THE FASTING ORDER
IN THE COPTIC CHURCH
FR. TADROS Y. MALATY
A CHURCH OF ASCETICISM
God, who created all the trees in the Garden of Eden for
the sake of man, His beloved; ordered him not to eat from
just one specific tree. This was not to deprive man, or to
impose His authority, but rather to make man worthy of His
love through fasting and obeying His commandment; "man
does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds
out of the mouth of the Lord..." Deut. 8:3, Matt. 4:4.
The Lord, Himself, the Word Incarnate, fasted before
undergoing trial and undertaking His ministry on our behalf.
We therefore fast with Him to attain victory and blessings at
work, and to be able to proceed in the spirit and not
according to the flesh (Rom. 8:1). The Lord fasted for forty
days (Matt. 4:2) to transfigurate in the midst of Moses and
Elijah who also fasted for forty days (Exod. 40:28; 1 Kings
19:8). In this way He declared that fasting is not deprivation,
neither is it a restraint upon the body; but it is rather a
sublimation with our Lord on Mount Tabor which enables us
to enjoy His Glory made manifest in us.
The Coptic Church (as well as the Ethiopian Church) is an
ascetic church that believes in the power of fasting in the life
of the believers. Fasting is not considered a physical exercise,
but rather it is an offering of inward love offered by the heart
as well as the body. Consequently, the Church requests
believers to fast for over six months a year. Strangely
enough, the Coptic Church desires - of its own free will - to
spend its whole life fasting, while most churches in the world
increasingly tend to reduce the fasting periods from one generation to the next. In fact, during confession many of the Coptic youth request to increase the days of fasting... very few indeed complain of the many fasting periods.
THE CONCEPT OF FASTING
1. The church requires us to fast and abstain from food
for a period of time to experience hunger. The Lord Himself
experienced hunger (Matt. 4:2) though He is the source of
all satisfaction, physical and spiritual. The apostles
experienced hunger as they fasted (Acts 10:1; 2 Cor. 11:27).
Moreover, we should not indulge in delicacies after absten-
tion, but rather we should observe eating certain non fat
"I ate no pleasant bread, neither came flesh nor wine in my mouth" Dan. 10:3.
"Take you also unto your wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and spelt" Ez. 4:9.
"My knees are weak through fasting; and my flesh fails of fatness" Ps. 109:24.
In spite of that, fasting is not merely abstention from food,
drink, or delicacies. It is essentially an expression of our love
to God who has given His Only-Begotten Son to die for us.
If the Lord Jesus delivered Himself for my sake (Ephes.
3:20), then in turn I wish to die all day for His sake (Rom.
8:38). Thus fasting and abstention from food is closely
connected with abstention from all that is evil or has a
semblance of evil. It is moreover connected with continuous
spiritual growth, thereby achieving an offering of fasting that
is holy in the eyes of God.
That is what Pope Athanasius elaborated powerfully in his
first letter: [When we fast, we should consecrate the fast
(Joel 2:15)... It is required that not only with the body should
we fast, but also with the soul. Now the soul is humbled
when it doesn' t follow wicked thoughts... And as our Lord
and Saviour Jesus Christ, being the heavenly Bread, is the
food of the saints..., so is the devil the food of the impure,
and of those who do nothing which is of the light, but work
the deeds of darkness... For not only does such a fast obtain
pardon for souls, but being holy, it prepares the saints, and
raises them above the earth].
2. God created our "good" bodies and souls to function
together under His guidance and to carry out his will. Now if
our souls succumb to the wicked desires of the flesh in
disobedience, we become carnal (Rom. 7:14). Through
fasting we beseech God to subjugate our bodies by the Holy
Spirit so that we might live in the spirit and not according to
the flesh (Rom. 8:12). It is true that St. Paul preached the
Gospel to many, but he warned against the flesh which he
mastered by fasting as he feared to be a castaway. (1 Cor.
