As Americans approach the Thanksgiving holiday, many Orthodox Christians openly or secretly grumble about how the Nativity (a.k.a. Christmas/Advent) fast interferes with their holiday eating plans. So let’s take a moment to understand why and how we (should) fast before celebrating the incarnation of our divine Lord, taking flesh and living among us.
How many days do we fast before Christmas?
- (and if you are Coptic Orthodox, add an additional 3 days [reason explained below])
Spiritual basis for length of fast
The Coptic Church as well as the Eastern Orthodox agree regarding the spiritual basis for the length of the fast.
We understand Christ to be the Word of God.
Who fasted 40 days in the Old Testament before he received the literal words of God? Written on two stone tablets? That’s right: Moses. (And he didn’t just do that once, but twice! He broke the tablets the first time after seeing the Israelites having forsaken God and worshipping idols—see Exodus 24:18; 34:28–29; Deuteronomy 10:10.)
So we too fast 40 days in anticipation of receiving the Word of God incarnate, taking flesh and being born in a manger.
See what St. Symeon of Thessaloniki (known and canonized by the Eastern Orthodox) (c. AD 1381–1429) writes:
The Nativity Forty-day Fast represents the fast undertaken by Moses, who—having fasted for forty days and forty nights—received the Commandments of God, written on stone tablets. And we, fasting for forty days, will reflect upon and receive from the Virgin the living Word—not written upon stone, but born, incarnate—and we will commune of His Divine Body.
Nativity fast history and rules
When did this fast begin?
Many people romanticize Orthodox Christianity and its rites and rituals to the extent of ignorantly convincing themselves that mostly everything we have today was as it was since the time of the apostles. Not true. That doesn’t dilute our Orthodox faith, but if anything it should give us more confidence in it as the Church has developed its rites over time to deepen the spirituality of all.
For the Eastern Orthodox, it appears that local regions developed different observance periods at least as early as the fourth century. Most point to the year 1166 as the official (Eastern Orthodox) Church-wide establishment (by a synod of bishops at Constantinople) of the Nativity fast for 40 days prior to the annual celebration of feast of Christ’s incarnation.
What about the Coptic Church? Originally, many early Christians, including the Copts, used to celebrate the Nativity and Epiphany together on one day. Fr. Shenouda Maher Ishak, a modern-day theologian in the Coptic Church who was delegated by the late Pope Shenouda III to be involved in interdenominational Christian dialogue between churches, wrote (before becoming a priest, when he was only a deacon) that presently the Armenians maintain this practice. “This is not an irregularity but a preservation of the oldest structure of the feast of Epiphany.” It appears that the famed Pope Athanasius, the 20th Patriarch of Alexandria, separated the celebration of Christmas and Epiphany some time during his papacy (c. AD 328–373).
The Coptic Church maintains in its historical documents that the official institution of the Nativity fast was about 100 years earlier than the Eastern Orthodox synod decision in 1166. Pope Christodoulos (patriarch of Alexandria between AD 1047–1077) established a canon (referred to as Canon 15) where he gave the following instructions: “Likewise the fast of the holy Nativity shall be from the feast of St. Mina [15th of the Coptic Month of Hatour corresponding to roughly November 25 or 26] to the twenty-ninth of Kiahk” (Nativity day corresponding to January 7th or 8th) (non-inclusive).
Later we find the Coptic historian Ibn Sibaa mentioning the same, and his contemporary, the Coptic historian Safawy Ibn Al-Assal, further indicates that this fast was treated with the same stringency as the fast of Wednesdays and Fridays (abstaining from all food until the ninth hour [3 pm], and afterward eating while refraining from all meat or animal by-products [this means that, unlike today in the Coptic Church, seafood was not originally allowed for this fast; it was not allowed for the Apostles fast either]).
Note that the Eastern Orthodox often refer to this fast as “Philip’s Fast” as it begins on the day after the feast of St. Philip (commemorating his martyrdom). The Coptic Church commemorates St. Philip’s martyrdom on the same relative date. (Because of our roughly 13-day difference due to our use of the ancient Coptic calendar, St. Philip’s feast and also the beginning of the last 40 days of our fast happen usually 13 days after the Eastern Orthodox [unless they are using the Old Julian Calendar, rather than the New Revised Julian Calendar].)
