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How the Nativity Fast helped my journey back to the Church

The middle panel of the Portinari Tryptich by Hugo van der Goes (Wikimedia)

The Byzantine Rite fast seemed daunting, but it helped me fully re-enter the life of the Church

Two months ago I wrote in these pages of embarking on the 40-day Nativity Fast of the Byzantine Rite. This was partly a spiritual preparation for Christmas, in reaction to the secularisation of the Advent season (as well as the watering-down of its penitential character in the Latin Rite), and partly as an exploration of the Rite of my grandparents ahead of my marriage in London’s Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral in June. What I didn’t realise at the time was how powerful a seal it would be on my two-year journey back to the Church. For this reason I can highly recommend it to all practising Catholics.

First of all, a brief overview of the fast. In Latin terminology, it would be properly considered abstinence, but the Byzantine Rite makes no distinction between the two. The base rules are no meat, meat products, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, oil, or wine (which I interpreted as alcohol). This is exempting Tuesdays and Thursdays, when oil and wine are allowed, and weekends when fish is also permitted. Christmas Eve is a full fast in which no solids are eaten, much like Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

The first thing I would say is that this is not as difficult as it sounds. Yes, I was hungry more often (and lost at least half a stone in weight), and this self-denial is intended to emphasise one’s ultimate dependence on God. But its main purpose is to make meals simpler and easier to prepare so one has more time for prayer and scriptural/devotional reading. I typically steamed vegetables with some sort of grain or pasta accompaniment followed by a small quantity of nuts, figs, and 90% dark chocolate. It did indeed shave a great deal of time off my evenings, allowing me to attend Mass at the Brompton Oratory most days after work, where I also bought a copy of the Catechism for £5.

These 40 days formed the greatest amount of time in a given period I had ever spent with Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, as well as the most I had read about the basic tenets of my faith. The combination of the two brought my life sharply into focus and arguably nurtured the greatest ‘growth spurt’ in my faith in two years. (For context, I had been estranged from the Church for some 15 years, making a tentative return just after Christmas 2016 after a growing itch in my heart and grew steadily in faith). But, as my fast wore on, I felt what I can only describe as a growing sense of urgency to do something I had been putting off for a very long time: to go to Confession and re-enter fully into the life of the Church and the grace of God. Misdeeds from the past two decades began bubbling to the surface of my mind as in a simmering pot, which reached boiling point on the morning of 22nd December; I made my confession at Westminster Cathedral as a beautiful sung Latin Mass was being celebrated around me.

The sense of rebirth and renewal as I left the cathedral was a greatly moving experience, particularly at that time of year, and I now fully understand the symbolic and spiritual importance the Church places on making confession before Christmas and Easter. In The Infancy Narratives, Benedict XVI writes of the evangelists Matthew and Luke’s genealogies of Christ, which are notably broken in the paternal line by the Immaculate Conception. His Holiness describes this as symbolic of how Christians’ faith “gives them a new birth: they enter into the origin of Jesus Christ, which becomes their own origin. From Christ, through faith in him, they are now born of God.” So it was.

I will most certainly be repeating the Nativity Fast in future years, albeit within the four weeks of Advent rather than the 40 days from 15th November, and exempting Sundays as the Solemnities they properly are in the Latin Rite. This is because the one thing I was uncomfortable with in the first two weeks of the fast was feeling out of sync with the Roman Calendar, and throughout as though I had one foot in each Rite, which seemed to fully respect neither.

One final thing to which I can recommend fasting during Advent: feasting from sunset on Christmas Eve, after denying oneself so long, is a truly joyful experience. As Eleanor Parker wrote in these pages: “Unlike today, when many people turn January into a kind of secular fasting season – with New Year’s resolutions about giving up alcohol or going to the gym – January was a month for joy, not self-denial: medieval illustrations of January usually show him as a man at a feast, with a drink in his hand.” So it will be.

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‘Fast’ penne all’arrabbiata

Penne all’arrabbiata is known as a delicious yet quick pasta dish from Lazio. This is both quick and ‘fast’ (pun very much intended). Red wine vinegar is substituted for olive oil; when you eat it, remember Christ was born to die for our sins, and vinegar was his final drink.

Serves: 1 Time: 10 mins

120g wholewheat penne
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1 clove of garlic
1/4 dried chilli
1 or 2 basil leaves
salt to taste

1. Boil the pasta in salted water for 6-7 minutes until just al dente.
2. Finely chop the garlic and chilli while you wait.
3. Drain the pasta in a sieve or colander and return to pan.
4. Add the tomato purée and vinegar and stir well until all the penne is covered.
5. Add the garlic and chilli and stir again.
6. Serve garnished with torn basil.