Nativity Fast: Preparations begin for Orthodox Christians

Crowd standing, of men, women and children, candles in front

An Orthodox Christian Christmas (Nativity) service in Russia. Photo courtesy of President of Russia

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 15—or THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 28: The season of preparation for Christ’s birth begins for Orthodox Christians with a 40-day period of abstinence known as the Nativity Fast.

Usually, our ReadTheSpirit magazine column about this centuries-old practice focuses on the earlier start of the fasting period, which is most common in the U.S. Here is how the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America explains this period of self-denial and deepening spiritual reflection:

The Nativity Fast is one of four main fast periods throughout the ecclesiastical year. Beginning on November 15 and concluding on December 24, the Nativity Fast gives individuals the opportunity to prepare for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior  on December 25. By abstaining from certain food and drink—particularly from meat, fish, dairy products, olive oil, and wine—as well as focusing more deeply on prayer and almsgiving, we can find that the primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God.

However, in this 2019 holiday column we are aware of almost daily newspaper headlines about Ukraine and Russia—so we are including their later starting date, as well. That variance between starting on what today is November 15 and 28 stems from traditional methods of keeping the calendar through many centuries. Some Orthodox church headquarters in the U.S. now list both dates on their websites, because parish leaders know that some families who attend prefer to follow one calendar—while others may follow calendars that match relatives in their countries of origin.

One Russian Orthodox church on the West Coast, for example, has this note on its website’s calendar: “During this fast, the general rule is that from Nov. 15/Nov. 28—and up until the Feast of Nativity (Christmas)—no meat, meat-products, dairy, dairy-products or egg and egg-products are eaten. Children under 7, lactating and pregnant women are exempt.” Both dates are offered because it’s clear to the pastor that Orthodox Christians from other backgrounds like to attend liturgies at that church.

Many American-based Orthodox clergy and lay people have to navigate complex cultural expectations.

Making American Exceptions and Adaptations

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

One of the most popular writers about American Orthodox faith and culture is theologian and educator Federica Matthewes-Green—a famous convert to Orthodoxy in the early 1990s. Over the past two decades, she has appeared on national panels and in public TV documentaries as an expert on the American experience of Orthodoxy. Among her most popular introductions to the Orthodox church is her 1997 memoir, Facing East—A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy

In that book, she writes:

Last Saturday, when I went out with a friend for lunch, I mentioned that we were in the Nativity fast. When she asked what that meant, I replied that we go without meat from November 15 to Christmas, 40 days. Our parish doesn’t observe a stringent fast now like we do before Pascha (Easter), though some Orthodox do. I said, “Of course, we make an exception on Thanksgiving. We eat turkey.”

“Then what?” she asked. “Do you have to feel guilty about it and go to confession?”

“No,” I said, “American Orthodox generally make an exception and feast on Thanksgiving. Because it’s a local custom.” A minute later I realize how funny this sounds In Orthodoxy, the vast United States of America from sea to shining sea is “local.”

‘We Fast Faithfully and in Secret’

Despite that practical advice from her parish—most official Orthodox websites, even in the U.S., don’t mention a Thanksgiving adaptation. What they offer is pastoral advice about the contemporary spiritual value of fasting—and a warning not to judge others for how they choose to follow this call to self denial. Pastors tend to warn against pointing fingers at others whose fasting practice may not be as strict.

Here’s an example from the website of the Antiochian Orthodox archdiocese for America. The archdiocesan website first offers a detailed fasting chart, then adds this pastoral advice:

The purpose of fasting is to focus on the things that are above, the Kingdom of God. It is a means of putting on virtue in reality, here and now. Through it we are freed from dependence on worldly things. We fast faithfully and in secret, not judging others, and not holding ourselves up as an example. 

Fasting in itself is not a means of pleasing God. Fasting is not a punishment for our sins. Nor is fasting a means of suffering and pain to be undertaken as some kind of atonement. Christ already redeemed us on His Cross. Salvation is a gift from God that is not bought by our hunger or thirst.