3. While fasting, we pray to be liberated from our "ego."
Thus we fast and abstain from "selfishness" as much as we
abstain from food. We practise loving God through loving
our brothers and all humanity by His grace. Hence St. Paul
says: "Though I give my body to be burned and have not
charity, it forfeit me nothing" 1 Cor. 13:3. Therefore fasting
should be associated with the witness to God's love through
giving alms and striving for the salvation of souls. In the
early church, many catechumens were baptized on Easter eve
or the Christian Passover as a result of the great activity of
church preaching during Lent - besides the rest of the year -
doing so in a state of continuous prayer, fasting and practical testimony. Particularly that people were more prepared, while fasting, to receive the word of God and become members in the body of our Lord Jesus.
Until today, Lent is considered one of the richest periods
of whole hearted devotion demonstrated by practical
offerings to the poor and the needy. Believers undertake this
in obedience to the Scripture: "Is not this the fast that I have
chosen?... Is it not to deal by bread to the hungry, and that
you bring the poor that are cast out to your house?!" Is.
In the first centuries of Christianity, praying and fasting
(the direct love of God) were integrated with alms-giving
(our love to God interpreted by our love to our neighbours).
This is explained in the book "The Shepherd" of Hermes,
urging believers to offer their savings resulting from fasting
to widows and orphans2, Origen3 blesses those who fast and
feed the poor, and St. Augustine4 has written a whole book
on fasting, as he feels that a person, who fasts without
offering his savings to the poor, has in fact practised "greed"
rather than fasting.
4. The days of fasting are days of repentance and
contrition. At the same time, they are periods of joy and
cheer as believers experience victory and power in their
innermost self. Fasting does not imply fatigue, restraint, or
irritation, but rather it inspires joy and inward gladness with
the Lord reigning within the heart... This is the experience of
the Coptic Church particularly during the Holy Week. At
that time believers practise asceticism more than at any other
time of fasting. The signs of real spiritual joy and consolation filling the heart are so clearly evident then.
This experience has been recorded by Pope Athanasius of
Alexandria. He says: [Let us not fulfil these days like those
that mourn, but by enjoying spiritual food, let us try to si-
lence our fleshly lusts. For by these means we shall have
strength to overcome our adversaries, like blessed Judith
(13:8), when having first exercised herself in fasting and
prayers, she overcame the enemies, and killed Olophernes5].
Fasting is not a situation which may be used as a pretext
for anger. It is rather an opportunity to demonstrate a loving
heart and power over the spirit of anger, selfishness, and all
FASTING AND CHURCH ORDER6
While many Copts (as well as Ethiopians) spend most of their days fasting of their own free will, and while they do so by the motherly help and love of the Church (through the Church Order), many westerners avoid the cross of fasting and put forward the following excuses:
1. Fasting is an individual worship to be practised
privately (in secret) (Matt. 6:17,18). The answer to this is
that the same commandment applies to prayer and giving
alms (Matt. 6:3,6). Besides, prayer and alms giving are
practised in all the churches of the world on a communal
basis. In the Old Testament people observed communal
worship in the form of prayer, hymns and Bible readings as
well as fasting (Zech. 8:19; Est. 4:3. 16; Ezra. 8:21; 2 Chorn.
20:3; Joel 3:5). In the New Testament the apostles fasted
together (Act 13:2,3). Hence why should believers avoid
communal fasting under the pretext of private observance?!
The secret of the Early Church being strong was its unified
faith as well as communal participation even in fasting. His-
tory itself is a witness that ever since the apostolic age, both
Eastern and Western churches fasted on Wednesdays and
Fridays7 besides the Great Lent8. To answer to the concept
of fasting privately in order to avoid boastfulness, we find
the apostle revealing that he fasted. He announces "with
fasting," and he practised it with those who were on the boat
2. Why are the days set for fasting specifically designated? If they are not indicated or organised by the Church, believers may be deprived of fasting all their lives. This is just what has happened in most Western Churches. In the Old Testament there were designated fasting days (Zech. 8:9) side by side with communal fasting or personal ones practised in periods of hardship.
