The Advent Fast
So here we are in the final days of Advent, and preparing for the Nativity of Christ has me doing two rather incongrous activities.
On the one hand, our kitchen is a flurry of activity. I took a vacation day on Tuesday to bake cookies, and my wife has been cooking each night as well. (Today she'll help host a party for the patrons at the library where she works, for which the many homeless who patronize the library each day are especially happy.) And tonight, we'll be in full gear, baking pies, making dough for the Maple Butter Twists, and generally making a huge mess with flour, sugar, butter galore.
And on the other hand, it's my 21st day of fasting and abstinence. And yes, it can be hard fasting while cooking for everyone else.
A basic rhythym of Christian life has, since Apostolic times, to fast in preparation for feast days. Eventually, this was codified in the two Great Fasts that were shared by both East and West, Advent and Lent. In addition to these, the West added the fasts of the 4 sets of Ember Days and the East added the fasts of the Apostles and the fast of the Dormition. And of course, the weekly fasts of Wednesday and Friday.
In the West, the Fasts were gradually reduced, until only Lent and the Ember Days and Friday abstinence were left. And in the Catholic Church, only the Lenten abstinence on Fridays and the Fast Days of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are left as required days. (See here and here.)
(Well, yes, there is still a requirement in canon law for absitinence on all Fridays, Solemnities excuded, but in the U.S., this is mitigated by the option to perform some other penitential work. The canon is then mitigated, de facto if not de jure, by the almost universal absence of its existence in preaching and teaching by the clergy.)
However, the Eastern Church continues the weekly fast days of Wednesday and Friday, and a much more rigorous fast during the four periods of fasting mentioned above. I've always thought that fasting was an important element in Christian life, so for the past few years I've decided to adopt as much as possible the Eastern fasting customs, while keeping to the Western calendar. As the canons of the Eastern Church see fasting as an important part of Christian life, yet impose these practices without pain of sin, it seemed perfectly appropriate to adopt these.
So during Advent, on Monday through Saturday, I've been limiting myself to one meal, observing abstinence from meat, dairy, eggs and fish. The canons also call for abstinence from wine, but as I drink so infrequently, I've substituted coffee as the proscribed drink. On Sundays there is neither fasting (except for the communion fast) nor abstinence. I did make a small exception on St. Andrew's Day, and we had fish...it seemed wholly appropriate. And of course, we didn't abstain on the Solemnity of Mary's Immaculate Conception. Feast days need to be adorned with feasting! As it is written in the book of Nehemiah "Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (Neh 8:10)
And, bowing to the necessary social formalities, I didn't abstain during our office Christmas party yesterday afternoon.
But for the rest of the season, my diet has been mostly evening meals of soups, bread, hoummus, and fruit.
One friend commented to me (in a phrase I've heard many times over the years): Advent is not supposed to be penetential like Lent, it's supposed to be a season of preparation and expectation. Well, yes, but honestly, how is one to prepare themselves for the Festival? Prayer and increased attendance at the Liturgy of the Church is important, but as fasting and almsgiving are the wings of prayer, do we really want to clip our prayer's wings by insisting on a fairly recent (to my mind) distinction between penance and preparation? I don't think so, and it seems that the Tradition of the Church is where I've derived this sensibility.
It's good to remember that Christmas Eve was, up until very recently, a serious day of abstinence in the Western Church, even where the Advent fast had fallen into abeyance. That's why an important part of one of my coworker's Christmas Eve dinner will be bacalao (cod fritters), a traditional Italian Christmas Eve dish, and why the Polish Vigilia is a meatless feast.
Wishing you all a happy conclusion to Advent!