My friend, Michelle, writes today’s blog. Michelle and I met at Camp Transfiguration when we were kids but lost touch over the years. Our paths, however, crossed this summer when we went to Project Mexico together. There we reconnected and shared many conversations (and debates!) on Orthodox hot topics.
Michelle is a student of theology at both St Paul University and the Antiochian House of Studies. As an active member of the Orthodox Church, she tries to connect what she’s learning to everyday life. She enjoys working with the youth at her church and continuously seeks to learn more about her faith.
So, with the Nativity Fast beginning this Tuesday, November 15th I’ve asked her to write a post on the correlation between the Christian feast and the astronomical phenomenon, a subject I am very interested in. Take it away, Micha!
Fasting, the tradition
Fasting is an important concept in the Orthodox Church. The tradition can be traced all the way back to the very first Christians. In fact, the practice of fasting is Judaic at its core; in the Old Testament, Jews fasted on certain days and also abstained from certain foods.
What is the purpose of fasting?
Contrary to what many think fasting is not about giving things up nor really about sacrifice. The purpose of fasting is to learn how to discipline ourselves and gain control over things we often allow to control us. By doing so we free ourselves from depending on worldly things and in turn allow ourselves to focus on the heavenly things, the Kingdom of God. Fasting also goes hand-in-hand with prayer and almsgiving. As a general rule, fasting precedes a religious feast — just as we now find in Christianity.
If you count all the fasting periods and days prescribed by the Church (including Wednesdays and Fridays), Orthodox Christians fast for more than half of the year. These fasting periods are spread out throughout the year and seasons, usually preceding a major or minor feast. The Nativity Fast is one of the four Canonical Fasting Seasons in the Church year. The other three are Great Lent (before Pascha), the Apostles’ Fast (before the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul), and finally the Dormition Fast (before the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos).
In reality, these fasts were not pre-determined by the Church, but developed gradually until they became officially recognized.
After reading some of these early texts, I realized that we actually take the Church calendar and traditions for granted. The early Christians had to go through a process to get to the customs we have today.
Unlike the Lenten Fast, which was quickly regulated by the Church in terms of its severity and duration, it was not until 1166 that a church council meeting in Constantinople fixed the length of the fast at forty days for the Nativity’s fast.
Feast of the Nativity
Beginning on November 15th and ending on December 25th, the Fast of the Nativity is the last fasting period of the (secular) year. Being at the end of the year, the Nativity Fast can serve to refresh the last part of the year as we renew our spiritual unity with God and prepare ourselves for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ.
However, according to the Ecclesiastical calendar, the Nativity Fast (and subsequently the Feast) is the first fasting period of the year. By marking the start of the New Year in September, the Empire — and later, the Orthodox Church — associated the New Year with the harvesting of the crops.
It was recognized as a time of preparation for winter, as well as the upcoming year. For Christians, it was also a time of thanksgiving. We took this time to remember the good weather and abundant rain the Lord had provided for that year’s harvest. This is something we pray for at every Divine Liturgy.
What is the significance of December 25th?
While the fast wasn’t fixed until the beginning of the 12th century, the first evidence of Christians celebrating December 25th as the date of the Lord’s Nativity comes from Rome in 336 A.D.
We know for a fact that Jesus wasn’t born in the winter because St. Luke mentions in his Gospel that the shepherds were staying out in the pastureland with their flocks, an event that certainly does not take place during the cold months.
However, there is a link between the pagan feast of the Sol Invictus (the Unconquerable Sun) and the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ, the “Sun of Justice,” since they share the same date. Emperor Aurelian instituted the pagan feast in the year 274.
For the longest time, I’ve always thought that Christians chose to celebrate on December 25th because of the pagan feast, until I recently learned that it was, in fact, the opposite. Aurelian purposely chose this date in an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already important to Christians, even though they weren’t celebrating it liturgically yet.
This was, however, not his only motive.
The shortest day of the year occurs at the end of December when there are more hours of darkness than daylight. After that day, the hours of daylight become gradually longer. Therefore the Roman Emperor hoped that the conception of this new feast on December 25th would become a symbol of perpetual rejuvenation of his Empire, resulting from the maintenance of the worship of the gods, which they believed brought them prosperity. (You can read more about it here.)
The important thing to note is that the Church ended up “baptizing” the pagan feast dedicated to the Sun for the occasion of the birth of Christ, who is the True unconquered “Sun.” This fact is revealed in the hymns of both Christmas and Epiphany (which used to be celebrated as one feast).
For example, in the Troparian of the Nativity, Christ is described as the “Sun” of Righteousness, who illumines those who worshipped stars. We also hear about how Jesus has come as the dawning from the East, as the sun does.
The Matins Exapostilarion hymn alludes to this very poetically:
A newly risen day; our Savior as the Dayspring from the East; as well as, how those who were in darkness and shadow found the Light.
The timing of the feast around the winter solstice is not accidental, and today, it is still an important event for Christians. Just as we experience the longest period of darkness of the year, we Christians also celebrate the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the True Light who came to give light to the world (see the Gospel of John).
There is a strong correlation between the Christian feast and the astronomical phenomenon. In preparation for this Feast we are reminded that although there is darkness in the world, even at the darkest hours, we have Christ, our True Light.
Thus the Nativity Fast, according to St. Leo the Great, Pope of Rome (440-461), is a sacrifice to God in return for the gathered harvest. The Holy Hierarch stated, “Just as the Lord has generously granted us an abundance of the fruits of the earth, so should we, during the time of this Fast, be generous to the poor.”
Thanks, Micha! Wishing you all blessed Nativity Fast!