We fast to be delivered from carnal passions so that God’s gift of Salvation may bear fruit in us. We fast and turn our eyes toward God in His Holy Church. Fasting and prayer go together. Fasting is not irrelevant. Fasting is not obsolete, and it is not something for someone else. Fasting is from God, for us, right here and right now. 

NATIVITY FAST: PROPHETS & PARAMONY

Woman with baby, surrounded by other figures, in iconic ilustration

An Eastern Orthodox Christian depiction of the Nativity. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the Nativity Fast, several key figures are highlighted with feast days—in particular, the prophets who Eastern Christians believe laid the groundwork for the Incarnation: Obadiah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Daniel and the Three Holy Youths. Sundays leading up to Nativity also bring attention to ancestors of the Church and righteous men and women who pleased God.

The Forefeast of the Nativity begins December 20 (or later, depending on one’s calendar), with the chanting of Nativity hymns every day until the Eve of the Nativity—or, Paramony. On Paramony—called Christmas Eve in the Western Christian Church—no solid food is partaken until the first star is seen in the evening sky. The fast is joyously broken, and while many head to the traditional All-Night Vigil, others attend the Divine Liturgy for the Nativity of Christ on Christmas morning.

On December 25, the Feast of the Nativity, fasting is forbidden; a fast-free period, or Afterfeast, lasts through January 4—or later, depending on one’s calendar.

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Meatfare Sunday: Orthodox Christians eliminate meat & look to Great Lent

Hand and fork jabbing at white meat poultry on plate of food

After Meatfare Sunday, Orthodox Christians do not consume meat until Pascha (Easter). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 15: Lent is on the horizon for the world’s 2 billion Christians, and today, Eastern Orthodox churches take gradual steps into the Lenten fast with Meatfare Sunday. After Meatfare Sunday, no meat may be consumed until Pascha (Easter); in one week, Cheesefare Sunday will discontinue the partaking of dairy products until Pascha. For Orthodox Christians, Great Lent begins on Clean Monday—this year, February 23.

Though commonly referred to as Meatfare Sunday, this third Sunday of the Triodion Period is more formally known as the Sunday of the Last Judgment. In services, emphasis is placed on the Second Coming and Last Judgment—a time when Christ, in Matthew, refers to coming in glory with the angels to judge the living and the dead. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) While the opportunity exists, the faithful are encouraged to repent. The parable of the Last Judgment points out that Christ will judge on love: How well one has shared God’s love, and how deeply one has cared for others.

On the Saturday prior to Meatfare Sunday and on the two Saturdays following, a liturgy and memorial service is held for the faithful departed. These days are known as the Saturdays of the Souls.

Interested in some delicious new meat recipes for this final opportunity ? Find recipes at Allrecipes, Cooking Light and Food & Wine.

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Nativity Fast: Eastern Christians prepare for birth of Jesus Christ

Cathedral building of light browns and beige colors, ornate with dome tops and Orthodox crosses, on sunny day

Nativity of Christ (Orthodox) Cathedral in Riga, Latvia. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 15: Preparations for Jesus’s birth begin in the Orthodox Christian Church as adherents begin the 40-day Nativity Fast.

The faithful are supposed to undertake this challenging tradition with joy and in a spirit of earnest anticipation. By fasting, Orthodox Christians embrace their own humanity and, at the same time, the moment at which God became human, according to Orthodox teaching.

The Nativity Fast is divided into two periods: November 15-December 19, and December 20-24. Both fasting periods follow the traditional fasting discipline (without meat, dairy, fish, wine or oil), but each also allows for fish, wine and oil on specific days. Several other holidays will fall within the Nativity Fast, such as St. Andrew’s Day, St. Nicholas Day, the Sunday of the Forefathers and the Sunday of the Fathers. (Wikipedia has details.)

