We fast before the Great Feast of the Nativity in order to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Our Lord’s birth. As in the case of Great Lent, the Nativity Fast is one of preparation, during which we focus on the coming of the Savior by fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.
By fasting, we “shift our focus” from ourselves to others, spending less time worrying about what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, and so on in order to use our time in increased prayer and caring for the poor. We learn through fasting that we can gain control over things which we sometimes allow to control us—and for many people, food is a controlling factor. We live in the only society in which an entire TV network is devoted to food! While fasting from food, however, we are also challenged to abstain from sin, from gossip, from jealousy, from anger, and from those other things which, while well within our control, we all too often allow to control us.
Just as we would refrain from eating a lot before going to an expensive restaurant for dinner—if we “ruin our appetite” we will enjoy the restaurant less—so too we fast before the Nativity in order to more fully feast and celebrate on the Nativity itself.
During the Nativity Fast, we are called upon to refrain from meat, dairy, fish, wine, and olive oil. There are exceptions to this rule; please consult your Church calendar. At the same time, we are challenged, within the given framework, to fast to the best of our ability, and to do so consistently. If we must modify the extent to which we fast within this framework, it is of course possible, but in every instance our fasting should be consistent and regular, for Christ does not present fasting as an option, but as a “must.” In Matthew Christ says, “WHEN you fast, do not be like the hypocrites,” not “IF you fast” or “IF YOU CHOOSE to fast.” It is simply part of the Orthodox Christian life!
Finally, however, it is important to remember that we do not fast in order to loose weight or to feel better physically (although these are very nice side-effects of our fasting). We fast for our own spiritual benefit, and for the sake of our inner life. If we decide not to participate in the fast, we are the ones that will miss out on the blessings that God has bestowed upon us. In the fast we empty ourselves, so that God’s grace will have a space in our hearts to heal and form us. Let us not reject this great gift and opportunity!