Advent will soon be upon us, and as in most years, the first Sunday of Advent falls three days after Thanksgiving 2013 in the United States. That may help explain why, over the years, Advent has become less a period of preparation for the birth of Christ than a pre-celebration of Christmas. Most Christmas parties are held during Advent, rather than during the 12 days of Christmas (the period between Christmas Day and Epiphany), and the entire month of December becomes one big feast.
Combine all that with the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping, early gift exchanges, the baking of Christmas cookies, and plenty of eggnog, and too often we may find ourselves on Christmas Day physically prepared but not spiritually so.
The answer lies in a return to tradition. Advent used to be known as the "Little Lent," because of its penitential and preparatory nature. Both the Western and Eastern Church observed Advent with the traditional Lenten practices: fasting and abstinence, prayer, and almsgiving. Today, both the Eastern Orthodox and the Eastern Catholic Churches continue to observe an Advent fast: Philip's Fast, named after the Apostle Philip, because it begins on November 15, the day after his feast day (November 14, in the Eastern calendar).
I've written about Philip's Fast before; briefly, it is a period of 40 days (mirroring Lent), during which Eastern Christians abstain from meat, eggs, dairy products, fish, oil, and wine. (On Sundays and certain feast days, fish, oil, and wine are allowed; different Eastern Churches observe the fast more or less strictly.)
We Western Christians could benefit from observing Philip's Fast in our own way, by doing the same sorts of things we do during Lent--abstaining from meat (especially on Fridays), not eating between meals, restricting the amount of food that we eat. Combining these practices with almsgiving (this time of year is particularly hard for the poor) and efforts to increase our prayer (and perhaps to spend a bit of time in front of the Blessed Sacrament or to attend weekday Mass when we can), we can begin to return Advent to its proper role as a season of preparation.
And then, when Christmas Day finally arrives, we may find that our fast has increased the joy of our feast.
(A stained-glass window of Saint Philip, Apostle, in Saint Peter's Cathedral, Rockford, Illinois. Photo © Scott P. Richert)
More on Philip's Fast, Advent, and Fasting:
- Celebrate Advent . . . With a Fast!
- The Future of Advent
- Family Activities and Devotions for Celebrating Advent
- Fasting: A Powerful Spiritual Tool
- Abstinence as Spiritual Discipline
- What Are the Rules for Fasting and Abstinence in the Catholic Church?