The “Winter Lent”: Advent in the Byzantine Rite

During Advent, we at USMC will be publishing articles that bring light to different facets of the season as it is celebrated on our campus. Today, Dr. Brian Butcher of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies reflects on the ways that Eastern Christians observe Advent.

This Forty Days’ Fast is similar to the fast of Moses, who fasted forty days and nights and received the table of God’s commandments. Let us also fast forty days and we too shall receive the living Word of God incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and partake of His Precious Body.

St. Symeon of Thessalonika (d. 1429)

Advent is one of four fasting seasons in the Byzantine Rite, as it is also in almost all the other Eastern Christian traditions (including the Coptic, Ethiopic, West Syriac and Armenian), although the exact duration of the Fast varies across the Churches. In the Eastern Orthodox and Greco-Catholic Churches that follow the Byzantine Rite—such as my own Ukrainian Catholic Church—the period of preparation for Christmas (traditionally termed “The Nativity According to the Flesh of Our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ”) lasts forty days. Hence it is sometimes called the “Winter Lent” before the “Winter Pascha”—if not by those living in the Southern Hemisphere! Beginning the day after the Feast of St. Philip, Nov. 14, it is also referred to as “St. Philip’s Fast” (Pilipivka).

Unlike the Latin West, where the season has enjoyed a rich liturgical development in terms of the Propers (readings, chants, prayers) for the Mass and the Divine Office, as well as varied expressions of popular piety such as the Advent wreath and the crèche, the Byzantine East’s Nativity Fast is a somewhat sober affair. The faithful are invited to abstain from meat and dairy products for the duration of the season, as is the custom for Great Lent—although in practice the Nativity Fast is observed with lesser rigour. Dark vestments are worn as a sign of penance, even if there are hints here and there, especially in the season’s Sunday services, of the Feast in which the Fast will be fulfilled. As one of the recurring hymns appointed for Matins declares:

A strange and most wonderful mystery do I see:

The cave is heaven; the Virgin the throne of the cherubim;

The manger a room, in which Christ, the God whom nothing can contain, is laid.

Many people will take the opportunity to give alms or engage in other corporal works of mercy, as well as to go to Confession—to “clean out the manger of the soul, and line it with fresh hay,” as one of my favourite priests vividly puts it. The Byzantine tradition recommends celebrating the “Mystery of Repentance” at least four times a year, during the fasting seasons (which also include the Apostles’ Fast, falling between the end of the Pentecost Octave, and the Feast of Ss. Peter & Paul on June 29; as well as the Dormition Fast, two weeks before Aug. 15). One may, of course, do so more often, as necessary!

In times past, Advent served to prepare candidates for Baptism, in turn celebrated on Theophany/Epiphany (Jan. 6)—the original occasion in the East to commemorate the Lord’s “manifestation” in both Bethlehem and the Jordan. Fasting, and indeed Confession, would therefore express a kind of solidarity with those readying themselves for reception into the Church. More basically, however, there abides in the liturgical piety of Eastern Christians a deep sense that a fast must precede every great feast, for the latter to truly be experienced as such. Thus, contrary to the contemporary Canadian trend of singing carols and hosting Christmas parties before Dec. 25, a trend which vitiates the traditional splendour of the once-beloved “Twelve Days of Christmas,” observant Eastern Christians will still reserve their festal joy for Christmas itself—celebrated, however, for a full forty days, until the Feast of the Encounter (Candlemas, Feb. 2). If there is no feast without a fast, the obverse is (thankfully!) also true.

In sum, the Byzantine Churches exhort their people to watch for the Giver and be ready to receive His gift—which is, of course, Himself. The saying is no less true for being bandied about: “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season.” As another Byzantine hymn extols:

Bethlehem, make ready for Eden has been opened for all.

Ephrata, be alert for the Tree of Life has blossomed forth from the Virgin in the cave.

Her womb had become a spiritual Paradise, wherein the divine Fruit was planted – and if we eat of it we shall live and not die like Adam.

Christ is coming forth to bring back to life the likeness that had been lost in the beginning.