For Catholics of the Roman Rite (which is most of us), Advent, the period of preparation for Christmas, begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. (Here's a complete Advent schedule for this year; for more on when Advent begins, see When Does Advent Start?) For Eastern Rite Catholics, however, the preparation for Christmas begins a little bit earlier, on November 15 each year.
Advent is called a "little Lent," because, like Lent, it is a time of repentance. While fasting during Advent used to be universal, most Western Christians today treat Advent as an early part of the Christmas season. Eastern Rite Catholics (and the Eastern Orthodox), however, continue to celebrate Advent with the Philip's Fast, named after the Apostle Philip. The fast doesn't really have anything to do with the Apostle Philip, other than the fact that it starts on November 15, the day after his feast in the Eastern calendar. It runs through Christmas Eve, December 24.
Like most fasts in the Eastern Church, Philip's Fast is fairly strict and includes abstinence from meat, eggs, and dairy products on all weekdays, and fish, oil, and wine on most days. (Different Eastern Churches observe the fast more or less strictly; because extreme fasting can affect your health, you should never increase the strictness of a fast beyond what the Church prescribes without consulting with your priest.)
While Roman Rite Catholics are no longer bound to fast during Advent, reviving the tradition of repentance during Advent can help us better appreciate our Christmas celebration. Pope John Paul II called on Western Catholics to learn more about the traditions of our Eastern Rite brethren; joining them, even if for only one day a week, in celebrating Philip's Fast is a very good way to do so.
(A stained-glass window of Saint Philip, Apostle, in Saint Peter's Cathedral, Rockford, Illinois. Photo © Scott P. Richert)
More on Fasting:
- First We Fast, Then We Feast
- Fasting: A Powerful Spiritual Tool
- Abstinence as Spiritual Discipline
- What Are the Rules for Fasting and Abstinence in the Catholic Church?