Advent in the various Orthodox traditions is observed somewhat differently and at different times than Western Christianity. One significant difference is that Advent for Antiochian and Greek Orthodox begins Nov. 15, two weeks earlier than non-Orthodox faiths. Orthodox practice is to begin Advent 40 days before Christmas; this period is called the "Nativity Fast," and comes before the "Nativity Feast" of Christmas.
Another significant difference is that the focus of Orthodox Advent is the incarnation of Jesus, while Western Christianity focuses on the first and second coming of Christ. Also, Orthodox ecclesiastical years begin Sept. 1, while in the West, the religious year for Christians begins at Advent, four Sundays before Christmas.
The Nativity Fast is not as strict as the fast of Great Lent and follows the Orthodox principle of fasting to prepare the body physically and spiritually for the coming feast. The practices of fasting include simplifying life, curbing appetite, controlling desires, and intensifying prayer.
Thanksgiving comes during this period and I wondered how Orthodox Christians handle it.
"Because we are American, and Thanksgiving is a national holiday, and a special time of gathering friends and family for thanking God for all our blessings, we have a pastoral allowance to stop our fast and celebrate Thanksgiving Day with the usual turkey and all the sides," said Lesa Morrison, a member of St. John Orthodox Cathedral. "We do try to still remember that we are in Advent, and to not stuff ourselves completely."
"During Advent, even though we live and move in a world that has highly commercialized Christmas, we can partake to some degree in the fun activities surrounding the Birth of Christ, while staying Christ-centered through it all," says Rev. Vasili Hillhouse of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. "We are able to do this," he continues, "because we willingly adopt certain dietary restrictions as a way of keeping us vigilant and aware of God's presence at every moment.
"This is the point of prayer and fasting, and it is why Advent for the Orthodox Christians is a time of increased spiritual discipline — it helps keeps us centered in the midst of the craziness of the season."
Echoing those thoughts, the Rev. Marc Dunaway of St. John Orthodox Cathedral says, "The usefulness of Advent depends on your perspective of Christmas. If the aim of a 'holiday season' is simply to seek cheer in winter through gift exchanges, office parties, and family gatherings, then Advent really has little place. The holiday celebrations can begin as soon as Thanksgiving is over and end in a party on New Year's Eve.
"However, if Christmas Day itself is first of all a 'holy day' to remember the birth of Jesus Christ as God becoming one of us, then the grandeur and wonder of that singular event summons those who believe to prepare themselves through prayer, fasting, and acts of kindness, so that they might properly esteem and celebrate this day and let it change their lives. This preparation is the ancient purpose of Advent. Granted, it is difficult to go against the current tide in this regard, but perhaps even a modest effort to renew Advent among Christians could make the difference between a holiday that for many rings hollow and sad, and a celebration that brings true joy in the revelation of God's great love for the world. If that is the case, it should be an effort worth making."
Nearly all congregations in the Alaska diocese of the Orthodox Church of America (formerly Russian Orthodox) will commence the Nativity Fast on Nov. 28, and end it on Jan. 6, celebrating the Nativity of Christ on Jan. 7 according to Bishop David Mahaffey.
"The reason is the Julian Calendar's timing being 13 days behind the Western/Gregorian Calendar," he says.
This presents some difficulties for Alaska Orthodox, Mahaffey states. "In general, in our country, the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is one of family and company gatherings in celebration of the coming (what the word Advent actually means) of Christ. In Orthodoxy, periods prior to such a feast as Christmas are meant to be contemplative and inner-focusing on the significance of what is going to be observed. It is hard to do that when one is feasting and going to parties at the office or neighbors, or with family. This is why it is very difficult for the Orthodox Christian to keep true to his conviction of faith and still maintain good relations with those around him who are not observing the Advent season as he/she desires. This has led to a false dichotomy in which those on the Julian Calendar call Dec. 25 a secular holiday and Jan. 7 a religious one."
Many Christians can learn much from Orthodox practices and observances. For me, it is pleasing to look at this early entry to Advent as an important antidote to the crass commercialism of Christmas.
Thanksgiving Blessing time is here for Anchorage and Mat-su
The local community really rallies to provide Thanksgiving meals for those without the ability or financial resources to obtain them.
"Food Bank of Alaska and the volunteer Thanksgiving Blessing leadership teams in Anchorage and the Valley are preparing to provide groceries for a complete Thanksgiving meal to 10,000 families this year," says Karla Jutzi of the Food Bank. "A small army of volunteers will be handing out food at six locations in the Valley and six in Anchorage. Last year we served over 9,200 families."
More than 1,000 Alaskans will prepare and distribute turkey and all the fixings to the 10,000 families Karla mentioned at two Thanksgiving Blessing events in Anchorage and the Mat-su region: from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 19, at six locations in the Valley, and at six locations in Anchorage and Eagle River from 3 to 8 p.m. (at most locations) on Nov. 21. The locations for pickup of the turkey and fixins' are zip code dependent, so recipients should know that first.
For the past month, local food distribution programs such as Lutheran Social Services of Alaska, New Hope, St. Francis House, Salvation Army and others, have placed fliers with this information in food boxes they distribute. Call 211 with questions about hours and locations. You can also find detailed information available at the Food Bank of Alaska's website or my site, Church Visits.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of a clergy member at St. John Orthodox Cathedral. He is Rev. Marc Dunaway, not Mark Dunaway. This story has been updated with the accurate spelling.