History of the Apostles Fast
The Fast of the Apostles was instituted by our Lord during His ministry. When Christ was asked why His disciples did not fast, He replied, “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them; then they will fast in those days” (Luke 5:34-35). After the Lord’s ascension the disciples gathered together and fasted until the descent of the Holy Spirit. After they received the Holy Spirit, they continued to live a life of fasting and prayer. St. John Chrysostom commented on the fasting of the apostles in his sermon on Matthew 17 saying, “the apostles almost always fasted” (Homily 57 on St. Matthew).
The Fast of the Apostles is dated back to early years of the church. The first evidence of this fast is found in the writings of St. Athanasius the Great. In his letter “Apologia de Fuga” or ‘His Defense of Flight’, he writes: “On the week that succeeded the Holy Pentecost, when the people after their fast had gone out to the cemetery to pray…” Some 20 years later, St. Ambrose writes: “On the days following his ascension into heaven, however, we again fast” (Sermon 61).
The famous pilgrim Egeria mentioned the Apostles’ Fast also in her fourth century writing, which records that “on the day following the feast of Pentecost, a period of fasting began.” In the same period (4th Century), the Apostolic Constitutions prescribes: “After the feast of Pentecost, one week of festive celebration is to take place, followed by fasting, as justice demands rejoicing after the reception of the gifts of God and then fasting after the body has been refreshed.” Until the second half of the 3rd century, the Fast of the Holy Apostles was linked to Pentecost and lasted only for one week (Apostolic Constitutions).
The Fast of the Apostles is one of the oldest fasts in the church and was previously known as the “Fast of Pentecost” or the “Fast of the Disciples.” However, during the Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., its name was changed to “Fast of the Apostles” which is carried through till today. In the Holy Dioscolia (collected in the third century), it is written: “After you complete the Feast of Pentecost, have a feast for another week… then we fast after the rest.”
However, in the book The Canon of the Apostles, which was one of the books of Clement of Rome (collected in the fourth century), it states: “They continued to speak in the new tongues of the nations, in which they preached, and He 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.”
As for the book, The Lamp that Enlightens the Service, written by the fourteenth-century scholar Shams Al-Ri’asa Ibn Al-Sheikh Al-Akmal Al-As’ad, it states “The Fast of the saintly fathers, the disciples, which is also called ‘Fast of Pentecost,’ begins with the Monday after the Holy Fifty Days, and it ends on the fourth [day] of Epip, the night that commemorates the martyrdom of the Apostles Peter and Paul…” Currently, this is the accepted opinion of the Coptic Orthodox Church, as well as the Syrian and Greek Orthodox Churches.
Fasting is an integral tool of spirituality. It includes a period of abstinence and a modified vegetarian diet. Fasts of the first degree, which include the Holy Great Fast, the Paramoun, and Jonah’s Fast, strictly exclude fish. Although Wednesdays and Fridays are fasts of the second degree, yet, just like Jonah’s fast, they are directly related to the Holy Great Fast and salvation. Therefore, these four abstaining periods of fasting are observed without eating fish. The remaining fasts are of the second degree, and do include fish, as a supplemental protein source, just as fish was our Lord’s preference. Our church is consistent, but not rigid. While in the early church, first and second degree fasts were observed more ascetically, excluding fish; overtime, the church uses wisdom and prayer in making ritual adjustments as long as they do not impede the sound faith, dogma, doctrine, or teachings of the church Fathers. Fish was first introduced to support children, elders, pregnant and nursing women, and the sick to aid them fast. Gradually, fish was permitted to all Christians during the second-degree fasts.
The Coptic Orthodox Church observes the following fasts:
- Weekly Fasts (Wed & Fri – fasting repeated each week throughout the year except during the Holy 50 Days)
- Paramoun (Preparation fasting observed prior to the Feasts of Nativity and Theophany)
- Jonah’s Fast (Nineveh Fast – 3 days fast which takes place two weeks prior to the Great Lent)
- Great Lent (55 days fast prior to the Feast of the Glorious Resurrection)
- Advent Fast (Nativity Fast – 43 days of fasting which begins Nov 25 or Nov 26)
- Apostle’s Fast (Begins the day after Pentecost and ends on July 12th)
- Mary’s Fast (Begins on August 7th and last for 15 days)
Duration of the Apostles Fast
The length of the Fast is variable (15 to 49 days), being determined by the date of Resurrection. 7 weeks after Resurrection comes the Pentecost. The next day, Monday, the Fast of the Holy Apostles begins. The Fast lasts until Epip 5, which corresponds to July 12, the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul.
Why After Pentecost and not between Ascension and Pentecost like the Apostles?
