In an address to the Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic bishops in 2001, Pope John Paul II said that “the Church breathes with the two lungs of the Eastern and Western traditions.” A few years earlier, in Ut unum sint, we hear the same call: “The Church must breathe with her two lungs!” (# 54) But how are we to understand the Pope’s words? Are we all to become bi-ritual? I don’t think that is what the Pope had in mind. The Pope spoke of the whole Church. Given this context, the Pope wanted to point out that the Catholic Church has been dominated primarily by the Latin tradition. A balance must be restored. Both the East and the West ought to learn about the other and they ought to be faithful to their own respective traditions.
In light of this, I thought I’d share with you a short reflection on the meaning of Advent in the Western tradition and on the Nativity Fast (or also called St. Philip’s Fast) in the Eastern tradition, since we are nearing the Advent season. Few people in both traditions know that the East and West differ in theology and practice of this pre-Christmas time.
In the liturgies and spiritual writings of the Latin Church, the emphasis is primarily on the coming of Christ and the need for us to prepare for this coming. The word Advent is from a Latin word advenire (to arrive at, to reach, to come). We prepare ourselves to celebrate Jesus’ first coming in Bethlehem, and we also prepare ourselves for his second coming, which can be anytime. The emphasis is therefore on the important fact that Jesus will indeed come again, and we ought to prepare ourselves spiritually for this coming. St. John the Baptist’s call to “prepare the way of the Lord” is a good summary of the Western practice of Advent.
St. Charles Borromeo summarizes the meaning of Advent very well in one of his pastoral letters:
The Church asks us to understand that Christ, who came once in the flesh, is prepared to come again. When we remove all obstacles to his presence he will come, at any hour and moment, to dwell spiritually in our hearts, bringing with him the riches of his grace. … our hearts should be as much prepared for the coming of Christ as if he were still to come into this world. (Acta Ecclesiae Mediolanensis, t. 2)In the Byzantine Churches, the practice to celebrate Christmas is younger than in the Latin Church. It is only in the 11th – 12th century that the East officially instituted its forty-day Nativity fast (no meat, dairy or eggs for forty days; no wine or oils on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; fish is permitted on Saturdays and Sundays. Between Dec 20th and 24th, fish, wine, and oils are not permitted). There is not much in the liturgy that helps one to prepare for Christmas. There are neither advent wreaths nor purple-pink candles. The emphasis is on the celebration of the mystery of the Incarnation, that God has united himself with his creation in such an intimate manner. St. John the Evangelist best captures the focus of the East: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” (Jn 1:14) During the course of the fast, there are a number of feast days on the liturgical calendar of the Eastern Church. They celebrate those Old Testament prophets who prophesied the Incarnation: Obadiah (Nov 19th), Nahum (Dec 1st), Habbakuk (Dec 2nd), Zephaniah (Dec 3nd), Haggai (Dec 16th), Daniel and the Three Holy Youths (Dec 17th).
This emphasis on the Incarnation is also echoed by St. Gregory of Nazianzen from one of his sermons:
The very Son of God, older than the ages, the invisible, the incomprehensible, the incorporeal, the beginning of beginning, the light of light, the fountain of life and immortality, the image of the archetype, the immovable seal, the perfect likeness, the definition and word of the Father: he it is who comes to his own image and takes our nature for the good of our nature, and unites himself to an intelligent soul for the good of my soul, to purify like by like. He takes to himself all that is human, except sin. … He comes forth as God, in the human nature he has taken, one being, made of two contrary elements, flesh and spirit. Spirit gave divinity, flesh received it. He who makes rich is made poor; he takes on the poverty of my flesh, that I may gain the riches of his divinity. He who is full is made empty; he is emptied for a brief space of his glory that I may share in his fullness. (Oratio 45, 9, 22.26.28)I’m not saying that the East doesn’t consider the second coming or ask its faithful to prepare for it, nor am I saying that the West doesn’t ponder the mystery of the Incarnation. Both elements are preset in both traditions, yet the emphasis is different in the pre-Christmas period. One side of the equation is incomplete without the other. Both help us breathe in the full significance of the greatest moment in history, the Incarnation.
Let us return to Pope John Paul II’s statements. Knowing the two traditions helps us appreciate them and hopefully the one that is not ours will enlighten our own tradition. Personally, this understanding of Advent and the Nativity Fast helps me in two ways: first, there is the element of vigilance and purification as I wait for the Lord’s coming in the future. Second, pondering Jesus’ Incarnation reminds me of his daily sanctifying work, his “incarnation” into my life, through daily prayer and the sacraments: God is made flesh in order that I may partake of “the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4).
At this point you may be asking yourself: “Okay, but what can I do to learn about the East and West?” The easiest solution is to read a little bit from each tradition on a daily basis. From the Liturgy of the Hours, you may want to do the Office of Readings. This Office has an Old Testament reading and a Patristic reading from either the Eastern or the Western tradition. You can access the Office free online on a daily basis here. Once you get into the habit of reading these texts, you won’t want to stop! I wish you a blessed Advent or Nativity Fast.