We’ve (Mostly) Abandoned the Advent Fast. But It’s Not Too Late to Start
If your church follows the liturgical calendar, you may have noticed that it’s marked by the color purple, just like Lent. Ever wondered why? It’s because Advent, like Lent, was traditionally a time of repentance and preparation. Just as Lent prepares us for the great feast of Easter, so Advent prepares us for the great feast of Christmas.
Advent is the beginning of the Christian year and might be thought of as “mini-Lent.” It’s when we prepare ourselves physically and spiritually to commemorate the coming of our Lord. It’s a time when we seek, in a special way, to overcome the darkness of the fallen world, including the darkness in ourselves, before we celebrate the arrival of the Light who comes to vanquish the darkness. Christ came first in the flesh, then in our hearts, and finally at the end of time — as St. Bernard of Clairvaux put it.
The exact details of the Advent Fast have varied from place to place. But it almost always involved (by our standards) strict abstinences from foods such as meat, and in many cases, eating only one meal a day.
So, what happened to this practice? Few Christians outside of Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Rite churches see Advent this way. On the contrary, in the West, it’s mostly one giant feast starting (in the U.S.) with Thanksgiving and ending sometime after New Year’s Day. A time of fasting and abstinence has given way to a time of over-the-top indulgence and consumption.
During the Middle Ages, Christians kept a forty-day fast starting in the middle of November and ending on Christmas Day. (For Western Christians, Advent now starts on the Sunday closest to St. Andrew’s Day, which is November 30.) It was as intense during Advent as it was during Lent.
Monsignor Charles Pope notes that this was at a time when people had far less to eat than we do.
Not only was there less food overall, but it was far more seasonal and its supply less predictable. Further, famines and food shortages were relatively common. Yet despite all this, they were able to fast twice a year for forty days at a stretch, eighty days in total. There were also “ember days” sporadically throughout the year at the change of seasons, when a daylong fast was enjoined.
It’s a sad irony that, historically, the more we have to eat, the less we seem to fast.
The slow abandonment of the Advent (or Nativity) fast is a long story. A hundred years ago, however, Catholics in the U.S. still generally fasted on Fridays during Advent and on Christmas Eve. Now, the only thing that remains are purple vestments and candles — vestiges to remind us of a practice long since abandoned.
A Fast to Enrich the Feast
I’m not saying we should pine for the days when more people were subsistence farmers. I am saying we’ve lost something that we need to recover. Otherwise, the blessing of abundance can become a curse.
We should not give up the feasting and gift-giving during Christmas. Rather, we should enrich them. As I argue in Eat, Fast, Feast, we don’t really grasp the nature of a feast if we abandon the fast that is supposed to precede it. So, by abandoning the penitential season of Advent, we’ve also lost out on some the richness of the Christmas season that follows it.
Let’s Recover It Together
Given the state of the Church in 2019, might it not be a good idea to recover an Advent Fast? If this season never occurred to you, don’t feel bad. It was almost surely inculpable ignorance. Most of us were born and raised with the custom overfilling ourselves for weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year.
Besides, it’s not too late to start. If you rarely fast, don’t expect yourself to adopt an Ethiopian Orthodox fast. It involves one small vegan meal per day! Instead, try fasting at least on Fridays, and giving up some favorite treat until Christmas. (But don’t forget the mini-feasts on Sunday, and especially Gaudete Sunday — which Catholics mark with a pink candle on our Advent wreaths.)
As it happens, the first Friday of Advent is … tomorrow.
If you’re Catholic, you have even more reason to fast. Four exorcists “have issued a joint statement asking Catholics worldwide to dedicate Dec. 6 as a day of fasting, prayer and reparation, ‘for the purpose of driving out any diabolic influence within the Church that has been gained as a result of recent events.’”
Imagine what might happen if millions of us did this, not only tomorrow, but until Christmas!
Jay Richards, Ph.D., is the Executive Editor of The Stream, a Research Assistant Professor in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America, and a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute. Follow him on Twitter.