The weeks prior to Christmas are known in the West as Advent, from a Latin word meaning “coming.”
In the Orthodox Church, the season of preparation for Christmas always begins on November 15/28, the day after the Feast of the Apostle Philip. For this reason it is sometimes known as St. Philip’s Fast, or simply the Nativity Fast. From this date until the Feast of Christ’s Nativity the fast lasts 40 days.
Because of its emphasis on expectancy and sober preparation, Advent is a season of great seriousness, not a time proper for festivity, much less of partying and secular concerns. Advent is not part of the Christmas holidays, and Christians of earlier times would be shocked at the current habit of treating this as a period of jolly good times and “Christmas cheer,” complete with office parties and the exchange of gifts.
All of these festive things are part of the celebration of Christmas itself, which lasts twelve days beginning December 25/January 7.
The seasons of the liturgical year involve more than liturgical services. The liturgical seasons are meant to shape the lives of those who observe them. For this reason, anticipating these properly Christmas activities during Advent considerably lessens the chance of our being properly prepared, by repentance, for the grace of that greater season; it also heightens the likelihood that we will fall prey to the worldly spirit that the commercial world would encourage during this time.
For us who observe the fast, it serves to refresh the last part of the year – mystically renewing our spiritual unity with God and preparing us for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ.
St. Leo the Great wrote: “Four periods of the year have been set aside as times of abstinence, so that over the course of the year we might recognize that we are constantly in need of purification, and that amid life’s distractions, we should always strive by means of fasting and acts of charity to uproot sin, sin which is multiplied in our transitory flesh and in our impure desires.”
According to Leo the Great, the Nativity Fast is an offering to God in return for the gathered harvest: “Just as the Lord has generously granted us abundance of the fruits of the earth, so should we, during the time of this Fast, be generous to the poor.”
According to St. Symeon of Thessalonica, “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 of the Law. 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.”
The Nativity Fast was established to allow us through repentance, prayer and fasting to cleanse ourselves before the Nativity of Christ, so that with renewed heart, soul, and body, we might reverently meet the Son of God Who has come into the world, and so that in addition to bringing the usual gifts and sacrifices, we might bring Him our clean hearts and a desire to follow His teachings.
Why the Nativity Fast Has Been Established
The Orthodox Church prepares its faithful to welcome the Nativity of Christ in a worthy manner by means of a 40-day Nativity fast, which lasts from November 28th to January 6th (by the new calendar).
Besides generally known reasons, the Nativity fast is also undertaken by Orthodox Christians in order to enter into and commemorate the suffering and sorrow undergone by the holy Mother of God at the hands of the scribes and the Pharisees just prior to the sacred event of Christ’s Nativity.
Tradition tells us that shortly before the righteous Joseph and the holy Virgin set off for Bethlehem, they were subjected to the following tribulation. A certain scribe by the name of Ananias, entering their home and seeing the Virgin pregnant, was severely distressed and went to the High Priest and the entire Jewish council, saying: “Joseph the carpenter, who has been regarded as a righteous man, has committed an iniquity: He has secretly violated the Virgin who was given to him from the temple of God for safekeeping. And now she is with child.” Then the High Priest’s servants went to Joseph’s house, took Mary and Joseph, and brought them to the High Priest, who began to denounce and shame her.
But the holy Virgin, crying in deep sorrow, replied: “The Lord God is my witness that I am innocent and have known no man.” Then the High Priest accused the righteous Joseph, but the latter swore on oath that he was not guilty of this sin. Yet the High Priest did not believe them and subjected them to the trial that was customary in those times, (when a woman suspected of violation was given to drink bitter water that had been cursed by the High Priest). However, the trial merely served to confirm the innocence of the holy Virgin and the righteous Joseph.
After that the High Priest allowed the holy couple to go home in peace. The righteous Joseph took the Virgin Mary and went to his house, joyously glorifying God. But this was not the end of the holy Theotokos’ trials, for afterward, near her time for childbirth, she shared with Joseph the toil of a three-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. And in Bethlehem there was no place for the holy Virgin either in an inn, or in some home, and since night was already approaching, she and Joseph sought shelter in a cave which served as a resting place for cattle. In this humblest of shelters the most-blessed Virgin remained in prayer and divine contemplation. It is here that she painlessly gave birth to our Lord Jesus Christ, Saviour of the world.
We can see from all of the above that the days immediately preceding the Nativity were not days of rest and comfort for the holy Mother of God. In those days she suffered various sorrows and trials, but did not leave off her prayers and contemplation. The holy Church appeals to the faithful to participate, at least to some small degree, in the holy Theotokos’ spiritual labor, constraining one’s flesh during the Nativity fast and nourishing one’s soul with prayer. However, the Church warns us that external fasting alone is not enough. We must also apply ourselves to internal fasting, which consists of shunning malice, deceit, wrath, worldly bustle, and other vices. During this fast, as at all times, we must show works of love and mercy to our fellow beings, doing all we can to help those in need and in sorrow. Only then will our fasting be genuine and not hypocritical, only then will it be God-pleasing, and only then will we know the true joy of the bright feast of Christ’s Nativity.
Reprinted from “Orthodox Russia”, No. 21, 1999.