Most people seem to find the Christmas fast difficult to maintain. Our society makes it almost impossible. In a world where Christmas lights go up the day after Hallowe’en, and Christmas trees are up long before the turkey has been digested, a period of denial and preparation is out of place. And then there are the endless rounds of Christmas parties with their tempting displays of meat dishes and rum-spiked egg nog. Who could be expected to fast in the midst of such temptations?

So, the Christmas fast goes largely unnoticed among our faithful, except for a mention or two in the weekly or monthly bulletin. But, the existence of the Fast is a constant reminder of a different world, where the joy and exuberance of our feasting is increased by a long preparation, a period of renunciation and prayer, an atmosphere of anticipation which then comes to its completion in the fulfillment of the feast.

I am often asked why certain foods (especially olive oil) are restricted or eliminated during a fast. Sometimes our faithful think this restriction is similar to the Jewish dietary laws, and will counter with a quotation from our Lord (for example, Mark 7:15): “What goes into you from outside cannot make you unclean. What makes you unclean is what comes from inside.” It is true that eating or not eating certain foods, such as meat or dairy products, does not make a person holy or unholy. But the choice of foods to avoid in fasting did not come from a theory of clean or unclean foods. Rather, there are two reasons for the selection. First, there is the simplification of diet and, presumably, of one’s life in general; not eating a lot, and not eating heavy foods helps to not weigh down the soul as well, giving us more time and more energy to pray and accomplish good works. The second is to remove animal products from our diet in order,  even in some small way, to imitate the “cuisine of Paradise” (in Paradise God commanded Adam to eat of the produce of the garden; this command was only altered after the Flood to include animals). By physically imitating the food of Paradise, the Church hopes to encourage us to imitate the whole life style of Paradise as well.

So, what should we do? How can we keep the Christmas fast while still living in the world? For one thing, we can consciously refuse to be sucked into the endless “Christmas celebrations” of the world, the hustle and bustle, the round of buying useless presents in order to maintain some sort of status, the total shift of emphasis from the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of self-sacrificial love, to the mystery of our own self-absorption and self-fulfillment.

If we find we cannot keep the complete 40 day fast, why not consciously choose to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, or at least Fridays. To make our fast complete and acceptable to God, we also need to use our fasting as a springboard to changing our life and the priorities of our life.

An important way of incorporating the fast into this transformation of life was already suggested in an early Christian book (perhaps from late 1st, early 2nd century) called The Shepherd of Hermas. In this book, Hermas has a series of visions; at one point “The Shepherd” (who represents the Church) explains to Hermas what true fasting consists of (3.3):

Having fulfilled what is written, in the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord.

The heavenly figure does not tell Hermas not to fast, but once he has fasted according to the regulations, he should figure out how much he saved on his simpler meal and put the money aside for the poor.

The children of our parish decorated “Lazaros boxes” for this purpose. Using Pringle snack size cans (with plastic lids), they put on icons of the Rich Man and Lazaros and of St. Basil, so that each family can put a can on their dinner table, and, as a family, to place the saved money aside to be given for our parish’s St. Basil’s Ministries.

It will take some courage and determination to stand up in the face of our society’s pre-Christmas Christmas celebration. But that is, after all, where virtue comes from! And by concentrating on fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, we will be making our way along the path toward union with God.