Orthodox theology holds that bodily fasting ultimately influences the soul. During the Nativity Fast, the faithful turn away from worldly desires and toward God. The fasting includes not only bodily abstinence, but also fasting from negative emotions, hatred and greed. Prayer and almsgiving are a major part of the spiritual discipline. (Learn more from Orthodox Church in America.)

Note: The Nativity Fast is observed November 15-December 24 in the Gregorian calendar and the Revised Julian calendar. Followers of the Julian calendar, which is currently 13 days behind the Gregorian, will begin the fast on November 28 of the Gregorian calendar.

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Nativity of the Virgin, Birthday of the Theotokos: Christians honor Mary

Depiction on wood of woman in bed holding baby, women gathered around to assist the new mother, pouring water and folding items

The Birth of Mary, artwork circa 1470. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 8: From East to West, most of the world’s Christians wish “happy birthday” to the person whom Catholic and Othodox Christians believe links the divine to humanity: today is the Nativity of the Theotokos, or the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

One of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Eastern Orthodox Church and a liturgical feast in the Roman Catholic calendar of saints, the Nativity of Mary has been celebrated from the earliest centuries of Christianity. Unlike most saints’ days in the Western Christian Church, only three figures are commemorated on the day of their birth, thereby indicating their pivotal role in salvation: Jesus, John the Baptist and Mary.

THE STORY OF MARY’S LIFE: FROM UNKNOWN TO RENOWNED

As this traditional Christian story goes: Mary’s life began piously in Galilee, Nazareth, as a baby born to elderly and previously barren parents. Though they remained faithful to God, Joachim and Anna were without children for many years—a characteristic regarded, at the time, as a punishment for sin. One fateful day, when Joachim had traveled to the temple to make an offering, he was chastised by the High Priest for being childless; his offering was turned away. The distraught husband and wife prayed to God, and the Archangel Gabriel appeared to them, promising a child whose name would be known throughout the world. In nine months, Anna bore a child.

No record of Mary’s birth or childhood exists in the Gospels, but is found in later Christian works. Because these details are not in the New Testament, most Protestants do not observe the holiday. In fact, Eastern and Western Christians also diverge in their understanding of Mary’s birth. For Catholics, Mary’s birth is connected with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, a dogma formally established by the Vatican in 1854. Eastern Christians believe that while Mary wasn’t without original sin, she was spared actual sin by God’s grace.

Note: For those following the Julian Calendar, this feast day falls on September 21 of the Gregorian Calendar.

Closeup of clump of green and purple grapes hanging from vine

In France, winegrowers bring their best grapes to church for a blessing on the Nativity of Mary. Photo courtesy of Flickr

OUR LADY OF THE GRAPE HARVEST
& OTHER IDEAS FOR CELEBRATION

In several regions of the world, Mary’s Nativity is marked with seasonal customs and the start of the Indian summer, or “after-summer.” The winegrowers of France regard today as the Our Lady of Grape Harvest, bringing their best crop to the local church to be blessed; seeds for winter crop are blessed in many churches across Europe; in the Alps, cattle and sheep are herded in grand procession from their summer pastures down to the valleys and stables, where they will reside for the cold season. (Wikipedia has more.) In some areas of Austria, milk from these cattle and sheep is given to the poor, in honor of the Virgin Mary.

Some Catholic groups, including Women for Faith and Family, suggest ways that families can celebrate today:

  • Bake Mary a birthday cake, with white and blue icing to symbolize her purity and fidelity. Place a small figure of the Virgin Mary in the center of the cake.
  • Eat foods containing blueberries or anything else blue, as blue is the common Marian color.
  • Decorate a Marian altar at home.
  • Learn and sing hymns to Mary, such as the Immaculate Mary and ‘Hail Holy Queen.’

PLANS FOR A MOVIE? Hollywood interest in biblical stories is rising, experts report. Christian Science Monitor has the story. A new movie about Mary’s early life reportedly is in production for 2014 release, called Mary, Mother of Christ. Israeli-born Odeya Rush is slated to star as Mary. Other stars booked for the production include Peter O’Toole and Ben Kingsley.

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