The month that leads to the holiday of Christmas has become the most beloved period of the year in the west. It is a time of socializing, holiday-themed entertainment, and feasting.
In fact, the period has become so intense that many become quite weary of it by the time the actual day of Christ’s birth arrives. Some people reach December 25 feeling stressed out by holiday activities, annoyed by the monotony of holiday music, and bloated by weeks of excessive eating. On December 26, the ultimate symbol of Christmas festivity, the Christmas tree, is tossed into the garbage and life returns to its normal, non-festal mode.
This is not how Christmas was celebrated historically. The weeks leading to the holiday were kept as a period of penitential abstinence and expectation, of waiting. And this meant fasting. This practice, largely ignored by most of modern Christendom, was the means toward the fullest and most joyful celebration of Christ’s birth. The adage even arose that in order to feast, one must learn first how to fast.
Fasting has been seen through the lens of modern psychology as a denial of the body, an effort to escape from this world to experience a purely spiritual level of religious piety. It has been seen as a kind of struggle against the body. And for many people it no doubt has had these characteristics.
This is not what it meant for Christians in early times, however. According to traditional Christianity, it was not a struggle against the body, it was a struggle for the body. God made the human body along with the human soul, and both were “good.” Fasting was a struggle to purify the body and focus it, along with the soul, on the real source of human life, which is not to be found in chocolate balls and eggnog. It is to be found in the God who has become human in order that humanity might become godlike.
At the center of traditional Christian cosmology is the doctrine of the incarnation. Since the human being in made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), the fullness of human life is to be found in the experience of God’s life, his divinity. Through the incarnation, God made this fulfillment of human nature possible. And as a result, the entire cosmos has been transformed. Because of Christ’s birth, the world is now united to God through the agency of mankind, whom early Christian theologians liked to call the microcosmos.
But this unspeakable glory requires work, hard work.
God himself worked by first creating the cosmos with man as his image within it, and then, through his only-begotten Son, by assimilating our humanity to himself by being born of a human being (the Virgin Mary) and redeeming humanity by going to his death and resurrection. It was because of the incarnation that God could re-create the cosmos.
And if God worked, so must the human race. As Saint Paul noted in one of his epistles, through baptism into Christ humans have become “co-workers” with God, though only by the grace of God and in response to his initiative.
By preparing to celebrate the incarnation, then, Christians historically applied this biblical principle of cooperation with God.
The goal of fasting was not to reject good things such as food, but to abstain temporarily from them in order to stir up within themselves a desire for that which was better, hunger for communion with God. In the east, nothing short of forty days of fasting was undertaken (and still is in the Orthodox Church). This was, after all, the biblical example of Jesus himself in the wilderness. In the west, fasting was also the rule historically, though in modern times that has gradually been abandoned.
This last development is a pity, but may help explain why in our times the celebration of Christmas has often been obscured and even lost amid the parties and pleasures that precede it for weeks. The carol The Twelve Days of Christmas is a reminder that December 25 is the beginning, and only the beginning, of the celebration.
If one really prepares for that celebration, one might have a good reason to keep the Christmas tree until December 26, and beyond.
Image Credit: National Catholic Register