On November 15, we began the Nativity Fast, and unfortunately, most of our bishops/priests don’t really give clear direction in how to undertake this fast. This seems to be the case during every fast because our church doesn’t mandate anything other than abstaining from meat on Friday and holding to a strict fast on Christmas Eve. So for most of us, we know that the Nativity Fast is supposed to be less strict when compared to Great Lent, but the rules for Great Lent aren’t particularly strict either, as the rule for Lent is no meat on Wednesday and Friday. So to make it “less strict” would be to mandate what we are supposed to be doing during every week of the year (minus 4 fast free weeks).
The reason being, the dietary component of fasting is really not what is important. The dietary restrictions due aid in struggling against sin, but remember that fasting has to be undertaken in context with Isaiah 58.
6“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am.”
Essentially, the call is to live a more blameless life and to care for our brethren. St. John Chrysostom explains that the abstinence from certain materials is not what makes the fast but rather how we treat each other by abstaining from sin.
“Are you fasting? Show me your fast with your works. Which works? If you see someone who is poor, show him mercy. If you see an enemy, reconcile with him. If you see a friend who is becoming successful, do not be jealous of him! If you see a beautiful woman on the street, pass her by.
In other words, not only should the mouth fast, but the eyes and the legs and the arms and all the other parts of the body should fast as well. Let the hands fast, remaining clean from stealing and greediness. Let the legs fast, avoiding roads which lead to sinful sights. Let the eyes fast by not fixing themselves on beautiful faces and by not observing the beauty of others. You are not eating meat, are you? You should not eat debauchery with your eyes as well. Let your hearing also fast. The fast of hearing is not to accept bad talk against others and sly defamations.
Let the mouth fast from disgraceful and abusive words, because, what gain is there when, on the one hand we avoid eating chicken and fish and, on the other, we chew-up and consume our brothers? He who condemns and blasphemes is as if he has eaten brotherly meat, as if he has bitten into the flesh of his fellow man. It is because of this that Paul frightened us, saying: “If you chew up and consume one another be careful that you do not annihilate yourselves.”
You did not thrust your teeth into the flesh (of your neighbor) but you thrusted bad talk in his soul; you wounded it by spreading disfame, causing unestimatable damage both to yourself, to him, and to many others.”
+ St. John Chrysostom
This is all stuff that we are supposed to be doing anyways. A similar example is in our liturgy. Time after time, the Deacon (or priest, in the absence of a deacon) will say “Wisdom! Let us be attentive!” I’ve seen other translations that say “Let us attend” or “Stand aright,” which the closest parallel I can draw is to that of our military when the command “Attention!” is given. To be at “attention” means that the soldier is required to stand upright, and their body is able to perform any military command given from that position. When the soldier is in a “resting” position, he has to be called back to “attention” before he can proceed.
However, in our liturgy, we are always spiritually at “attention,” and we are standing for most of the liturgy. It would seem that these calls to be attentive – for us to pay attention with our minds and our hearts – are rather redundant, since we were doing that anyways. Yet, in our human condition, we tend to distract easily. We have to be reminded to put away the old man and put on the new through these fasts, rather frequently. In fact, I think we spend more time fasting than not in our church. This behavior is how we ought to act at all times, but we draw attention to it, since when we aren’t fasting, our discipline tends to slip.
Fasting is only a tool for reaching heavenly perfection, after all. If all you do is focus on the dietary requirements and do not fast spiritually, nothing will avail you. However, even if you were to eat meat every day, yet you abide by Isaiah 58 and by the words of St. John Chrysostom, you have kept the fast.