Today we begin the forty-day fast before the Great Feast of the Nativity on January 7. In this way we prepare ourselves for the celebration of our Lord’s birth. Like Great Lent, the Nativity Fast is a preparation, during which we focus on the coming of the Savior by fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.
By fasting, we “shift our focus” from ourselves to others, spending less time worrying about what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat, in order to use our time in increased prayer and caring for the poor. Through fasting, we learn that we can gain control over things which we sometimes allow to control us — beginning with food.
While we are fasting from delicious foods, though, we are also called to fast from sin: from gossip, from jealousy, from anger, and from those other things which we often allow to control us, even though they are within our control.
Before going to a big feast at someone’s home, or to an expensive restaurant, we would refrain from eating a lot. if we come to dinner already full, we will not enjoy the meal very much. In the same way we fast before the Birth of Christ in order to fully feast and celebrate on the holy day itself.
During the Nativity Fast, the Church refrains from meat, dairy, wine, and olive oil. Christ does tell us fasting is merely a good idea.
In the Gospels, our Lord says, “When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites.” …Not “If you fast” or “If you choose to fast!”
“An excellent faster is he who restrains himself from every impurity, who imposes abstinence on his tongue and restrains it from idle talk, foul language, slander, condemnation, flattery and all manner of evil speaking, who abstains from anger, rage, malice and vengeance, and withdraws from every evil.”
— Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk
“See what fasting does: it heals illnesses, drives out demons, removes wicked thoughts, and 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, ‘does not go out except by prayer and fasting’” (Matthew 17:21).
— Saint Athanasius the Great
Troparion before Christmas:
“Oh Joseph, tell us how it is that you are leading the pregnant Virgin to Bethlehem,
her whom you received her from the temple?
‘I have searched the prophets and received an answer from an angel!
Now I am persuaded that Mary bears God in an indescribable way.
Magi from the east will come to worship him,
serving him with precious gifts.’
Oh Lord who became incarnate for our sake, glory to thee!”