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Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church
Grand Junction, Colorado

Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (AD 73)
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (AD 1922)
Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Denver (AD 1979)

METROPOLIS OF DENVER

The Nativity Fast

Beloved in the Lord, May God grant to all of us a beautiful, joyous, and spiritually edifying forty days of preparation to celebrate Christmas! This period is known as the “Nativity Fast,” and is also called “Advent.”

Wikipedia has a good entry on this season: “Nativity Fast” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nativity_Fast.

The following four articles/reflections are also very useful in preparing for this forty-day Advent season.

With Love in Christ,
Father Luke

Why the Nativity Fast was Established

Reprinted from “Orthodox Russia”, No. 21, 1999.

The Orthodox Church prepares its faithful to welcome the Nativity of Christ in a worthy manner by means of a forty-day Nativity Fast, which lasts from November 15th to December 25.

Besides generally known reasons, the Nativity fast is also undertaken by Orthodox Christians in order to venerate the suffering and sorrow undergone by the Holy Mother of God at the hands of the scribes and the Pharisees just prior to the sacred event of Christ’s Nativity (Birth).

Holy Tradition tells us that shortly before the righteous Joseph and the Holy Virgin set off for Bethlehem, they were subjected to the following tribulation. A certain scribe by the name of Ananias, entering their home and seeing the Virgin pregnant, was severely distressed and went to the High Priest and the entire Jewish council, saying: “Joseph the carpenter, who has been regarded as a righteous man, has committed an iniquity. He has secretly violated the Virgin Who was given to him from the temple of God for safekeeping. And now She is with child.” Then the High Priest’s servants went to Joseph’s house, took Mary and Joseph, and brought them to the High Priest, who began to denounce and shame the Most-blessed Virgin Mary.

But the Holy Virgin, crying in deep sorrow, replied: “The Lord God is My witness that I am innocent and have known no man.” Then the High Priest accused the righteous Joseph, but the latter swore on oath that he was not guilty of this sin. Yet the High Priest did not believe them and subjected them to the trial that was customary in those times, (when a woman suspected of violation was given to drink bitter water that had been cursed by the High Priest). However, the trial just served to confirm the innocence of the Holy Virgin and the righteous Joseph. All those present were amazed at this, unable to understand how a Virgin could simultaneously be with child and yet remain inviolate.

After that the High Priest allowed the holy couple to go home in peace. The righteous Joseph took the Virgin Mary and went to his house, joyously glorifying God. But this was not the end of the Holy Theotokos’ trials. It is well known that afterwards she shared with Joseph the toil of a three-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. And in Bethlehem there was no place for the Holy Virgin either in an inn, or in some home, and since night was already approaching, She was forced to seek shelter in a cave which served as a resting place for cattle. In this humblest of shelters the Most-blessed Virgin remained in prayer and divine contemplation. It is here that She painlessly gave birth to our Lord Jesus Christ, Savior of the world.

We can see from all of the above that the days immediately preceding the Nativity were not days of rest and comfort for the Holy Mother of God. In those days She suffered various sorrows and trials, but did not leave off her prayers and contemplation. The Holy Church appeals to the faithful to participate, at least to some small degree, in the Holy Theotokos’ spiritual labor, constraining one’s flesh during the Nativity fast and nourishing one’s soul with prayer. However, the Church warns us that external fasting only is not enough. We must also apply ourselves to internal fasting, which consists of shunning malice, deceit, wrath, worldly bustle, and other vices. During this fast, as at all times, we must show works of love and mercy to our fellow beings, doing all we can to help those in need and in sorrow. Only then will our fasting be genuine and not hypocritical, only then will it be God-pleasing, and only then will we know the true joy of the bright feast of Christ’s Nativity.

The Nativity Fast and Orthodox Tradition

The Nativity Fast serves to refresh the last part of the year - mystically renewing our spiritual unity with God and preparing us for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ.

Saint Leo the Great wrote: “Four periods [of the year] have been set aside as times of abstinence, so that over the course of the year we might recognize that we are constantly in need of purification, and that amid life’s distractions, we should always strive by means of fasting and acts of charity to extirpate sin, sin which is multiplied in our transitory flesh and in our impure desires.”

According to Saint Leo the Great, the Nativity Fast is a sacrifice to God [in return for] the gathered harvest.

The Holy Hierarch stated, “Just as the Lord has generously granted us abundance of the fruits of the earth, so should we, during the time of this Fast, be generous to the poor.”

According to Saint Symeon of Thessaloniki, “…the Nativity Forty-day Fast represents the fast undertaken by Moses, who, having fasted for forty days and forty nights, received the Commandments of God, written on stone tablets [of the Law]. And we, fasting for forty days, will reflect upon and receive from the Virgin of the living Word - not written upon stone, but born, incarnate, and we will commune of His Divine Body.”

The Nativity Fast was established to allow us through repentance, prayer and fasting to cleanse ourselves before the Nativity of Christ, so that with clean heart, soul, and body, we might reverently meet the Son of God, Who has come into the world and so that in addition to bringing the usual gifts and sacrifices, we might bring Him our clean hearts and a desire to follow His teachings.

May God grant that we all spend the salvific days of the Nativity Fast in such a way as to be a great benefit to our souls!

The Purpose of the Nativity Fast (and every fasting period)

We begin the six weeks of the Nativity Fast, on November 15th. It lasts for forty days, the same length as the Great Fast (Great Lent).

The purpose of every fasting period and each fasting day is penitence, sorrow, weeping over one’s sins, and cleansing the soul in preparation for a great feast (Pascha, Christmas, the Dormition, the Feast of the Apostles) or for the Sacrament of the Eucharist we receive at each Sunday Liturgy.

