At St. Aidan’s we are well and truly into the Advent Fast which began November 15. This means we generally refrain from eating animal products right up until midnight December 24 when we feast.
I never really knew about fasting before becoming Orthodox. I had participated in some cleansing fasts and 30-Hour-Famine fasts. These were short term, completely abstaining from food and not accompanied by prayer. My knowledge has definitely increased over the past fifteen years.
The Orthodox church has scheduled church fasting periods for about half the year. Until the modern era, these fasting periods would also include more services, giving participants more opportunity for alms-giving and communal prayer. Unfortunately, given the nature of our 21 century lives, Canadian geography and lack of priests, communal services are not as frequent as they could be. We can still give to charity outside of the church, but prayer is vitally important, so more private or family prayer is encouraged. Fasting and alms-giving without prayer can make us proud instead of humble. Prayer also keeps us focused on the purpose of the fast. The focus of the Advent fast is the anticipation and preparation for the time when God entered into His creation by being born as the saviour of the world.
Fasting periods were implemented within the Christian Church by the apostles. The fasts are a form of discipline to help us enter into the event occurring during that time. They are a spiritual prescription, so to speak. Ultimately, the fasts can draw us closer to Christ because we believe when we discipline the body by refraining from certain foods, we are also disciplining the soul and spirit. We believe creation first sinned through an act of eating in pride, so we begin to undo that when we humble our bodies by not eating, by fasting. Combining the fast with prayer enables us to also humble our souls. As we humble our souls, we become more like Christ, more able to see God in all of His creation including His people. This ascetic reminder is particularly needed at Advent, during this first world, 21st century season of excess and pride.
Fasting during Advent reminds us that our happiness should not be dependent upon obtaining stuff whether for ourselves or others, having the most beautifully decorated house or angrily winning the ‘War against Christmas’. These things take our focus off what is actually important, drawing closer to God. The relentless promotion of capitalism and over-indulgence during December wages more of a war on Christmas than any non-believer ever could.
When we fast, we can consciously say no to over-indulgence and pride. When we fast, we may be more inclined to give to others. When we fast, we may be more willing to live the spirit of Christmas; giving recognition and respect to every other person around us.
Despite the self-indulgence, or possibly because of it, during this season food banks are stuffed, soup kitchens overflow, and the charity coffers are full. Christians and non-Christians alike are drunk with the Spirit of Christmas and feel the need to share. But when January rolls around, the over-indulgence hangover arrives with the bills, chasing away the inclination to give. Unfortunately, people need assistance not just one day, one week or even one month of the year, but all year round.
And this is where the fast can help.
Ideally, the money we save in food bills can be given to those who need it more. The time we save by not preparing elaborate meals can be spent in prayer. As we draw closer to God, drawing closer to others should become foremost in our minds as we fast throughout the year and not just in December.
During the Advent fast, we can avoid the over-indulgence hangover and maintain the message of the Christmas season year-round, the message that Christ was born to save all of creation. Prayer and fasting helps us to overcome pride and enables us to love and help all people, to treat them as important to God and to us, not just once a year but every day of every year, forever and ever. Amen.