For many of us, the holiday season is a mad rush of conspicuous consumption. We feast on eggnog and and other rich foods, and then we crash. The average American adult gains more than a pound a year, much of it during these last six festive weeks.
Early Christians didn’t approach Christmas this way. Instead of feasting before the Nativity, they fasted.
Eastern Orthodox Christians still fast for six weeks before the birth of Jesus. And fasting is recommended by a host of faiths, who tout its spiritual benefits, from self-mastery to equanimity. The early church father St. Basil called fasting a “safeguard for the soul” and said it “gives birth to prophets.” Jesus began his earthly ministry with fasting, and expected followers to fast as well.
But like other spiritual disciplines – meditation, for example – fasting’s religious roots were stripped away as it became a “productivity hack” among the Silicon Valley and celebrity set.
This Advent, some Christians are trying to reclaim fasting, arguing that abstaining from certain foods at certain times can be good for our bodies and souls. Among them is Jay Richards, an assistant research professor at Catholic University, a lay member of the Dominican order and author of the forthcoming book “Eat, Fast, Feast: A Christian Guide to Intermittent Fasting.”
“My main interest is in trying to recover a lost spiritual discipline,” Richards said in a recent interview. “It was a huge part of Advent, but it died out.”
Fasting is also an act of rebellion against the relentless consumerism of Christmas, say Richards and Christians.
“I don’t want to be a killjoy,” Richards said with a laugh, “but it is very difficult to tell people not to eat and be so consumptive between Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
The origins of religious fasting
The Catholic Church instituted Advent around 550 AD as a preparatory season for Christmas, said Timothy O’Malley, a historian and theologian at the University of Notre Dame. The dates of Advent have changed over the years. At one time, it began on November 11; now it begins four Sundays before Christmas.
Fasting during Advent was a bit more lax than Lent, the period that precedes Easter. But Christians were still expected to abstain from meats, dairies and sweets on certain days.
Christians used to fast much more often, O’Malley said. For many, Wednesday, Fridays and sometimes Saturdays were fast days. Christians also fasted on “ember days” when the seasons changed.
After the Reformation, Protestants discarded some Catholic traditions, including fasting, apparently.
But Catholics, too, largely stopped fasting after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which swept away many ancient requirements of Catholics in the face of modern reforms.
Another reason fasting fell away in our era: It’s hard. Our bodies, accustomed to endless supplies of sugars and carbs, expect to be fed every couple of hours, and the idea of sacrificing our happiness for spiritual goals – always a tough sell – has become even more so, said Richards.
But now some Christians say fasting is experiencing a renaissance among young believers, even as it takes on new meanings like “fasting” from social media or the internet.
“At a time of infinitely frenetic activity and consumption, there’s a desire for more simplicity,” O’Malley said.
Richards said he’s noticed similar spiritual hankerings among his students at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
“They have an intuitive sense that something is wrong in the church and in society, and they are looking for ways to renew them,” he said. “And, as they look around they see the one spiritual practice that has been totally abandoned.”
Fasting can take many forms
Fasting hasn’t been totally abandoned by contemporary American Christians.
At St. Anthony Orthodox Church in Butler, Pennsylvania, much of the congregation is participating in some way in the Nativity Fast, said the Rev. Bogdan Bucur, the parish priest.
The fast, which began on November 15, requires most of the congregation – except for the young, the old and pregnant women – to basically become vegan during the week: no meat or dairy, with fish allowed on the weekends.
Bucur explained that fasting is a means, not an end.
Most Christians don’t believe the small sacrifices of fasting please God or ease the way to heaven. Rather, fasting is a way to prepare for Christmas, Bucur said. He compared it to cleaning your house before a guest arrives.
And all fasts don’t involve food. At the Ferrysburg Community Church in Spring Lake, Michigan, Pastor Nate Visker has committed to a different kind of fast: from the news.
When a reporter from CNN phoned to ask Visker about his fast, he thought it might be a prank call.
Visker, who has been pastor of the Reformed congregation near the shores of Lake Michigan since 2004, said he almost consumes the news on autopilot: Google News app. Click. News alert. Click. Local headlines. Click.
“When I started thinking about the most distracting things, the things that caused me to lose perspective and my emotions to jump up and down, it was the news,” Visker said. “I used to have a certain amount of inner peace. The news cycle has stolen that peace from me.”
Meeting one’s spiritual needs
Richards and other hardcore fasters don’t like stretching the word’s definition to mean abstaining from things besides food.
But Visker, 45, said his fast is every bit a spiritual discipline.
For pastors, the pressures of Christmastime can be a challenge. There’s the church to decorate, the children’s choir to rehearse, the sermon to write, the widows and elderly to visit. In helping his congregation spiritually prep for Christmas, Visker said, he sometimes loses sight of his own spiritual needs.
“I thought, this is something I can do to have a little Christmas for myself.”
The pastor said he’s not telling Christians to toss their televisions. Following the news, whether it be the President Trump impeachment battle or international affairs, is a civic duty, Visker said.
“I think it’s important to be active and engaged in our world,” the pastor said. “But anything we can do to simplify our lives and notch out space for reflection around this time of year will be a gift we give ourselves.”
For Visker, his fast includes this article, which means he likely won’t read it.
At least, not until December 26.