The Nativity Fast certainly provides the opportunity to cleanse our souls by practicing self-restraint through abstinence from certain foods. Unlike the Great Fast, however, the more sorrowful aspects of penitence and weeping over sins are eclipsed by a sense of humility and internal joy during this Advent season.

The Church urges us to bring our souls into a state of complete humility, because the coming holiday, although so joyous and so great, is completely enveloped in the spirit of humility.

The Apostle Paul explains to us that in this holiday “God on high descended upon earth, in order to elevate us into heaven.” But in order to achieve this, the Lord “diminished Himself, taking on the image of a servant, and was likened to man.”

Man is a creature whereas God is uncreated. To become like man, God the Son therefore had to humble His uncreated Divinity. And He did so to join humanity to divinity, to save us from death and the power of the devil.

Man is a fallen creature because through pride, selfishness, and self-will we have broken our relationship with God and we constantly diminish our relationships with one another. Clearly the antidote to the cause of our failures and fall, is humility. The same humility that God expressed when He became like us to save us.

We must honor and thank our Creator and Savio for His example and sacrifice. We must diminish our pride, lessen our self-extolment, and exhaust our selfishness. Only then - through total humility - will we find that ascending road into heaven, into the Heavenly Realm, which the Lord has opened for us in His descent to earth

In the Holy Land of Palestine, in the town of Bethlehem, where the Lord was born in a humble manger 2,000 years ago, a majestic church stands over the site of His birth. This church is distinguished by its entrance doors, which were made so low, that an average adult has to stoop in order to go in. This was done deliberately, to constantly remind us of the need for spiritual humility before the greatness of the event that took place here.

The Church also urges us to bring our souls into a state of great joy.

During Great Fast the Church so gives itself over to penitence, that there is hardly any commemoration of the feasts of major saints, since a holiday spirit would interfere with the purpose of this fasting season. The only two feasts celebrated during the Great Fast are the Annunciation of the Holy Virgin and the Entrance of our Lord into Jerusalem, which are both directly linked to Pascha.

During the Nativity Fast, the Church gives itself over to a time for joy. The entire Advent season is replete with the feasts of major saints like glittering jewels: the Great Martyr Catherine, the Apostle Andrew, the Great Martyr Barbara, Saint Nicholas, Saint Herman of Alaska, and many others.

It is as though to show to us that the lives of all these saints became possible only because the Lord in great humility has come down to earth, is born of the Virgin, destroys the inner wall of partition between God and man, and opens the way to heaven.

Throughout this period the Church urges us to prepare for the coming joyful feast with the words of the Nativity Katavasia at Matins: “Christ is born - glorify Him! Christ comes from heaven - meet Him! Christ is on earth - be exalted!”

Guidelines for the Nativity Fast

The Nativity Fast is one of the four Canonical Fasting Seasons in the Church year. This is a joyous fast in anticipation of the Nativity of Christ. That is the reason it is less strict than other fasting periods.

The fast is divided into two periods.

The first period is November 15th through December 17th when the traditional fasting discipline (abstinence from meat, dairy, fish, wine, and oil) is observed. There is dispensation given to consume wine and oil on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, and to consume fish, wine, and oil on Saturdays and Sundays.

The second period is December 18th through 24th when the traditional fasting discipline (abstinence from meat, dairy, fish, wine, and oil) is observed. There is dispensation given to consume wine and oil only on Saturdays and Sundays during this period.

Here are the guidelines:

The Nativity Fast

During the Nativity Fast, we abstain from:

  • "Vertebrate Products" including:
    • Meat: beef, chicken, pork, turkey, elk, veal, lamb, deer, rabbit, buffalo, and so forth
    • Dairy: milk, eggs, cheese, butter, yogurt, cream, and so forth
    • Fish: fish with a backbone
      • This does not include shrimp, octopus, shellfish, squid, or other seafood which we are permitted to eat on all days.
      • Fish with a backbone is eaten on all the days of the Nativity Fast before December 17th, except on Wednesdays and Fridays.
  • Wine:
    • May be consumed on all days of the Nativity Fast, except on Wednesdays and Fridays, from November 15th through December 17th.
    • May be consumed only on Saturdays and Sundays from December 18th through 24th.
  • Oil:
    • May be consumed on all days of the Nativity Fast, except on Wednesdays and Fridays, from November 15th through December 17th.
    • May be consumed only on Saturdays and Sundays from December 18th through 24th.

Abstinence means disciplining ourselves, and exercising self control, to refrain from eating the the food and drink categories mentioned above.

The Eucharistic Fast

At all times, seasons, and places, Orthodox Christians practice the Eucharistic Fast in preparation for receiving Holy Communion at the Divine Liturgy.

  • We abstain from all food and drink after the evening meal the night before a morning Liturgy.
  • We abstain from all food and drink after a light noon meal the afternoon before an evening Liturgy.

The Purpose of Fasting

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. Fasting is not 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 exercise self control. We fast voluntarily. We do not fast to "show up" other people, nor do we coerce others to fast.
  • 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. Fasting is not something for "someone else."
  • Fasting is from God. Fasting is for us, right here and right now.
  • Most of all, we should not devour each other. The principal thing we abstain from "eating" or "consuming" is one another. We ask God to “set a watch and guard the door of our lips.”

Exceptions to Fasting

Orthodox Christians do not fast, or abstain, from consuming food or drink:

  • During certain festal seasons as indicated by the Church calendar
    • This includes the period from December 25th through January 4th (even on Wednesdays and Fridays);
  • If we are pregnant or nursing;
  • During serious illness;
  • Without prayer;
  • Without alms-giving;
  • According to our own will without guidance from our spiritual father.

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