Sunday, December 15, 2013

It's Advent Not Christmas, Day 15: Advent as a Fast?

C.S. Lewis said that just because another philosophy or religion does not know Christ, it does not follow that every single thing it teaches is wrong.  That is in the same sense that all truth is God's truth, and it can be found in unlikely places.  I used to find that much more difficult to accept; if something was not a hundred per cent right as I understood it, I found it hard to believe that it could still be worth steering past the mistakes in search of a possible truth about life or about God.

Actually I find that easier to understand when I think about fiction, or art, or even something I've seen in a movie or T.V. show.  I've seen parallels to Christian thought in T.V. sitcoms and dramas, even foolish ones. As Charlotte Mason pointed out repeatedly, our hearts are affected much more readily, and often much more lastingly, by a story.

So all that is to say that I've been thinking about the early history of Advent, when it began as a time of preparation and fasting, and took place over an even longer period of time than today; it used to be a forty-day fast from meat and poultry as well as from other fancy foods and frivolities.  In Rumer Godden's novel In This House of Brede, set in the 1950's and '60's in a Benedictine convent, the nuns go to Midnight Mass on Christmas and then have a special meal of chicken soup, the first chicken they have had in weeks.

One's first reaction might be to remark on the seeming needlessness of it all.  In terms of economy it might be advantageous to have a period of extremely frugal eating and abstention from other pleasures, but how does it benefit anyone spiritually?  Even most of us now who like to think that it's "Advent not Christmas" don't necessarily pull back on physical comforts during this time.  It's a cold, dark season, and it seems like the last thing we want is to feel hungry as well. Does that mean no Christmas cookies before the 24th?  Not in our house.  Not at this point.  In most of the Christian church, the fasting aspect of Advent was dropped long ago, although we still think of it as a time of preparation and contemplation.

But maybe that is what we need.  In one way or another.  We do need to hunger, to want to be filled, to understand joy that is more than just a bowl of chicken soup.

And that's why I mentioned finding truth in strange places.  Because all that made me think of the Muslims around us here who observe Ramadan.  The truth I'm seeing is not in the teaching, but in the practice.  In the acknowledgement of our emptiness.

In recent years, some churches have begun observing the "Longest Night" on December 21st, offering a quiet, sober service especially for those who are lonely, grieving or suffering.  It's a reminder that not everything is jolly-holiday for everyone.  It seems innovative, but it's actually, I think, one of the oldest things we can do to make sense of Advent.

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