For Copts, because of the additional 3 days of fasting, it has been our custom to mark our fast by the celebration of the feast of St. Mina (or Menas) the Wonder-worker (commemorating his martyrdom) as Pope Christodoulos did in his canon, followed the next day by the beginning of the 43 days of fasting; so just as this fast corresponds with St. Philip’s martyrdom in the Eastern Church, for the Copts we are more inclined to correspond it with St. Mina.
Why the additional 3 days in the Coptic Church rite?
Most people interpret the additional three days to be a commemoration of the miraculous event of moving the Muqattam mountain during the patriarchate of Pope Abraam (AD 975–978) in response to the challenge by the Fatimid Caliph to prove the truth of Christ’s famous saying that if one has faith of a mustard seed they can move mountains (Matthew 17:20). It is said that Pope Gabriel the 8th, the 97th Patriarch of Alexandria, situated the fast in this way in 1602, adding three days to the Nativity fast to commemorate this miracle, lengthening the fast from 40 to 43 days.
Fr. Shenouda Maher Ishak doubts this interpretation, for the following reasons:
“Although this story [of the moving of the mountain] is documented, the attribution of the three days’ fast in commemoration of the miracle is not. This interpretation is not mentioned by Christodoulos who instituted the fast in the present form [all 43 days], nor by [the historian] ibn al Assal (the cannons Ch. 15), nor by [the historian] ibn Kabar (the lamp Ch. 18).”
According to Fr. Shenouda, the three days added to the Nativity fast were originally part of a special Coptic rite of celebration referred to by the Greek word Paramon, which is a specially reserved fast prior to both the Nativity as well as Epiphany feasts. The rite teaches the following: on the day before either feast, the people are to fast with strict abstinence. If the feast, however, falls on a Sunday or Monday, whereby strict abstinence is forbidden on the day prior to either of those days (Saturday and Sunday), then the Paramon period is extended to three days, whereby Friday is fasted strictly, followed by one or two days of fasting less stringently (i.e., eating food while excluding meat or animal by-products without a period of abstinence before breaking one’s fast).
Now pay close attention to this. By deductive reasoning one may find the following as the earliest rite of fasting for Nativity in the Coptic Church. It seems that when we were celebrating one joint feast (Nativity and Epiphany), at some point the church determined that it would be proper to fast one day before the day of the feast. In the early church, fasting on Saturdays and Sundays, in any way, was forbidden. So, the Paramon was established, to preserve just one day of strict fasting in advance of the upcoming feast, to give it due reverence. Later, when fasting without abstinence on Saturdays and Sundays became acceptable, the fast was seen as being up to three days long. When Pope Christodoulos set to officially institute the longer Nativity fast that we currently practice, he preserved the maximum three-day Paramon of the feast, appending it to the 40 days of the fast. Notice that ever since the Epiphany feast was separated from the Nativity feast, we have continued to maintain the practice of the Paramon to give due reverence to this feast. No other feasts have a “Paramon” rite associated with them, so it makes sense that they were truly one feast with this rite, and when later separated each bore their own Paramon fast.
Wow. And all this time I’ve been teaching that the 3 days were added because of the Muqattam mountain miracle. I’m officially changing what I teach on this subject!
FOR MORE READING, see this FAQ by Pope Shenouda on the Nativity: “Some Questions About the Feast of the Nativity,” by His Holiness, the late Pope Shenouda III, 117th Patriarch of Alexandria
SOURCES FOR THIS POST:
Emile Maher Ishak, “Liturgical and Ritual Issues and Proposals Concerning The Restoraction of Communion” submitted to The Joint Liturgical Sub-committee between the Oriental Orthodox and the Byzantine Orthodox Churches, published in 1995.
Gawdat Gabra, “The A to Z of the Coptic Church.”
Fr. Shenouda Maher – Document in my possession attributed to him which details the meaning and history of the fast of Nativity. [Updated 12/16/2014 – Download article here]