Fasting is strictly observed by the Copts in accordance with their calendar. The custom predates Christianity in Judaism and ancient Egyptian religion. Fasts are recommended by Jesus (Mt. 6:16; Mk. 2:20) and by the apostles (Acts 13:2, 14:23; 2 Cor. 11:27). The total fasting days in Coptic tradition cover approximately two- thirds of the year or a minimum of 250 days.
In their fasts, the Copts avoid meat and all animal extracts including eggs, milk, butter, and cheese. Fish is also prohibited in the fasts of Jonah, Our Lady, and especially Lent. It is said that the forty days of Lent coincided with a similar period during which the ancient Egyptians also refrained from eating fish through the spawning season in the Nile. This renders that tradition with the Copts older than the introduction of Christianity.
Coptic monks, ascetics, and solitaries often pushed fasting far beyond the canonical practices. They fasted the whole year, and frequently ate only one meal after sunset.
Fast of the Apostles
This fast commemorates the fast observed by the disciples after the ascension of Christ (Acts 10:10; 12:2, 3; 14:21-24; 27:9, 21).
It starts on Monday that follows Pentecost and ends on 5 Abib, when the Coptic church celebrates the feast of the apostles Peter and Paul. Since Pentecost is a movable feast, this fast has no fixed duration, but varies between fifteen and forty-nine days.
According to the Constitutions of the Holy Fathers 5.20: “. . . after you have kept the festival of Pentecost, keep one week more festival, and after that fast; for it is reasonable to rejoice for the gift of God, and to fast after that relaxation” (Constitutions, 1951, p. 449). The Coptic church, however, starts the fast immediately after Pentecost.
The fifty days following the Resurrection are a period of rejoicing during which it is not proper to fast. “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Mt. 9:15). The fathers have stressed this point in their writings. Tertullian (c. 160-220) states: “We consider it unlawful to fast or to pray kneeling, upon the Lord’s Day; we enjoy the same liberty from Easter-day to that of Pentecost” (De corona, 1980, p. 94).
A special rite is followed in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy during the fast of the apostles, especially in the daily Psalmodia and the Fraction. A complete fast is also kept until three o’clock in the afternoon, that is, the ninth canonical hour.
Fast of Heraclius
This seven-day fast is attributed to Emperor Heraclius (575-642), who rescued the holy cross from the Persians in 629 and restored it to Golgotha. It is erroneously linked with the Coptic church, and taken to account for the first seven of the fifty-five days forming the Coptic Great Lent. The misconception arises from the following historical event.
When the triumphant emperor reached Tiberias on his way back from Persia, he was lobbied by the Jewish population who succeeded through lavish gifts in acquiring his written pledge of security. This they did to forestall any possible acts of retribution on the part of the Christian population of the Holy Land. However, on his arrival at Jerusalem, the Christians pointed out to the emperor concrete evidence of the devastation caused by the Jews during the years of the Persian occupation and urged him to punish them. Heraclius was at first reluctant to depart from the promise of security he had just granted, but the Byzantine patriarch of Jerusalem and his bishops argued that a promise made under fraud would not be binding. Furthermore, to allay his misgivings, they offered to institute a week’s fast in expiation of his breach of promise and to write to other churches to this effect. Eventually, Heraclius gave orders for the massacre of the Jewish population of Jerusalem.
The story occurs in the chronicles of Sa‘id ibn Batriq (887-940), the Melchite patriarch in Egypt, commonly known as Eutychius, and author of Kitab Nazm al-Jawhar (The String of Pearls). It also appears in Al-Khitat wa-al-Athar by al-MAQRIZI (1364-1442) and in various ecclesiastical histories by, to mention a few, SAWIRUS IBN AL-MUKAFFA‘ and Jirjis ibn al-‘Amid, known as Ibn al- Makin (1205-1273).
The authenticity of some details of this story, however, is questionable, in view of apparent discrepancies. For while both Eutychius and al-Maqrizi state that the week’s fast was to be observed in perpetuity, Ibn al-Makin limits it to forty years. Again, according to one version, the Jews of Jerusalem are said to have been entirely wiped out, but in another version they were only exiled to Egypt and other countries. One historian confines the massacre to Jerusalem and Galilee, others extend it to the whole of Syria and Egypt. Some commentators believe that the fast was a votive offering made by Heraclius himself just before embarking on his crusade against the Persians.
Whatever the case may be, the said fast of Heraclius is completely alien to the Coptic church and its fasts for the following reasons:
At the time of Heraclius, the church of Alexandria had severed its links with Constantinople and established its own fasts as part of its exclusive rites and practices, which would not be affected by foreign events such as a massacre of Jews in Jerusalem.
