The Prayer Book tradition prescribes no particular Advent fast — that is, there is no prescription for Anglicans to engage in an extended period of fasting during the season of Advent. In this way, Advent is distinct from Lent — the 1662 and 1928 give the ‘Forty Days of Lent’ (in the 2019 Book of Common Prayer the ‘weekdays of Lent’) as days in which fasting is encouraged, but no mention is made of Advent as a season of fasting. This stands in contrast to some of the traditions of Eastern Christianity; in these churches, it is typical to keep a Nativity Fast in the season preceding Christmas.
But while no Advent fast is mandated or explicitly encouraged in any Anglican prayer book, there are fasts during Advent. It is an old Anglican tradition to abstain from meat on Fridays, and near the start of Advent we have the Ember Days. Thus, while there is no prolonged Advent fast to serve as a counterpart to the Lenten fast, there are plenty of opportunities and obligations to fast for the faithful Anglican.
But all of this raises a question: why fast during Advent? And perhaps the reader has a more general question: why fast? Fasting certainly has fallen out of favor in American Protestantism, and in some churches fasting is not practiced at all. While historically fasting was not in need of justification, in the present moment we need to make a positive case for fasting before we move on to arguing for fasting as fitting for a particular season.
Fasting is an essential Christian practice, and early Christians recognized this. When it is mentioned in the Gospels, fasting is not argued for; instead, it is simply presumed and regulated. The Didache — one of the earliest Christian catechisms — does not tell its readers why they should fast, but it does tell them how and when they should fast.
This tells us that early Christians fasted — but why did they? Given that the Didache instructs catechumens to fast before their baptism, and the Old Testament linking of fasting and penance, we can that fasting was primarily a penitential practice, though it does not follow that fasting is exclusively penitential. In ‘An Homily on Good Works: And First on Fasting’, we are taught that fasting has three ends: to chastise the flesh, to make the spirit more earnest and fervent in prayer, and to be a humble submission to God. These are primarily ascetical ends.
Thus we can say that fasting can and should be incorporated into a broader ascetical life. The ascetical life — that is, the life of self-denial — sustains a Christian as he attempts to grow in holiness and honor God. By denying our own impulses, urges, and desires, we master ourselves; we allow ourselves to better understand what it is to pray that ‘thy will be done.’ Asceticism reconfigures our desires away from ourselves and toward God.
The Anglican tradition prescribes fasting in Advent (insofar as it prescribes fasting on Fridays and the winter Ember Days), though it does not prescribe a special Advent fast. And as a classical Anglican, I am hesitant to suggest changes to this tradition. I do not propose an additional Advent fast. Instead, I wish to argue for a recommitment to the Anglican tradition and its schedule of fasting. We will find that even the comparatively light schedule of fasting in the Prayer Book is a radical proposal in the present moment.
Advent is a special season. On the first Sunday of Advent we celebrate a new year for the Church — but, in true Christian fashion, we begin our celebration with penance. As Fleming Rutledge so beautifully puts it, ‘Advent begins in the dark.’ Advent is a time in which we remember, almost painfully, that Jesus Christ is not here. We know that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we know that Christ the King will return in glory, but we now reside in the time between the Ascension and the Second Coming. Advent reminds us to look forward to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, but as we look forward we cannot help but think that we are alone. Advent truly does begin in the dark.
Unfortunately, the secular world shines a false light in this darkness. It is a false light because it obscures rather than truly illuminates. The secular world desires to celebrate Christmas earlier and earlier, and the mechanisms of our economic system mean that this desire will be fulfilled. But it is a hollow celebration. It is a holiday of consumption and commodities, not a true Christian feast. As we extend this false Christmas earlier and earlier into December and November, we ignore the season of Advent.
It is easier this way. It is easy to ignore the Advent season when the world will provide so many distractions, so many alternatives to penitence. But we cannot truly hope for the Resurrection and the Second Coming if we ignore the earthly realities of death and suffering. The false, secular celebrations of Christmas leave no room for the darkness of Advent.
So I propose we fast, and as Anglicans I say we fast exactly as our tradition has prescribed. By fasting, we conquer our desires. And it is these desires that the secular world wishes to exploit as Christmas celebrations are elongated and commodified. Fast on Fridays, observe the Ember Days, and dedicate yourself to prayer, study, and good works. Put the effort in. And when we celebrate the feast of the Nativity in late December, it will be a more glorious feast for the effort.