An Advent tradition among Eastern Catholics has taken on a deeper meaning amid Russia's war on Ukraine.
The Fast of St. Philip, also known as the Philippian or Nativity Fast, is observed by Eastern Catholics and Christians worldwide.
The fast – instituted at the Council of Constantinople in 1166 – begins prior to Advent on Nov. 15, the feast day of St. Philip, and ends on Christmas Eve.
During the fast, faithful typically abstain from meat on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, while observing a lesser form of abstinence on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The fast is often intensified in the days immediately preceding Christmas.
Although less strict than the Great Pascha fast of Lent, the St. Philip Fast is intended to prepare the faithful for the joy of Christ's birth.
The bishops of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the U.S. issued a pastoral letter coinciding with this year's fast, saying that the observance marks the "embarking on a journey that culminates in the contemplation of an indescribable mystery – God's condescension to humanity."
The letter, released Nov. 18, was signed by Metropolitan Archbishop Borys A. Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia; Bishop Paul Chomnycky of the Eparchy of Stamford, Connecticut; Bishop Venedykt Aleksiychuk of the St. Nicholas Eparchy of Chicago, who wrote the document; and Bishop Bohdan J. Danylo of the St. Josaphat Eparchy of Parma, Ohio.
"It is at the Nativity of Our Lord that God draws near to us," said the bishops, who quoted "Christ Our Pascha," the catechism of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church: "'In the union of the divine and human, ‘the incorporeal one takes on flesh, the Word becomes approachable, the invisible one is seen, the impalpable one is touched, the one beyond time enters time, the Son of God becomes the Son of Man.'" (179)
The bishops said that "in this divine event, God not only reveals His name but also makes Himself visible, inviting us to recognize Him."
Yet that invitation can be difficult to discern or accept amid Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, said the bishops.
Russia's war – which continues aggression launched in 2014 and which has formally been declared a genocide in two reports from New Lines Institute and the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights – has killed more than 10,000 Ukrainian civilians (including 510 children) and has injured some 18,500, while committing at least 113,522 documented war crimes
In a July 2023 joint report, New Lines Institute and the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights reiterated their May 2022 conclusion that Russia has violated the 1948 Genocide Convention through its atrocities in Ukraine.
At least 2.5 million Ukrainians have been forcibly taken to the Russian Federation, and close to 19,600 children are being held in Russian "re-education" camps, with the actual number for the latter feared to be much higher.
Currently, there are an estimated 5.1 million individuals internally displaced within Ukraine, according to the International Organization for Migration, part of the United Nations network. More than 6.2 million Ukrainians have sought safety abroad since the start of the full-scale invasion.
"For the second consecutive year, we, Ukrainians in the U.S., find ourselves preparing for Christmas amidst a full-scale war with the Russian aggressor," said the bishops. "Our Ukrainian soil is soaked in the blood of heroes, and our cities and villages under occupation are shrouded under the black pall of the 'Russian world.'"
Amid the atrocities, said the bishops, "we continually pose questions to each other and to God: 'How much longer will this endure? Why, O God, does this war persist?'"
The story of Christ's birth provides solace and an eternal perspective on human history, said the bishops.
"This war, while manifestly physical and visible, also has deep spiritual ramifications," they wrote. "We yearn for change, for someone to rise against injustice and corruption, yet we tend to overlook that the journey begins within ourselves, with our heart."
The bishops pointed to "the circumstances in which our Lord came to the world.
"Humanity, perpetually anxious and born in fear, anticipated the coming of the Messiah, each person harboring their own expectations of his identity," they wrote. "Who among them recognized him as the 'something new (that) springs forth,' as prophesied by the Prophet Isaiah? (Is 43:19) The initial witnesses to the choir of angels were humble shepherds, for 'many are the high and exalted, but God reveals his mysteries to the humble' (Sir 3:19)."
The "pure in heart" shepherds "became the symbol of those who were capable to see God," said the bishops.
They stressed that "the path to purity of heart is arduous, demanding profound introspection," adding that "we often find ourselves dissatisfied with our circumstances."
The bishops said that "our first task is the transformation of our hearts."
In reflecting upon the lives of the saints, faithful can draw strength and "marvel at how they found spiritual equilibrium amidst sorrow, mastering themselves and receiving the strength of Christ," said the bishops.
"Today, our front-line defenders demonstrate that heroes are not born but are instead forged through daily toil and self-sacrifice, proving their unwavering commitment to our homeland," said the bishops.
"As we commence this journey to the Nativity, we invite you to fathom the depths of this mystery," they wrote. "A single child altered the course of human history with his birth. The tapestry of human history is interwoven with the thread of Jesus Christ."
In Christ, "we are also capable and called to change our personal stories and big history," the bishops said. "Each one of us can contribute with the gifts bestowed upon us by the Lord, thereby effecting change in the world around us."
"Much work lies ahead, but it is the sole path to a genuine experience of the Nativity of Our Lord," said the bishops. "We are called to comprehend the gift of patience, for in God's timing, everything unfolds according to his divine plan. While we may ardently desire swift change and accomplishment, true transformation occurs when we cooperate with God's grace, serving our neighbors with fervor in afflictions, hardships and distress."
Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter, at @GinaJesseReina