Melkite Greek Catholic Church
IN THE CHRISTIAN EAST, the fasting seasons are always periods in which the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are observed in a heightened way. The particular rules for augmenting the services and for fasting vary from one Local Church to another (eg Greek, Middle Eastern, Slavic, etc.) but the principle behind observing them is the same: the “ordinary business” of those who have put on Christ is prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

After Christ was baptized, we read in the Gospels, He “was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Matthew 4:1), apart from others, where He would encounter both His Father and the devil. The Gospel story of His experience in the wilderness gives us some indications of the life which those, who have been baptized, should expect as normal. First of all, it involves solitude: separation from the ordinary world in order to refocus the mind away from everyday concerns to God, who is in our midst.

The second aspect of Christ’s experience described in Mt 4 is food fasting: “…when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry” (Matthew 4:2). Clearly what is described is a total fast (not eating), in contrast to the fast which most in the Church practice: fasting from certain foods (abstinence).

The Gospels testify that, during Christ’s public ministry His disciples did not fast. When questioned about this by some disciples of John, the Lord responded, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15).

This prophecy was fulfilled when the first monastics made solitude and fasting the central aspects of their Christian asceticism. In his life of St Anthony the Great, St Athanasius says that the ascetic moved from his village to the local cemetery where he dwelt in one of the tombs. “He ate once a day, after sunset, sometimes once in two days, and often even in four. His food was bread and salt, his drink, water only” (Life, 7).

As monasticism spread, Anthony’s practices were lessened for the many believers who sought to live in solitude or in the monastic communities which grew up throughout the Church. The Church mitigated the strictness of their fasting even further when it proposed their lifestyle as the model for all Christians during fasting seasons. Thus we adopt the everyday practice of monastics (no meat or dairy) on Wednesdays, Friday and during fast periods only.

People who have visited monasteries in this country might be surprised that ascetics like St Anthony might still be found. Thus Fr Alexander Schmemann, writing in his journal, described his visit to monastics in Egypt in 1978: “Today I had an extraordinary day. A visit in the desert to three monasteries with an uninterrupted tradition from Antony the Great, Makarios, etc. … And the most amazing, of course, is how very much alive it all is: Real monks! In my whole life I have seen only imitations, only playing at monastic life, false, stylized; and mostly unrestrained, idle talk about monasticism and spirituality. And here are they, in a real desert. A real heroic feat. So many young monks. No advertisements, no brochures about spirituality. Nobody knows anything about them, and they do not mind it. I am simply stunned. I have a thousand questions, and I will have to start sorting it out…” (cited in Fanous, A Silent Patriarch, 2019, Yonkers, NY).

Solitude and Fasting Today

The first practice which our Church recommends to us in a fasting season is that we imitate Christ by social distancing (to use the modern term) – going “to the desert,” apart from our usual social and recreational activities. In earlier times, it was common that theaters and other recreational centers would close during a fasting season. A corresponding practice today might be to turn off one’s devices for the duration of a fast. That would at least expose us to the emptiness we feel without them.

It may mean, that the Christian, like Christ, go apart in a physical way to a special place, for only a few moments, for a day or more. We may go out of doors, to a church or to our personal icon corner. Serious prayer begins, as we say in the Liturgy when we “lay aside all earthly cares that we may welcome the King of all” into our hearts.

What would we do without the diversion our device offers us? The first activity to which we would be called is increased prayer. In our childhood, most of us were taught prayers to say. We learned to say the Lord’s Prayer, for example, before we even understood the meaning of words such as temptation or even evil. In time, we learned the meaning of those words, but our prayer life often did not deepen as our knowledge grew. It is as if we became deaf and mute in regards to God and our prayer to Him. We know the words of the prayers, but do we know how to pray them from our heart to God?

