Anticipating Christ’s Birth through the Advent Fast

In my Eastern Orthodox church, it is a traditional practice to fast during Advent. I can’t think of anything better to underscore for my children the idea of anticipation, and waiting for the birth of Christ.

But by December 23, we are all getting kind of sick of it.

First, I should define a few terms here at the outset: “fasting” is a bit of a misnomer because it’s not so much that we are abstaining from eating at all, but abstaining from the rich animal foods that inspire gluttony.

But that still doesn’t mean that it is easy: Our Advent begins on November 15, and if we are doing the “full fast,” we abstain from meat and dairy (and sometimes even alcohol or olive oil)!

Right from the beginning, our family sets the atmosphere of anticipation that will be fulfilled on Christmas in the birth of Christ: the night before the Fast starts we usually have a meaty and rich meal, and we savor “saying goodbye” to foods we don’t plan to have until we eat it in the Nativity: Often, my husband will make steaks and pilaf, and on other occasions we’ve had full-meat lasagna.

The next day brings with it a stark contrast: No bacon with pancakes, even if it’s a weekend morning. And while it is easier than ever to find good vegan food in most places ever before, the realities of time and budget in our house mean that we eat a lot of black beans and rice, shrimp creole, and vegetable-tomato sauce over plain spaghetti.

The Spiritual Benefits of Fasting

The theological reasons behind the Fast are abundant: First, learning to exercise self control by not just eating what tastes good, or what we feel like at the moment, or whatever fast food happens to be on the side of the road wherever we’re driving. Practicing restraint in this way is good training in how to restrain ourselves in other, more dangerous indulgences, like unkind words and sinful actions. It’s supposed to go hand in hand with the worship life and Biblical study we are already doing.

In addition to helping us develop self control, it also gives us a potent opportunity to think about how we spend our money on food, and how we spend our money in general. It’s often suggested that one good reason to fast with simpler, and cheaper, food, is so that your family can channel extra money into almsgiving for the poor, AND to have more time as a family to pray.

That’s the rosy picture: I’ve been through more than my share of children balking at being served soybean patties, or not being taken to the Chick Fil-A drive-through. But I’ve also had my daughter specifically ask for black beans in her lunch instead of ravioli!

My church recognizes that everyone is not capable of doing everything, and that decisions about what families eat are affected by many factors. As such, we’re supposed to seek the guidance of our priests, wise older mothers, and the health requirements of our children. I relax the fast for my children at lunch—particularly since one child takes medication that can be appetite sapping. In addition, we’re to be guided by the laws of love and hospitality, so I don’t make a big deal if my husband “forgets” when he cooks, or if we are guests at someone else’s home and they bring out meatloaf.

And of course, there are lessons to be learned as well in not overdoing it: Being sick, traveling, and other kinds of circumstances of physical and mental stress all may be times when doing the Fast fully is not spiritually beneficial. There’s being faithful, but there are times when trying to fast strictly, and “perfectly,” can tip over in to just being prideful.

Today, all of us are anticipating my husband bringing the lamb to the table at dinner on Sunday—however successful our Fast has gone.

Putting it into Practice: This kind of fast is a practice that can be adapted for use with children in any Christian community. First, ask your pastor, talk to your husband and pray.

You can start by just saving the cost of meat for one dinner, and then perhaps asking your children where they might want to donate the money saved. You can also do an activity my boarding school used to do, an “Oxfam Dinner”: Each person pulls out of a hat a slip of paper showing him the kind of dinner he’s “entitled to,” which is based on the number of poor countries versus rich ones. For a family of five, three would sit on the floor eating beans and rice; one might have beans and rice and vegetables, and only one would get meat and cheese.

Most of all, think about this: What daily practices and habits are keeping you from celebrating Christ’s birth fully—and obeying Him with your life?

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