3. Some object to fasting designated by the Church by
quoting the words: "Let no man therefore judge you in meat
or in drink..." Col 2:16, and "What God has cleansed, that
call you common" Act 10:11-15, and also the words:
..."some shall depart from the faith.. forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats which God has created to be received with thanksgiving..." 1 Tim. 4:1-3. This can be explained as follows:
a. The Apostle didn't say, "Let no man therefore judge you in fasting..." but he said, ..."In meat or in drink." Thus what is intended here is the abstention from certain forbidden food designated by the Law of Moses. As when St. Peter saw a great sheet cover with all kinds of food and abstained at first (Acts 10:11-15). Therefore the Apostle meant here to fight the idea of reverting to Judaism.
b. Concerning those who forbid specific food such as the
Manichaeans and the Donatists, who also have forbidden
marriage as unclean and eating meat as defiling...those were
excommunicated. During fasting we do not forbid certain
food (as unclean) but we voluntarily subjugate and control
the body (1 Cor. 9:27).
It is noteworthy to underline that the first man was
vegetarian (Gen. 1:29), and man continued to avoid eating
meat until the period of Noah's ark (Gen. 9:3). At that time
his spiritual standard dropped. This explains why believers
eat vegetarian food when they wish to create a suitable
atmosphere for spiritual development. The same behavior
was observed by Daniel and the three young men at the
palace, and also by Ezekiel.
c. "Church Order" is essential to communal life, as it is
indicated in 2 John. Besides, the church is known for its
flexibility; believers can be allowed to increase, decrease or
even stop fasting by their spiritual fathers, during confession,
and according to their spiritual, physical, or health condition.
PERIODS OF FASTING IN THE COPTIC CHURCH
First: The Weekly fast:
Just as the church practises
worship weekly, it also practises general fasting weekly. This
has its origin in the Jewish Church. Jews were accustomed to
fast on Mondays and Thursdays, as on these two days Moses
went up to receive the commandments and descended the
mountain carrying the two stone tablets. That is why when
Christ spoke about the Pharisee, He said he boasted about
fasting every week (Luke 18:12). Since the apostolic age, the
Church has been aware of the value of fasting and designated
Wednesdays and Fridays as days for fasting. This is done in memory of Christ's betrayal and crucifixion.
Second: The Great Lent or "Tessaracoste (forty days fasting)." This is set to achieve a dual purpose: first, to be prepared to experience the joyful resurrection of the crucified Lord. Secondly, to prepare catechumens through teaching and guidance to practise worship together with practical repentance, so that they might receive the sacrament of baptism on Easter eve.
It is necessary to stop and reflect upon these two
objectives. Although we celebrate the resurrection weekly on
every Sunday, and practise the "resurrected life" every day
through continuous renewal and unceasing repentance, yet
we are in need of the fasting period of forty days (Great
Lent) besides the Holy Week in order to become ready for
the joy of the resurrection and the power it gives. Within this
period we practise "mortification" in the Lord, that His
resurrection may be transfigured in us, and to be able to say
with the Apostle Paul: "If so be that we suffer with Him, that
we may be also glorified together" Rom. 8:17.
With regards to the preparation of the catechumens within
this period, fasting is necessary for the performance of this
task, and gives an increasingly deep significance. It implies
an open loving heart towards human race. The whole church
fasts, so that God may attract new children to Him, and
prepare them for the blessings of His Fatherhood... Thus
fasting is a sign of our faith in God's power manifested in our
ministry and preaching. On the other hand, fasting -
particularly the Great Lent - should have the aim of witnessing to Jesus Christ and of unceasing prayer for the sanctification of mankind.
At every Lent, a believer used to remember how the
Church fasted on his behalf and strived to gain him as a holy
vessel and as an altar to the Lord. Similarly, it is his turn now
to repay this love by working for the salvation of others.