Apart from liturgical services, Eastern Christian prayer includes formal prayers for many occasions, the most common being Morning Prayers, Prayers at Meals, and Prayers before Retiring. If a Christian is usually too busy to observe these prayer times, the fasting season may give you the opportunity to practice them. Other formal prayers in the Eastern Christian’s repertoire may include canons and akathists, such as those to the Mother of God. Another common practice is to pray for the dead. Use the fasting season as an occasion for going to your local cemetery, or the place where your family members are buried, and remember them in prayer.

Besides formal prayers, our Church recommends the Jesus Prayer as a way to keep our minds “in the desert” wherever we are. Repeat this prayer – so easily memorized – throughout the day to keep your mind and heart in the presence of God. Using a prayer rope as a counter, you can commit yourself to a certain number of prayers every day.

Make time to spend with the Scriptures. We read in the Gospel that, when Christ was tempted to break His fast, He responded, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4). Strive to read one New Testament book during each fasting season to deepen your acquaintance with the Word of God.

What about Almsgiving?

When St John the Forerunner noticed some Pharisees coming to him, he told them, “… bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8): or, as American folk preachers often say, don’t just talk the talk: walk the walk.” Without the fruits of caring for those in need, our prayers and acts of worship run the risk of being the “talk” without the “walk.” The alms we may give to those in need are a way of making our repentance lasting. When the fast is over, we will go back to the foods and diversions we have put aside during the season. But what we give as alms is gone and stays gone – God has accepted it through the hands of the person in need.
“AFTER THE LONG FEAST OF PENTECOST, fasting is especially necessary to purify our thoughts and render us worthy to receive the Gifts of the Holy Spirit ... Therefore, the salutary custom was established of fasting after the joyful days during which we celebrated the resurrection and ascension of our Lord, and the coming of the Holy Spirit” (from a sermon of Pope St. Leo the Great, +461).

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. With this Fast, 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).

Early Witnesses to This Fast

The first documented mentions of this Fast are from the fourth century. In a letter to his friend and supporter, Emperor Constantius, St Athanasius describes the practice of the Alexandrian Church: “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 Churches observed this Fast as well. St. Ambrose of Milan (+397) writes about the practice in his diocese: “The Lord so ordained it that, as we have participated in His sufferings during the Forty Days, so we should also rejoice in His Resurrection during the season of Pentecost. We do not fast during the season of Pentecost since our Lord Himself was present amongst us during those days … Christ’s presence was like nourishing food for the Christians. So too, during Pentecost, we feed on the Lord who is present among us. On the days following His ascension into heaven, however, we again fast” (Sermon 61).

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. Rather, this Fast was first seen as a resumption of fasting following the Paschal season. During the fifty days of Pascha we have celebrated Christ’s resurrection, then His ascension and finally the sending forth of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. We have feasted while celebrating the presence of the risen Christ, but now it is time to return to the more everyday practice of Christians: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

The struggle to be what we have become, to “put on Christ,” demands a lifelong effort. We observe times to celebrate the mysteries of Christ among us – the Lord’s Day and the Great Feasts on which we do not fast. But these are respites from the more ordinary Christian practice of fasting. As the Lord said when asked by the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees why His disciples were not fasting, “As long as they have the bride-groom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days” (Mark 2:19-20).

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 an expected part of seeking the Lord’s will.

Barnabas and Saul evangelized in Asia Minor, then retraced their steps to Antioch. As Acts describes it, “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, “…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.”

The fifty days from Pascha to Pentecost plus the week-long observance of this latter feast have been times of celebration, roughly coinciding with times of celebration in our secular society as well – Mothers’ Day, Memorial Day, graduations, and the like. But to remind us that our Christian feasts are about the Lord Jesus and His Holy Spirit, not about the pleasure of celebrating, we now return to our ordinary Christian life: exchanging celebration for more intense prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

The time from Pentecost to the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (June 29) is called the Fast of the Apostles. Since the date of Pentecost depends on when Pascha falls, this Fast may last as long as a month or as little as a few days. In Melkite practice this Fast is usually observed for no more than ten days, from June 19-28.

The Fast of the Apostles in the Home (PDF, 756KB, 12 pages)

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