THOSE WHO LIVE IN TEMPERATE CLIMATES enjoy a regular alternation of the four seasons, each with its own proper joys and hardships. In our Church we also enjoy a regular alternation of “seasons,” moving from times of feasting to periods of fasting. In our feasts we rejoice over the gift given us from God. When the time of feasting is ended, we return to the ordinary business of Christian life: prayer and fasting.
Prayer of supplication – beseeching God for a special favor – was associated with fasting as far back as time of King David. Fasting intensifies and confirms the sincerity of the prayer. Without fasting, prayer can be simply an expression of idle interest: chatting rather than intensely imploring the Lord. When the Apostles failed to cure an epileptic boy, the Lord Jesus made a point of telling them, “This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21).
Fasting after Pentecost
On the eighth day after Pentecost, Byzantine Churches traditionally begin the Fast of the Apostles. This fasting season lasts until June 28, the eve of the feast of the principal apostles, Peter and Paul. The Coptic Church begins its fast on Pentecost Monday, Syriac Churches have abridged it to last for thirteen days or less.
The first documented mentions of this Fast are from the fourth century. St Athanasius the Great described the practice in Alexandria in his letter to the Emperor Constantius: “During the week following Pentecost, the people who observed the Fast went out to the cemetery to pray.” The Spanish pilgrim to the Holy Land in the early 380s, Egeria, described the practice in Jerusalem: “on the day following the feast of Pentecost, a period of fasting began”.
In that era, the Western Church observed this Fast as well. The fifth-century Pope of Rome, Leo I, spoke of this Fast as a chance to make up for any excesses in celebrating the feasts: “Today’s festival, dearly-beloved, hallowed by the descent of the Holy Spirit, is followed, as you know, by a solemn Fast. … ordained as a wholesome and needful practice, so that, if perhaps through neglect or disorder even amid the joys of the festival any undue license has broken out, it may be corrected by the remedy of strict abstinence, which must be the more scrupulously carried out in order that what was divinely bestowed on the Church on this day may abide in us” (Sermon 78, On the Whitsuntide Fast).
None of these early documents connect this Fast to the apostles Peter and Paul. This Fast was practiced long before the Apostles’ feast came to be widely celebrated. In the earliest practice this Fast was connected instead to the celebration of Pentecost
Fasting and the Apostles
In later centuries the Fast was extended so that it would end on the eve of the apostles’ feast and came to be explained in light of their memorial. In the Middle Ages, St. Symeon of Thessalonica (+1429) explains: “The Fast of the Apostles is justly established in their honor, for through them we have received numerous benefits and for us they are exemplars and teachers of the Fast … For one week after the descent of the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the Apostolic Constitution composed by Clement, we celebrate, and then during the following week, we fast in honor of the Apostles.” At that time, it seems, the Fast lasted only one week.
The apostles were said to have fasted before they set out on their missionary journeys. The fourth-century Canons of the Apostles, a Syrian work, says that the Apostles “…continued to speak in the new tongues of the nations, in which they preached, and He [the Lord] told them what must be done by the congregations with regards to prayer, worship, and the laws, and they thanked God for this knowledge they received. They fasted for forty days, thanking God through it, and then Peter washed the feet of the disciples… then they departed to all the nations to call people to the faith.”
The canonical New Testament recalls one incident when early Christians fasted before going forth in ministry. It describes a certain gathering in the Church at Antioch: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit… they proclaimed the word of God” (Acts 13:2-5). Fasting was again, an expected part of seeking the Lord’s will.
Barnabas and Saul evangelized in Asia Minor, then retraced their steps to Antioch:” So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23).
Spiritual writers throughout the ages have seen fasting as a critical weapon in spiritual warfare. St. Isaac the Syrian teaches, “… since fasting is a weapon established by God …the human race knew no victory before fasting, and the devil was never defeated by our nature as it is: but this weapon has indeed deprived the devil of strength from the outset… As soon as the devil sees someone possessed of this weapon [fasting], fear straightway falls on this adversary and tormentor of ours, who remembers and thinks of his defeat by the Savior in the wilderness; his strength is at once destroyed and the sight of the weapon given us by our supreme Leader burns him up. A man armed with the weapon of fasting is always afire with zeal. He who remains therein, keeps his mind steadfast and ready to meet and repel all the passions.”
For What Should We Fast and Pray?
Since the Fast of the Apostles occurs between Pentecost and the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul, it is particularly appropriate that we observe it by prayer and fasting for the Church: that it perservere in the true faith and not succumb to the pressures of the surrounding culture and endure persecution by its enemies… that it grown in commitment, vocations, and numbers. We can devote specific days of the Fast in prayer for the Universal Church, your patriarchate or particular Church, your eparchy, specific parishes, monasteries, seminaries and other religious institutions. Making a list of such intentions spanning every day of the Fast period helps us focus on both the season and on the needs of the Church. It may become for some a focus for prayer throughout the year.
Advice from St John of Kronstadt
We are told: It is no big deal to eat non-Lenten food during Lent. It is no big deal if you wear expensive beautiful outfits, go to the theater, to parties, to masquerade balls, use beautiful expensive china, furniture, expensive carriages and dashing steeds, amass and hoard things, etc. Yet what is it that turns our heart away from God, away from the Fountain of Life? Because of what do we lose eternal life? Is it not because of gluttony, of expensive clothing like that of the rich man of the Gospel story, is it not because of theaters and masquerades? What turns us hard-hearted toward the poor and even toward our relatives? Is it not our passion for sweets, for satisfying the belly in general, for clothing, for expensive dishes, furniture, carriages, for money and other things? Is it possible to serve God and mammon, to be a friend to the world and a friend to God, to serve Christ and Belial? That is impossible… Let us attentively consider … What makes our hearts become crude? Why do we become flesh and not spirit, perverting our moral nature? Is it not because of a passion for food, drink, and other earthly comforts? How after this can one say that it does not matter whether you eat non-Lenten food during Lent?