I did a recent survey on my Youtube Channel, conducting a non-scientific straw poll asking whether people planned to keep the Nativity fast. Four hundred people have responded so far of which 61% had never heard that fasting before Christmas was a thing. Only 18% said that they would. Such findings have prompted this article.
I want to lay out for you, dear reader – if you are Christian – why keeping the Nativity fast is something that you should do. The Nativity fast starts 40 days before Christmas and mirrors Lent’s 40 days before Easter according to the Eastern rite. The Roman rite has it from four Sundays before Christmas. If you are following the Ambrosian rite, six weeks before Christmas. No matter the length of the preparation, I am going with 40 as I like the symmetry between it and Lent. It is important as Christians that we live the full Christian life and mark out our days according to our faith.
The first reason that I want to give is this: it has evangelistic qualities. We are now in that annoying period of time when the Liberals start gearing up for Christmas shopping, decorations and products start taking on a Christmas feel, and people start buying their Christmas presents, or at least start thinking about it. It is also that time of year when offices start planning their Christmas parties – all had and done before the 25th of December. December sees us start to eat rich indulgent foods and to drink special warmed wines and the like. Now imagine, slap bang into the middle of this you meet a Christian who, rather than going along with the party, announces he/she is following a strict vegan diet (the bare minimum of Christian fast), adding onto that, hours of not eating or alternate days of not eating. They seem to become somewhat introverted, and more prayerful. In their lunch hours, they read the Bible and take time to consider their life in preparation for, as they explain, the return of Christ and the final judgement. Now, one Christian here and there doing this does nothing at all to impact the culture, and at best is just seen to be a particularly devout Christian, but possibly a little too serious.
However, what if we ALL did this, as in all Christians doing this same thing? How would the world be impacted, then, when our work colleagues encounter Christian after Christian taking the vegan road and talking with one another about the Scriptures, the return of Christ, and the judgement? They adamantly refuse to go along with anything being described as Christmas – as they go on to explain that Christmas starts on the 25th of December and not before. This would present the world with a living witness. I promise you, the Liberal world would be awestruck; it would comment upon the ‘rediscovery of advent’ and the renewal of a Christian tradition. We Christians would impact restaurants and catering companies who would have to make sure they are catering for the increasing Christian observance – as the demand for vegan food would increase.
Our not celebrating Christmas in advent would present the strongest witness of all to the fact that we are, indeed, a different group of people with our own way of life. The conversations that would arise from the questions, the interrogations, and the faux offence could and should lead to opportunities for us to share our faith. We could invite people to celebrate the festival with us, as we do, by working on their charity commitments, praying/reflecting about their life, and yes, fasting with us. Keeping the traditions of the Church is an opportunity to evangelise and share our faith.
This could all be doubled down on from the 25th of December when, thereafter, they look upon us with shock and amazement as we continue to celebrate Christmas ALL the way through January, right up to the 2nd of February when it officially ends. They will observe us honouring the days of Adam and Eve, the massacre of the infants, Christ being presented in the temple; and the myriad of other traditional feasts. There would be both fascination and consternation in equal measure. We all know the grumblers who are quick to complain about the mention of Christmas after New Year’s Day (ironically an actual pagan festival in honour of the god Janus). The first Sunday of Advent is the Christian new year. Imagine your friend’s surprise to be invited to your New Year’s Party on that Saturday night with all the trappings of a New Year’s party! Imagine your church running a Christmas Carol Service and you inviting your friends to it, in mid-January – a time when it is more appropriate. Why not make putting the Christmas tree up; and other decorations on the evening before the 25th, a family occasion; before midnight mass?
This brings me to my second argument, which is its historical tradition. You see, we would not be making up something new, but returning to something very old. The Advent season, which comes before Christmas, started around the fifth or sixth century. It comes from the Latin term adventus meaning ‘coming’ – and was offered as a time in which sermons tended to focus on, and all Christian life started to contemplate, the incarnation and the return of Christ! The four last things of the Christian worldview are considered as follows: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. When was the last time you gave the return of Christ or the judgement any serious thought? When did you last seriously contemplate the end of your own life? The joys of heaven or the terrors of hell? Are you ready for His return? What good works can you present to your Lord? What sacrifices have you made in His way? Advent is a time to ask these kinds of questions.
