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 FastThe 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 ApostlesIn 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.”