction with advice from one’s spiritual father, rather than on the suggestion of blog authors; your priest knows your personality and your habits, and can suggest a regime that he thinks will be beneficial for you. There are of course exemptions for people with illnesses, nursing mothers and so on, so the right person to ask about what should or should not be done is your priest. The Nativity Fast, being a joyous fast, is less onerous than that of Great Lent, so there are some days when wine and fish may be consumed. Consult with a Church calendar and your priest for guidance in this.
May you have a Blessed Nativity Season. Some thoughts of the Early Church Fathers, far more authoritative than I, are appended below.
There is both a physical and a spiritual fast. In the physical fast the body abstains from food and drink. In the spiritual fast, the faster abstains from evil intentions, words and deeds. One who truly fasts abstains from anger, rage, malice, and vengeance. One who truly fasts abstains from idle and foul talk, empty rhetoric, slander, condemnation, flattery, lying and all manner of spiteful talk. In a word, a real faster is one who withdraws from all evil.
As much as you subtract from the body, so much will you add to the strength of the soul.
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By fasting it is possible both to be delivered from future evils and to enjoy the good things to come. We fell into disease through sin; let us receive healing through repentance, which is not fruitful without fasting.
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True fasting lies is rejecting evil, holding one’s tongue, suppressing one’s hatred, and banishing one’s lust, evil words, lying, and betrayal of vows.
Holy Hierarch Basil the Great
Do you fast? Then feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick, do not forget the imprisoned, have pity on the tortured, comfort those who grieve and who weep, be merciful, humble, kind, calm, patient, sympathetic, forgiving, reverent, truthful and pious, so that God might accept your fasting and might plentifully grant you the fruits of repentance.
Fasting of the body is food for the soul.
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It is necessary most of all for one who is fasting to curb anger, to accustom himself to meekness and condescension, to have a contrite heart, to repulse impure thoughts and desires, to examine his conscience, to put his mind to the test and to verify what good has been done by us in this or any other week, and which deficiency we have corrected in ourself in the present week. This is true fasting.
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As bodily food fattens the body, so fasting strengthens the soul; imparting it an easy flight, it makes it able to ascend on high, to contemplate lofty things and to put the heavenly higher than the pleasant and pleasurable things of life.
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The point is not only that we should come to church each day, that we should continually listen to one and the same thing, and that we should fast for the whole Forty Days. No! If we, from continually coming here and listening to the teaching, do not acquire anything and do not derive any good for our soul from the time of the fast all this does not procure for us any benefit, but rather serves for our greater condemnation, when despite such concern for us by the Church we remain just the same as before.
Do not say to me that I fasted for so many days, that I did not eat this or that, that I did not drink wine, that I endured want; but show me if thou from an angry man hast become gentle, if thou from a cruel man hast become benevolent. If thou art filled with anger, why oppress thy flesh? If hatred and avarice are within thee, of what benefit is it that thou drinkest water? Do not show forth a useless fast: for fasting alone does not ascend to heaven.
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Fasting is wonderful, because it tramples our sins like a dirty weed, while it cultivates and raises truth like a flower.
Holy Hierarch John Chrysostom
If thou, O man, dost not forgive everyone who has sinned against thee, then do not trouble thyself with fasting. If thou dost not forgive the debt of thy brother, with whom thou art angry for some reason, then thou dost fast in vain God will not accept thee. Fasting will not help thee, until thou wilt become accomplished in love and in the hope of faith. Whoever fasts and becomes angry, and harbors enmity in his heart, such a one hates God and salvation is far from him.
Venerable Ephraim the Syrian
Seest thou what fasting does: it heals illnesses, drives out demons, removes wicked thoughts, makes the heart pure. If someone has even been seized by an impure spirit, let him know that this kind, according to the word of the Lord, “goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21).
Saint Athanasius the Great
The strictness of the Quadragesima [the Forty Days] mortifies the passions, extinguishes anger and rage, cools and calms every agitation springing up from gluttony. And just as in the summer, when the burning heat of the sun spreads over the earth, the northern wind renders a benefaction to those who are scorched, by dispersing the sultriness with a tender coolness: so fasting also provides the same, by driving out of bodies the burning which is the result of overeating.
Saint Asterius of Amasia
Fasting is the mother of health; the friend of chastity; the partner of humblemindedness (illnesses are frequently born in many from a disorderly and irregular diet).
Venerable Simeon, the New Theologian
Give the body as much food as it needs, and thou shalt receive no harm, even if thou shouldest eat three times a day. If a man eats but once a day, but undiscerningly, what benefit is there to him from that. The warfare of fornication follows excess in eating – and after this the enemy weighs down the body with sleep in order to defile it.
Saints Barsanuphius and John
As a flame of fire in dry wood, so too is a body with a full belly.
Venerable Isaac the Syrian
Always establish one and the same hour for taking food, and take it for fortifying the body and not for enjoyment.
Venerable Anthony the Great
Do not neglect the Forty Days; it constitutes an imitation of Christ’s way of life.
Saint Ignatius the Godbearer
The more days of fasting there are, the better the healing is; the longer the period of abstinence, the more abundant the gain of salvation is.
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