by Andreas Houpos, Pastoral Assistant
Every year, the question pops up: “‘Apostles’ Fast?’ What Apostles’ Fast?” Indeed, you may be reading this and not have an idea what you’re getting yourself into right now. For many of us, the idea of fasting at this time of year may seem strange. After all, we only recently were chanting “Christ is risen,” and just celebrated Pentecost — to say nothing of the weather becoming more pleasant, school ending, and vacations pending — so doesn’t the idea of fasting seem out of place? These are good and fair questions. Still, we might consider a better and more pertinent question to be: “What can I learn about the Apostles’ Fast?”
What is the Apostles’ Fast?
The Apostles’ Fast is so called because it is attributed to the Apostles of Christ. From the Resurrection of Christ until one week after Pentecost, the Church does not prescribe any extraordinary fasting. Following the festal period of Pentecost, however, the action of the Church reflects what was happening with Christ’s Apostles: after celebrating the resurrection of Christ, and the reception of the Holy Spirit, it was time for them to get to work. As prayer and fasting are indispensable to the mission of the Gospel, we know that the Apostles dedicated some time to this. Very early in the history of the Church, a formal fasting period was established to honor this preparatory period of the Apostles and the resulting glory of their accomplishments. The earliest evidence available to us of this fast is found in the homilies of Pope Leo I (d. 461), though it was certainly established much earlier.
When is the Apostles’ Fast Observed?
The Apostles’ Fast is unique among the fasts of the Church in that its length is variable. It is observed from the second Monday after Pentecost until the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul on June 29. Because the date of Pascha (and, therefore that of Pentecost) is variable, but June 29 is fixed, the length of the fast can vary greatly. In fact, in 1923, when some Orthodox Churches (including ours, under the Ecumenical Patriarchate) adopted the “New” Gregorian calendar, yet others refused to do so and continued to use the Church’s traditional “Old” or Julian calendar, one of the main arguments against the change was that the Apostles’ Fast would be severely diminished or even omitted entirely. In fact, this phenomenon of the diminishment of the Fast may explain why so many people not attuned to the liturgical life of the Church are not familiar with or are surprised by the Apostles’ Fast.
How do we Observe the Apostles’s Fast?
Regarding its observance, The Apostles’ Fast is not a strict fasting period. It is marked by an abstention from meat and dairy products, while fish and other seafoods are permitted. The usual strict fasting prescribed for Wednesdays and Fridays is, of course, observed during this period.
Why Do We Observe this Fast?
As was mentioned above, this fast was instituted to honor the preparations of the Apostles after Pentecost and before setting off on their missionary journeys. We could say that there are three purposes for this fast in particular.
By the time of the Apostles’ Fast, we will have been essentially carefree about our eating habits for over fifty days. This fast gives us a chance to slow things down a bit and to be mindful of self-control. Fasting is an indispensable element of our Christian calling, in part because it helps us stay focused on our apostolic mission: to make disciples of all nations.
We take this opportunity to honor the faith, preparation, sacrifice, hard work, and success of the Apostles of Christ. In fact, we honor them in two ways: by depriving ourselves on their behalf, and by emulating them.
Coming out of the season of Pascha, Ascension, and Pentecost, this is our reminder and opportunity to recommit to our Lord’s command to go and make disciples of all nations, and that we must also prepare for this work in our own lives by practicing self-discipline.
This year, the duration of the Apostles’ Fast will be at the longer end of its sliding scale. If you are new to this fast and were not expecting and prepared for it, and if you are concerned about honoring the teachings and prescriptions of the Church, the answer is not to say “Oh, well—maybe next year,” but to do what you can. As with any type of fasting, the Church offers very clear prescriptions in terms of what foods are to be avoided, which are permitted, and when the fast is to be observed and for how long. However, the point of fasting is never to simply follow rules or to check something off a list. The point of fasting is to strengthen our resolve and to complement the virtue of prayerfulness. Of course, this means obeying the Church’s teachings goes hand-in-hand. Still, if you are unsure of fasting guidelines or your ability to meet them, or if you think you have an extenuating circumstance that would prevent you from following a fast as it is prescribed, then simply ask Father Dean.