The tension between the Coptic patriarchs of Alexandria and representatives of Constantinople had reached its utmost limits and prevented contact between the two sides and any exchange of views or recommendations. This was the case at the time of Pope ANASTASIUS (605-616), who was exiled from his lawful seat in Alexandria, and Pope ANDRONICUS (616-622), his successor, and also during the papacy of BENJAMIN I (622-661) who was in exile until the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT in 640.
Ever since the end of the second century when Pope DEMETRIUS I reorganized Coptic fasts, they had become unalterable. The first week of the Great Lent was integrated into fifty-five days of the fast preceding Easter.
It is remarkable that Eutychius and Ibn al-Makin each give another justification for this week’s fast. The former explains that it was added by way of a prelude or preparation, while the latter reckons that the addition of one week made up for the total exclusion of Saturday and Sunday from the lenten fast.
According to the testimony of Etheria (or Egeria), the Spanish traveler who visited the Holy Lands in 382 and 383 (Peregrinatio Aetheriae, 1919), the church of Jerusalem observed an eight-week fast before Easter.
Fast of Jonah
Also designated the Fast of Nineveh, this fast is observed to commemorate the penance of the Ninevites at the preaching of Jonah (Jon. 3:1-10).
This fast was originally kept by the Syrian Orthodox Church and was adopted as one of the fasts of the Coptic church by Patriarch ABRAHAM, the sixty-second pope of Alexandria (975-978), as a mark of unity and solidarity between the two sister churches.
It lasts for three whole days, representing the time spent by Jonah inside the whale, starting on a Monday, about two weeks before the beginning of the Great Lent. Liturgies are held daily in the afternoon. The eating of fish and all forms of animal fat is not allowed during this fast.
The fraction prayers appointed to be said during the liturgical service included the following words: “It was through fasting and prayer, observed by the people of Nineveh, that God had mercy on them, forgave their sins, and turned His wrath away from them.”
Great Lent, as distinct from the little fast that precedes the feast of the Nativity, is observed in commemoration of the forty-day fast of the Lord Jesus Christ (Mt. 4:2; Lk. 4:2), after which the church observes Holy Week in memory of Christ’s passion.
Lent has been observed by the church ever since the apostolic age. According to the Constitutions of the Holy Fathers: “. . . the fast of Lent is to be observed by you as containing a memorial of our Lord’s mode of life and legislation. But let this solemnity be observed before the fast of the passover. . . . After which . . . begin the holy week of the Passover fasting in the same all of you with fear and trembling . . .” (Constitutions 5.18, p. 443). The penalty for failure to observe Lent is laid down in the Canons of the Holy Apostles: “If any bishop, or presbyter, or deacon, or reader, or singer does not fast the fast of the forty days of holy Lent, or the fourth day of the week, and the day of the Preparation, let him be deprived, except he be hindered by weakness of body. But if he is one of the laity, let him be excommunicated” (Constitutions, Canon 69, p. 504; Apostolical Canons 69, p. 598; Cummings, 1957, p. 122).
Reference to the importance of observing Lent occurs in the writings of the early fathers of the church.
In the early church, Lent began on the day after the feast of Epiphany (see FEASTS, MAJOR), in imitation of Christ, who fasted immediately after His baptism (Mt. 3:16, 4:2; Lk. 4:1,2). Holy Week was observed as a separate fast to coincide with the Jewish Passover, occurring some time between the two months of Baramhat and Baramudah of the Coptic calendar. Toward the end of the second century, however, Demetrius I established the epact system of computation, and joined the holy fast to Passion Week, as one continuous and uninterrupted period of fasting prior to the celebration of the Resurrection.
Great Lent lasts fifty-five days, being the forty days that Jesus Christ fasted, with the addition of Holy Week as the final week of the fast, and an introductory week of preparation, in view of the particular significance of Lent.
More than one interpretation, however, has been suggested regarding this introductory week. It has been called, for instance, the fast of Heraclius (see above). Al-SAFI IBN AL-‘ASSAL, who antedated Heraclius by several centuries, states that “all men and women should observe Great Lent for eight weeks extending from the end of winter until the beginning of summer” (1927, chap. 15, p. 142).
