Now I am going to tell you about something that until I did this article I knew next to nothing about — Advent fasting customs of the Eastern Rite.
All I knew is that the period of Advent starts way sooner than Advent in the West. Instead of the Sunday after the Solemnity of Christ the King, it starts on Nov. 15, the day following the Eastern rite feast day of St. Philip the Apostle.
As for the rest, come along with me and we will learn together.
First, you will recall that St. Philip was the apostle whom Jesus consulted just before multiplying the loaves and fish to feed the multitude of people who had been following him for days and days and were really hungry. The conversation went like this:
Philip: “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.” (John 6:5-7)
Thus Philip became an early advocate of simply doing without. So it is only fitting that the fast be named for him. Well, OK. It’s really that St. Philip’s feast day in the East happens to be 40 days before Christmas. Coincidence?
According to the Byzantine Catholic Church in America, the fasting period mirrors the one that precedes Lent. It was practiced for centuries before it was officially instituted and has undergone several revisions before and since.
At first the fast was considered “easy.” No meat or dairy or oil on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Somebody was looking on the bright side. You get bread and water for starters, followed by a serving of salt, then a main course of vegetables, and a dessert of fruit. The rest of the week you could eat like Herod.
At first the fast was considered ‘easy.’
Later, these regulations toughened up under monastic influence. Nobody is tougher than a Eastern Rite cleric. But lay people could still eat all the fish they wanted until they didn’t want any … more … fish. Wine was also on the list of no-nos but would be allowed on certain feast days during which time people probably felt quite tempted to drown their sorrows.
St. Philip’s Fast is still marked in the East. Abstinence is still advised, suggested, and strongly encouraged. You are still not allowed to get married in the Church during this time of year and you are not supposed to go to dances or parties which involve music. Good luck with that because secular Christmas is so in your face you can’t go out during Advent without tripping over a party.
All of this emphasis on fasting during this period is to prepare our hearts for the coming of Our Savior. The time before his coming was one of waiting and expectation. People were very conscious of the fact that the Messiah had not yet come and they felt the deprivation.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. (Isaiah 9:1)
We are supposed to go on that same journey. We are supposed to mortify our flesh and bring it under the submission of our spirit to purify our hearts to welcome the Messiah when he comes. That much has not changed.
A last holdout from St. Philip’s Fast is still with us in the total abstinence from meat and dairy products on Christmas Eve.
If you are not already a vegan, you spend the day unaccustomed to being hungry, not to mention a bit cranky. The day is cold and dark already, with almost the shortest duration of daylight in the year. Under such conditions, what can you do but cook your feast day food and wait for a new day to dawn?
Well, Ukrainians have their “Holy Supper” as do many other Slavs. They have 12 courses of meatless, dairyless delights. It is a full but “poor” supper in honor of the poverty of the Holy Family. They lay straw on the floor and hay on the table to remember the setting in which Our Savior was born. They eat by the light of a center candle in place of the Star of Bethlehem and remember their dead, setting an extra place for a relative or for the Christ Child. They say prayers and sing carols.
God eternal to us is born
He came down from above
To reveal his perfect love
And to save the world
All of it seems so fitting. Christmas begins the next day and not before. Before is for fasting, waiting, praying, preparing. Then just as the dawn breaks, it comes. He comes and it is time to cast off fasting and rejoice.