Hymns are traditionally sung with these themes in mind and the Church generally sings its most profound songs. The theme of the life and ministry of John the Baptist is brought to mind as he sought to prepare Israel for Christ’s appearing. So we must, by His grace, prepare for His second appearing and the completion of the age. There should be no Christmas carol service at this time, but your church could run ‘Advent carol services.’ This tradition is still well practised amongst Eastern-rite Christians of ethnicities. It is the Western-rite and reformed Christians who have fallen out of the practice. We should return to it and recover that which has been lost to us, partly because of the reformation, but mainly because of the enlightenment which severely damaged religious faith and practice in the Western world.
Embodies the Teachings of Scripture
This brings me to my third point, that it does not contravene the Scripture, but rather embodies much of its teachings. Firstly, Christ said in Mathew 6:16-18, “When you fast…’ He explicitly implies that His followers will fast until He returns. So, are you and when? This brings me to another point; the New Covenant has no designated days of fasting. Its literature gives us no dates to fast. We are to do all things to the glory of GOD, whether we eat or drink, or do not, so as to glorify our GOD. In 1 Cor 10:31, we can see that in the early Church there was a great diversity of esteeming different days. In Romans 14:5, all that is required is that you are convinced in your own mind – that it is right to do so – which is why I am trying to convince you. So we are to fast, but we are free to fast when we want so long as we are doing it for the glory of GOD.
However, there is another layer to this – the Church leaders have the right to call us to fast! Christ gives them the power to bind and to loose in Matthew 16:19. Now clearly, this power is only restricted to that which is good to do – the Church has no authority over what is good and evil, but it has authority over what is good to do, and so Church leaders can and do call the people of GOD to fast. Incidentally, this is why different churches have different times of fasting. This may undermine my argument somewhat if your church does not call you to fast, but you can still choose to fast, and I am arguing you should because you can!
Church Fathers Say Fasting is Important
This brings me to my fourth argument, which is what the Church fathers say about the importance of fasting: The Didache instructed Christians to fast each Wednesday and Friday; a practice that is still current among Christians today and affirmed over and over again by the Church Fathers. Victorinus said that we ‘…even fast to the ninth hour, or even the evening. There may even be a passing over to the next day.’ Hermas said, ‘Every prayer should be accompanied with humility. Fast, therefore, and you will obtain from your Lord what you plead for.’ Tertullian noted in his day, ‘We consider fasting and kneeling in worship on the Lord’s day to be unlawful. We rejoice in the same privilege from Easter to Pentecost.’ A point hammered home by the Apostolic Constitutions. The Apostolic Constitution calls for the defrocking of any Bishop, Priest, Deacon, or even a reader who will not fast the forty days of Lent, as well as the customary Wednesdays and Fridays. You see, fasting has been an integral part of the Christian way of life. Just as Easter is accompanied by a period of preparation, why would Christmas not be? And just as Easter is prepared for by fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, why would Christmas not be?
A Common Practice of the Church
My fifth and final argument for the practice of fasting in this period is this: whether you do it for four weeks, six weeks, or forty days, it gives the Church a common practice, a common endeavour, something we can all share as Christians. It provides us with a sense of our own shared identity as Christians. We can build on this in multiple ways by having Advent meals (strictly vegan) together, to help build our sense of being a people. I did this last year and really enjoyed the experience. It also means that Christians have something in common to talk about. You can then build on this by praying together on the themes of Advent, as well as organising real campaigns of good works together as networks, congregations, fellowships, or collections of individuals across and within denominations.
I hope my short work convinces you to practice the Nativity fast. If you are an American, worried about Thanksgiving Day (a holiday rooted in the Christian history of America), don’t worry! You can just work by the Roman Rite and do a four-week fast after the first Sunday of Advent. So, why not embrace a full-fat Christianity that governs not just your beliefs, but your values, ethics, sense of history, identity, customs, and traditions, even down to your use of time and food? Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!