Actually the observance of "Great Lent" dates back to the age of the apostles:
a. In the writings of St. Irenaeus - in the second century -
mention is made of believers who fasted for a day, besides
others who fasted for two days before Easter, as well as
others who fasted for longer periods. There is reference to
some who counted forty hours in a day9. This does not mean
that St. Irenaeus negates fasting during Lent or the Holy
Week, but he indicates the complete abstention from food
which precedes the Easter Liturgy of Eucharist. For while
some are satisfied to fast on Holy Saturday (and that is the
only time when the Coptic Church fasts on a Saturday in the
form of complete abstention), others abstain for two
successive days: Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Concern-
ing the calculation of forty hours in a day, this probably
refers to a custom practised in the second century, and which
some Copts follow, wherein fasting starts on Good Friday
and continues until sunrise on Easter Sunday - i.e., until the
celebration of the Easter Liturgy. This is equivalent to forty
b. In the middle of the third century, there is strong
evidence that fasting extended for six days (from Holy
Monday to Holy Sunday). Some scholars comment on this as
a clear indication of the distinction made between fasting
during the six paschal (Holy) days as a whole and fasting on
Good Friday and Holy Saturday which has specific signifi-
cance10. Actually, what occurred in the third century may be
considered as complementary to what is mentioned by St.
Irenaeus. This saint mentions complete long abstention pre-
ceding the Easter Liturgy, whereas what is mentioned
regarding the middle of the third century refers to fasting
during the Holy Week as a whole and which also has specific
significance, especially that it is still observed by our Church
with greater asceticism than the rest of Lent period.
c. In A.D 325, the Council of Nicene mentioned Lent as a settled matter recognised by the Universal Church, and not as an innovation in the church or in some churches.
d. In the middle of the fourth century, St. Athanasius was
greatly concerned with writing the "Paschal Letters," even in
his exile. The Popes of Alexandria have followed this custom
at least ever since Pope Dionysius of Alexandria. These were
written on the occasion of the Epiphany, not only to
designate Easter time but also to designate the beginning of
Lent immediately followed by the Holy Week and by Easter
It is noteworthy that in the letters that have come down to
us, St. Athanasius integrated Lent with the Holy Week,
although he stressed the clear distinction between them.
The Coptic Church fasts for fifty five days (forty day
[Lent]; eight days [Holy Week] and seven days instead of the
seven Saturdays which are not observed with complete
Third: Other Periods of Fasting: Besides the weekly fasting and Lent followed by the Holy Week, Copts observe the following periods of fasting:
Fasting before Christmas:
Its aim is spiritual
preparation to receive the birth of Christ. It lasts for forty
days plus three days in memory of the general fast observed
in the reign of Al Moiz when El-Muqattam mountain was
2- The Fast of the Apostles:
This begins on the day
following Pentecost and continues until the feast of the
martyrs, SS. Peter and Paul, on Abib the fifth (twelfth of
July). The aim of this fasting period is to fill the soul with
fervour and zeal to preach the Word with an apostolic
3- The Fast of Ninevah:
This lasts for three days. It
starts on the Monday preceding the one before Lent. It
probably refers to Jonah's fast, while he was inside the
4- The Fast of the Holy Virgin:
This takes place fifteen
days before the celebration of the Holy Virgin Mary feast. (It
lasts from the seventh to the twenty second of August (16th
5- Fasting on the eve (Paramoun) of Christmas and on the eve of the Epiphany... this fast is observed immediately before these feasts, it is taken with great asceticism. If this occurs on a Saturday or Sunday, then fasting starts on Friday to allow complete abstention until sunset.
Notes on Periods of Fasting observed by the Copts:
1- Fasting is not observed on Wednesdays and Fridays occurring in the "Pentecostal Period," i.e., the fifty days starts from Easter to Pentecost.
2- The sick and travellers may reduce the periods set for
fasting by absolution during confession. As for those who
observe asceticism, they many fast all their lives and follow
no restrictions. Upon consecration, a bishop fasts for a
1. H.H. Pope Shenouda III: The Spirituality of Fasting, Cairo, Egypt, 1984 (in Arabic).
2. The Shepherd of Hermans 3:7.
3. In Lev. hom 10:2.
4. Ser. 208 "Fathers of the Church, vol. 38."
5. Paschal Ep. 4:2.
6. H.H. Pope Shenouda III: Lectures in the Comparative Theology, Vol. 3 (in Arabic).
7. Didache 8:1.
8. Dict. of Christian Antiq. 2:972, Hip of Rome, Canon 20; Council of Nicea, Canon 5.
9. J.G. Davies: A Dict. of Liturgy and Worship, SCM 1978, P. 212.
10. Ibid 213.
U U U