Another interpretation was given by certain church historians, such as Jirjis ibn al-‘Amid, and Abu-Shakir ibn al-Rahib ibn-Butrus ibn al-Muhadhdhab (thirteenth century), who explain that a further week was imposed by the church in view of the difference in the practice of fasting on Saturdays and Sundays. Strictly speaking, unlike other weekdays, fasting on these two particular days should not be a total abstinence between the first canonical hour of the day (6 A.M.) and the eleventh hour (5 P.M.), with the exception of the last Saturday in Passion Week, that is, Great Saturday, on which the body of Jesus Christ was still lying in the grave. To make up for the difference, a week was therefore added at the beginning of Lent.
Throughout Great Lent, the liturgy is celebrated on weekdays between the ninth and eleventh canonical hours, that is, from three to five o’clock in the afternoon, but on Saturdays and Sundays, it is held as usual earlier in the day. It is also worthy of note that it is frequently taken from the Anaphora of Saint Cyril, also known as that of Saint Mark.
According to the stipulations of canons 51 and 52 of the Synod of Laodicea (343-381), no weddings or birthdays are to be celebrated during the season of Lent, and the faithful should abstain from activities of a festal nature, or those involving physical enjoyment or pleasure.
Fast of the Nativity
The fast of the Nativity invariably begins on 16 Hatur of the Coptic calendar and ends on the eve of 29 Kiyahk, thus covering forty-three days. Originally it was observed for forty days only, but toward the end of the tenth century, three days were added to it to commemorate the miraculous event of the moving of the Muqattam hill in Cairo during the patriarchate of Abraham. The story of this event turns around the challenge by al-Mui‘zz, the Fatimid caliph (952-975), to the Coptic patriarch to prove the truth of the saying of Jesus (Mt. 17:20) that faith could move mountains. Accordingly, the patriarch, together with the Coptic community, kept vigil and prayers for three days and nights, which eventually proved efficacious in moving al-Muqattam.
This fast was ordained by the church as a spiritual preparation prior to the celebration of the Nativity of the Logos, just as in the Old Testament Moses observed a fast for forty days and nights before receiving the word of God in the form of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 34:28).
The strict observance of this fast necessitates total daily abstinence from food till three o’clock in the afternoon and from eating animal fat afterward.
Throughout the month of Kiyahk, the church uses the Kiyahkan psalmodia, which revolves around the themes of the incarnation of the Logos, the Son of God, and the praise of the Theotokos (Mother of God). The Divine Liturgy also includes this special fraction: “O Master Lord our God, who art unseen, unlimited, unchangeable and incomprehensible; who sent us the True Light, His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, the Logos; who abideth everlastingly in Your Fatherly bosom, and came and dwelt in the Virgin’s undefiled womb. She gave birth to Him, remaining a virgin, and her virginity is sealed. The angels praise Him, and the heavenly host chant unto Him, crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, the Lord of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are filled with Thy holy glory.”
Fast of the Virgin Mary
This fifteen-day fast covers the first two weeks of the month of Misra and ends with the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
Mention is made of this fast by the thirteenth-century writer al- Safi ibn al-‘Assal in his Kitab al-Qawanin (Book of Canon Law), where it is referred to as sawn ‘id al-Sayyidah (the fast preceding the feast of our Lady).
This fast is most widely observed among Copts of all ages, who keep it with particular abstention from eating fish and all food substances that include fat, oil, or its products. It is also customary for many people to practice full abstention, eating only one meal at the end of the day, following the celebration of the liturgy. Other people may also extend their fast by adding a week before and after the prescribed period.
Wednesday and Friday
The Coptic church ordains that Wednesday and Friday be observed as fast days, the former being the day on which Jesus Christ was condemned to be crucified, and the latter being the day on which His crucifixion took place. This fast applies throughout the year, with the following exceptions: during the fifty days following Easter; or should the feast of the Nativity (29 Kiyahk) or of the Epiphany (11 Tubah) fall on either day.
The fast, which is kept until three o’clock in the afternoon, that is, the ninth canonical hour, entails abstention from foodstuffs containing animal fats, for the rest of the day.
Reference to Wednesday and Friday fasts occurs in various sources such as the Didascalia (1929, chap. 18), the Didache (1958, chap. 8), Canon 69 of the Apostolic Canons, in Ibn al-‘Assal’s Al- Majmu‘al-Safawi (chap. 15, iii), and in Ibn al-Muqaffa‘’s History of the Patriarchs (1949, Vol. 2, pt. 3, pp. 161, 168).
Its importance was also stressed by Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215) in Stromata, vii, 12 (1956, p. 544); Tertullian (c. 160-c. 220) in On Fasting, xiv (1951, Vol. 4, p. 112); and Peter of Alexandria the Martyr (d. 311) in his fifteenth Canon (1956, xiv, p. 601).
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