Should I fast during Advent?

What kind of Advent are you dreaming of? The season of Advent is just around the corner, but it can be difficult to know how to approach it. Perhaps you’re wondering if you’re supposed to do something for Advent like fasting? After all, if we fast during Lent, why not Advent too?

Advent has a tricky character. The Church describes it as “a period of devout and expectant delight,” but what does that actually look like? Christmas and Easter are times of celebration and feasting. Lent is clearly a time of penance; even non-Catholics will “give something up” for Lent. Ordinary Time is, well, ordinary. But what about Advent?

In some ways Advent is penitential like Lent. Both are seasons of preparation. The priest wears purple in both seasons, and we omit the more exultant parts of the Mass, like the Gloria and Alleluia.

But unlike Lent, Advent isn’t technically a penitential season. There is no rule about fasting or penance. It has its own mood; it is watchful, reflective, hopeful and full of longing.

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Advent’s confusing nature isn’t a recent phenomenon either. In the early Church up until the end of the first millennium, Advent was a penitential season just like Lent. It was often longer, too, starting just after St. Martin’s Day on Nov. 11 and running for six weeks before Christmas Day. (You can see the parallels to Lent there.)

But by the 12th century, the penitential aspect of Advent was beginning to wane in the Western Catholic Church. Fasting was limited to a few days a week, to priests and religious only, or only as an encouragement, not a rule. Today, the Church doesn’t ask us to fast from any foods or take up any penances during Advent. Instead, the Church emphasises the mood of joyful expectation.

But that still leaves us with the question. What should we do for Advent? Should we fast during Advent or not? Well, we have three basic options.

Don’t fast

The first option is what most of us are used to: Don’t fast during Advent. As a Catholic, fasting isn’t required during Advent, so you should feel completely free not to fast. But while fasting during Advent isn’t required of us Catholics, one thing is required of us: seeking holiness. Whatever the season, our number one job as followers of Christ is to follow him more and more closely every day. Maybe this year, following Jesus looks like reading the Bible more, helping out at a homeless shelter, or finally decluttering your closet to donate some clothes.

Fast from something else

Another option is to fast from something else in Advent, like noise or distraction. In the strict sense, fasting refers to not eating certain foods and/or not eating at certain times. But we can also fast from a myriad of other things. Advent can be a great time to fast from noise in our lives, whether the noise from Spotify or Netflix. (It’s okay, “A Christmas Prince: Four Tiaras in One Night” is still going to be there after Christmas.) Or perhaps it’s time to take a break from social media or YouTube. Honestly, deliberately cultivating silence in the lead-up to Christmas can be as difficult as giving up chocolate for Lent.

Embrace fasting

The third option — you guessed it! — is to fast. Just as we are free not to fast in Advent, so, too, are we free to fast. Nearly any time of year is a good time to fast. Fasting detaches our spirit from this world, teaches us self-control, and helps us to long for God as the fulfillment of all our desires. That is perfect for Advent! For some of us, Advent offers a great opportunity to flex our fasting muscles a little before the onslaught of feasting at Christmas. If you’re new to fasting, it can also be a great way to practice the discipline of fasting before Lent comes along.

How to fast during Advent

So if you’ve decided that you want to fast during Advent, what then? How do you actually do it?

There are several ways you can fast during this season. You could choose to abstain from meat, sweets or other treats throughout Advent. This is always a great option and a real challenge. Or you could choose to only fast on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays during Advent, as one ancient custom had it. Alternatively, you could give up a particular favorite treat to really enjoy it on Christmas morning — or straight after Midnight Mass!

Now, if you’re anything like me, you’ve been reading through these options and thinking, “How does this help me decide!? You have just made my life more complicated!” And for that, I truly do apologize.

But this is the blessing of the spiritual disciplines of the Church. There are so many different types of prayer, different ways to fast, different strategies to grow in virtue in the grace of Christ.

So to make it a little bit simpler, I propose we ask ourselves a question this Advent. And the question is this: What will make me more like Our Lady in this next month?

Advent is the time to really unite ourselves with Mary our Mother. As the daughter of Israel, she represents old Israel longing for the Messiah. As the handmaiden of the Lord, she seeks to listen to and obey God in everything she does. As the Mother of God, she carries Christ within herself to deliver him, the Life of the World. During Advent, we want to be with Our Lady and become more like her.

So what will make you more like Mary in this next month? What do you need from her? Do you need her courage as she said yes to the Lord? Do you need her quick-thinking generosity when she went to help her cousin? Do you need her gentle spirit and sense of peace as she contemplated Our Lord in the manger?

Whatever it is, think about what you need in your life to be more like Our Lady. Take that to prayer and ask the Lord to show you what disciplines will cultivate that in your own heart. Perhaps fasting from a comfort food is exactly the sort of courageous step you need to take right now. Or perhaps a spirit of silence is what your heart needs.

Whether you fast or don’t fast, use this Advent to become more like Mother Mary so that you can welcome Christ with the fullness of joy this Christmas season.

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