Another blessed period of fasting begins, a time of spiritual struggle and an effort to turn our mind to God, each of us with the strength and spiritual ‘nobility’ at our disposal, and, as always, in conjunction with the advice of our spiritual guide.
This fast begins on 15 November and lasts until 24 December, while on 25 December, when we celebrate the Nativity of Christ, we have a dispensation for all food, irrespective of the day on which the feast falls. During this Christmas Lent we abstain from meat and dairy foods, though we may eat fish throughout the week, except on Wednesdays and Fridays. The dispensation for fish continues until 17 December, though in some places it finishes on 12 December. This is exceptional, however, and isn’t included in the official rules of fasting of the Church, as set out in the Rudder.
On 21 November, the Feast of the Entry of the Mother of God, we may consume fish, no matter the day on which the feast falls.
In passing, we might mention that the hymns of the Church for the feast of the Entry of the Mother of God directly and in a timely manner prepare us for the great feast of Christmas.
In the canon at Mattins, we sing ‘Christ is born, give glory’. It’s as if this gem of a hymn, which is sung while there’s still more than a month to go till Christmas, is inviting us to stretch time and celebrate the Nativity of Christ. Everything is knitted together and becomes one feast: past present and future.
This is how our mother, the Church, teaches us: by inviting us to take part in the events which have marked the human story, by experiencing them as if we were present at them. Besides, as some of you may know, there’s a prayer said by the priest at the Preparation which is linked to the birth of Christ, though it’s repeated throughout the year, at every Divine Liturgy: ‘Now He is born Who has redeemed humankind from the corruption of death’. The new Adam, who resolves the drama of the human race. Our Lord, Who, out of burning love for His creation is clad in human nature, while retaining the divine. He receives flesh from the Mother of God, with her consent, and elevates it , through His resurrection and Ascension, to the right hand of the Father.
This is a reminder to us of Christ’s acceptance of us, out of His boundless love, so that, as the least indication of our gratitude, we might strive to abstain from pleasures of all kinds and to restrain the passions of the flesh. To rein in our tongue and guard our emotions. To keep the fast, which Christ showed to be a necessity for us.
Let’s return to the Christmas fast. Historically it is a later addition to the established fasts, at least as regards the number of days.
In the first years of Christianity, this fast was only a few days long, and Christmas wasn’t celebrated on 25 December but on 6 January, along with Theophany. This changed in the 4th centuries, for reasons which the Church deemed important at that time. It was decided that it ought to coincide with a particular pagan feast*, in order to avoid confusion and a misleading situation among the Christians of the time, some of whom still felt drawn to celebrating the date, a feast of the sun, along with the pagans. The Church sanctified the date in this way, which is why, in the dismissal hymn, Christ is referred to as the ‘Sun of righteousness’. We ought to add that the Church adopted this period of forty days until Christmas- the time of the forty liturgies- to help us in our struggle, each of us in the measure of which we’re capable. Ideally, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated every day, during this time, so we can participate as much as possible.
It’s difficult to say how important and beneficial to the soul this frequent attendance at the Liturgy is for each of us, but we should recall it as a daily meal, where Christ’s Body and Blood is offered as our food and drink, at His board, so that we can partake for the remission of our sins and for eternal life. Also of great importance is the remembrance of names by the priest at the Preparation table for these forty liturgies.
And at this time of spiritual struggle, let’s be more acutely aware of alms-giving towards others, both in terms of material help, which is always necessary, particularly given the financial problems so many people are facing, but also as regards spiritual charity, which often proves to be more important than material assistance, since it requires love and often a certain amount of time.
* ‘Sol invictus’ (‘Unconquered Sun’) instituted by Aurelian on 25 December 274 [WJL]