What Is Philip's Fast?

Learn About the Nativity Fast in the Eastern Church

For Catholics of the Roman Rite, Advent, the period of preparation for Christmas, begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. In most years, that means it starts just three days after Thanksgiving in the United States. (For more on how the date is determined, see When Does Advent Start?)

That may help explain why, over the years, Advent has become less a period of preparation for the birth of Christ than a pre-celebration of the Christmas season.

Most Christmas parties today are held during Advent, rather than during the 12 days of Christmas (the period between Christmas Day and Epiphany). Combine all that with the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping, early gift exchanges, the baking of Christmas cookies, and plenty of eggnog, and too often we may find ourselves on Christmas Day physically prepared but not spiritually so.

Philip's Fast: A Time of Repentance

Yet Advent is called a "little Lent," because, like Lent, it is a time of repentance. Both the Western and Eastern Churches used to observe Advent with the traditional Lenten practices: fasting and abstinence, prayer, and almsgiving. While fasting during Advent has fallen by the wayside in the West, the Eastern Orthodox and the Eastern Catholic Churches continue to observe an Advent fast: Philip's Fast, named after the Apostle Philip, because it begins on November 15, the day after his feast day (November 14, in the Eastern calendar).

It runs through Christmas Eve, December 24—a period of 40 days, mirroring Lent.

Like most fasts in the Eastern Church, Philip's Fast is fairly strict and includes abstinence from meat, eggs, and dairy products on all weekdays, and fish, oil, and wine on most days. On Sundays and certain feast days, fish, oil, and wine are allowed; different Eastern Churches observe the fast more or less strictly.

(Because extreme fasting can affect your health, you should never increase the strictness of a fast beyond what your particular Church prescribes without consulting with your priest.)

Learning From Our Eastern Brethren

While Roman Rite Catholics are no longer bound to fast during Advent, reviving the tradition of repentance during this season can help us better appreciate our Christmas celebration. Pope John Paul II called on Western Catholics to learn more about the traditions of our Eastern brethren, and we can observe Philip's Fast in our own way, by doing the same sorts of things we do during Lent—abstaining from meat (especially on Fridays), not eating between meals, restricting the amount of food that we eat. Combining these practices with almsgiving (this time of year is particularly hard for the poor) and efforts to increase our prayer (and perhaps to spend a bit of time in front of the Blessed Sacrament or to attend weekday Mass when we can), and we can begin to return Advent to its proper role as a season of preparation.

And when Christmas Day finally arrives, we may find that our fast has increased the joy of our feast.