From these sources, we find that the Apostles fasted after the descent of the Holy Spirit on them, as well as between the Ascension of Christ and the Feast of Pentecost. However, the aim of the fasts was different: the fast after the Ascension was because the apostles were waiting for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which was promised to them by the King of Glory. As for Apostles’ Fast after Pentecost, it was a fast of thanksgiving to God for the gifts of the Holy Spirit that they received, and it served a purpose of preparing them for another service, which was to preach to the world. Thus, service and preaching are an important cornerstone to this fast.
Accordingly, we can conclude that the apostles fasted for ten days after the Ascension of Christ, to prepare themselves to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This accords with the Lord’s saying: “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Mt. 9:15). On Pentecost day, the Holy Spirit descended with His gifts on the disciples, so they fasted with thanksgiving to God and to prepare themselves for service and preaching. In this way, the disciples did exactly as their Lord, who fasted for forty days after the Holy Spirit descended on Him when He was baptized (Feast of the Theophany).
The same apostles who fasted between the Ascension and Pentecost according to the will of Christ, are the same apostles who instructed us to celebrate the Holy 50 days. Why? Because the Holy Spirit is He, who allows us to live the resurrection. He calls us to repentance, baptism, This prepares the members of the church to partake of His body through the Eucharist and thus actively participate in the resurrection during the believer’s life.
The descent of the Holy Spirit is deeply related to the Resurrection; for this reason, we celebrate the resurrection for 50 days. After the Holy 50 Days, we begin the fast for the service until the fast of the Apostles. This was set forth by Pope Demetrius.
Significance of the Apostles Fast
Throughout the Apostles Fast, we thank God for the gifts of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, we acknowledge the struggles and tribulations of the holy apostles as they preached and established the foundation of the Christian church, and we prepare ourselves to serve and preach. This fast reflects the fast the apostles took on after the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them on the day of Pentecost. Just as our Lord fasted for forty days in the wilderness following the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Him during the Theophany, the holy apostles too fasted when the Holy Spirit descended upon them. To this day, we apply the wisdom of the holy apostles to our everyday lives within the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The holy apostles fasted to prepare for their service and preaching. Fasting allowed them to get ready, as “it is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:14). Fasting is a period when we direct our attention more towards God and His eternal words and promises, and less towards the temporary worldly matters. This truly prepares our mind, body, and soul to effectively serve and preach according to the will of God and not according to any selfish or misguided agenda.
It is important to note that serving others and preaching the word of God are critical aspects of the Apostles Fast. Serving should be at the center of all our lives; “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Therefore, it is crucial to take this opportunity, during the Apostles Fast, to prepare ourselves to take on new services and sacrifice more towards the services we are a part of.
The twelve apostles formed the inner core of the Lord, Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry. They were personally chosen by the Lord Himself, had the gift of performing miracles, and were inspired to teach and do extraordinary missionary work. On the Feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down on the apostles and they became great, giving witness of the power of the life and death and the resurrection of Jesus as He declared they should.
“When the Bridegroom shall be taken from them…then they shall fast” (Matthew 9:15). The Apostles Fast is the oldest fast and the first one kept by the Christian Church. During the Apostles Fast, the Holy Spirit spoke to them, “As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.” (Acts 13:2-3).
The apostles served the Lord Jesus and later provided leadership to the first generation Christian believers. They were of such importance that the word “apostle” occurs approximately seventy-nine times in the New Testament. Acts of the Apostles portrays the apostles as leaders of the first church in Jerusalem during the Church’s first decade. The apostles truly established the church and with their fast we meditate on the glory of God, their faith, and hardships in which they overcame.
Rites of the Apostles Fast
The rite and hymns of the Fast of the Apostles are prayed in the annual tune. After the reading of the Pauline, the hymn ‘Ondos’ is chanted. The words of the hymns are: “For truly indeed, your names are glorified on earth, O all you chosen of God, our fathers the apostles”. This hymn reminds us of the honor of the apostles and conveys an appreciation for the work they did in preaching the gospel by the grace of God. During the distribution, the hymn ‘Asomen to Kirio’ (Let us praise the Lord) is chanted in many languages. This represents the diverse tongues the apostles spoke once filled with the Holy Spirit.
The Feast of the Apostles takes place the fifth day of Epip, which is the day when the great apostles Peter and Paul were martyred; the church prays the blessing of the water on this day. This prayer over the water culminates in the washing of the feet of the congregation by the clergy. By doing this, we commemorate the commandment of our Lord to the apostles, when He said, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14). After the blessing of the water, we pray the Liturgy in the annual tune.
We ask the Lord to strengthen us in prayer and fasting during this season so that we may effectively serve and preach according to the will of God through the prayers of our fathers, the pure apostles.
Sources and where to go to learn more:
- https://www.ccel.org/m/mcclure/etheria/etheria.htm Pilgrimage of Egeria