On November 15, we of the Byzantine Church will begin a season akin to the advent of the west, called Philip's fast. It is a fast of 40 days (during which the faithful abstain from animal foods, as they do during Great Lent) that continues from the day after the feast of St. Philip until Christmas Eve to spiritually prepare for the coming of the Savior. Many contend that the fast is attributed to the 40 days of prayer after the anniversary of the death St.Philip and may have nothing to do with the feast of the Nativity. Nevertheless, it does take place forty days before this great feast and many eastern Christians use it to prepare themselves for its celebration. We can do this by fasting from meat and dairy, from sweets, from whatever we chose to be most meaningful to us, or we can prepare in other ways. My family has been preparing for the Christmas season by focusing on the path of salvation history which winds through the Old Testament and leads right up to the birth of the Savior. We do this during Phillip's fast by setting up a Jesse Tree. While this may not be an authentically historic way that our Rusyn ancestors spent Philip's Fast, it has become a really meaningful exercise for my family and we have made it our own.
On November 15, we actually put up the tree, itself, reading about the genealogy of Christ, and considering our own family tree. The next day we learn of the fall of the angels and add lights to our tree, (this has always drawn the attention of my neighbors who, when they see the lights in the window so early, think that I’ve either gone completely insane, or that my children rule my roost...hmmm) and an empty manger which is awaiting the addition of the baby Jesus. On each successive evening, we read a story from the Old Testament, usually in chronological order, foretelling the coming of the Savior. For example, we may read the creation story from Genesis, and then after the story, we make ornaments for our tree, depicting various parts of the story...and so the children’s favorite part begins. For the Genesis story, we made clay “earth's” like the one God made in seven days.
We have made angels, apples, snakes,
clay Adams & Eves, popcorn towers of Babel, Noah’s arks from milk cartons,
cardboard Samsons with reeealy long yarn hair, bracelets from aluminum foil for Esther, wheat bundles for Ruth, slingshots from branches and rubber bands for David, and many, many more. These ornaments have become treasures as the children grow and we add to the tree every year. This activity has not only been a source of fun and education for our family, but one of comfort as well. Our family has come to understand better that the same God Who designed history for the coming of His Son, has designed the future, OUR future. We need not fear, He is in control.
It isn't really known when such a fast was introduced. Some say it was observed as early as the sixth century, although some say later in the eighth. However, it was in the year 1166 AD that the Nativity Fast was first formally instituted at a synod at Constantinople to imitate the 40 days that Moses fasted before receiving the tablets of the law. St. Symeon of Thessalonika (1381-1429 AD) confirmed this, writing,
"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."
It is clear that the fast is designed to prepare us both physically and spiritually for the coming of the Savior at Christmas. We are asked to abstain from meat and dairy products, eggs and oil, just as we do during the Great Fast, but the rules are a bit less strict. We may eat fish and are allowed oil and wine on Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends, and on feast days such as the Presentation of the Theotokos and St. Nicholas day.
Many of us haven't given the Nativity Fast our full attention over the years, partly because we haven't been aware it existed in certain regions. Growing up, I didn't even realize it was a "thing"! Sadly, among my community here it has fallen into the category of "things the old people used to do", that is...until some of us decided to revive it. What a wonderful tool the practice of fasting an be! How well it aids us in growing closer to God! If only people would try it! That said, I challenge those of you who are new to the idea to come along with us and take a second look at fasting with the Church this season. Start slowly. Add on from year to year, one step at a time, and grow in your fasting practice. Its a good idea to begin together, as a family, building community with like-minded Christians who are striving right along with you. I'll be posting a lot more on the Great Fast Meals page of this site with recipes and support for anyone who cares to come along! Join the facebook group and walk with us this advent!