We are about to embark on the Great Fast (a.k.a. Lent), but as with all worship and rites, it is preferable that we not only understand the what and how of our religion, but also understand why, in order to make it all relevant to us today. The fruit of my research on this topic was intriguing (e.g., there was no “Great Fast” for the first few hundred years), but also at one point I felt embarrassed as I learned the original reason behind what we now refer to as “Preparation Week.” Here is a summary of the current practice and history of the Great Fast, with a particular emphasis on the Coptic Church. Further below you will also find a PowerPoint presentation that I used to teach about this subject that you may download and use as desired.
Fasting Defined. A period of not eating or drinking until one feels hunger, followed by breaking the fast and controlling quantity, quality, and kind of food consumed. In the Coptic Church, we fast with no meat or dairy and their derivative products, to set parameters on the kind of food we eat. Fasting is not a goal, but rather it is a means to learn to overcome the body’s wants, so that one may overcome impulses that may lead to sin. The goal is purity, which cannot be achieved without fasting being accompanied by prayer, as Christ taught (Mark 9:29).
What is the Great Fast? It is the period of fasting before commemorating the last week of Christ’s life, His death, and His resurrection. This fast does not include Holy “Pascha” (aka Passion / Passover) Week, which is the commemoration of the last week of Christ’s life immediately preceding His glorious resurrection.
How long is the Fast? Normally, as you will find in apostolic churches including the Eastern Orthodox, the fast lasts 40 days. 6 weeks of fasting (equals 42) but the last weekend is not counted (42-2 = 40) because we commemorate Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday. Thus, the true “last day” of the Great Fast is the Friday preceding Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday, which is a clearly declared understanding and rite in Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches. In the Coptic Church however, there is an additional week preceding the 40 days, and it is today called “Preparation Week” (the history of which I’ll explain further below).
It used to be prohibited to fast on the Lord’s Day (Sunday) or the Sabbath (Saturday). In the early Church, there is evidence that there was no fasting permitted on Saturdays or Sundays, except the Saturday before the Resurrection Feast (aka Easter). For St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (martyred AD 108), it was a serious infraction to do otherwise:
“Despise not the period of forty days, for it comprises an imitation of the conduct of the Lord. After the week of the passion, do not neglect to fast on the fourth and sixth days, distributing at the same time of your abundance to the poor. If anyone fasts on the Lord’s Day or on the Sabbath, except on the paschal Sabbath only, he is a murderer of Christ.”
So why do we fast on weekends during the Great Fast? Ultimately, the bishops of the church are given the authority to establish, revise, and take away fasts. In AD 225 we find Tertullian telling us,
“It is customary practice for the bishops to issue mandates for fasts to the universal commonality of the Church.”
With this authority, at some point the Church decided that fasting on weekends was permitted. However, this was seen as a concession, and so they intentionally set a stark difference between fasting on the weekdays, and the weekend. Monday through Friday, one can abstain from food and prostrations of repentance are encouraged. For Saturday (the Sabbath day of rest set in the Old Testament, still revered by Orthodox Christians), and Sunday (the Lord’s day, when He resurrected), a person can fast by restricting the kind, quantity, and quality of food eaten, but strict abstinence from food is not allowed. Moreover, as is the case throughout the year, no bending of the knee is allowed on Sundays (the word for “stand” or “rise up” in Greek is essentially the same word for “resurrection”, and the council of Nicea and many early Fathers declared an ancient rule and canon not to allow prostrations of repentance on Saturdays and especially Sundays). At some point the rule of no bending of the knee on the Sabbath (Saturday) was also applied, presumably due to it being the day of rest and still recognized as a holy day. (For more on this subject see this article).
Today, the contrasting rubrics between weekday and weekend fasting is exhibited most clearly during the Great Fast. If you attend a liturgy during the weekday in the Coptic Church, the rites are markedly different and more solemn than in the weekend where there is a bit more jubilant (although not joyful) tone to the rubrics. For example, on the weekdays the church has designated a special rite of prostrations of repentance to occur (unlike any other liturgy aside from jonah’s fast which carries over Great Fast rules, the priest declares out loud “let us bend our knees,” and prostrates, while the congregation responds with “have mercy upon us” and prostrates as well). Also, the hymns are chanted in a manner that are extremely “slow” and almost mournful. Liturgies are often in the evening, encouraging strict abstinence to a late hour in the day. Weekends however the rite of prostrations added to the Great Fast weekday liturgies is absent. The tunes are faster and more rhythmically uplifting. Liturgies are never in the evenings and strict abstinence is absolutely forbidden.
In AD 1245 we read about the rites of the Coptic Church at the time of the Great Fast, as conveyed by a Coptic historian. There was a collection of Church and Civil Laws by Al-Safawy Le Ibn Al-Assal, dated to about AD 1245, which highlights what that historian understood to be the practice of the Coptic Church at the time (note, these are not official church statements, but reflect the historian’s understanding):
1245 AD collection of Church and Civil Laws by “Al-Safawy Le Ibn Al-Assal”:
[Abstain until sunset & no fish] “All Nazarene (‘Nassara’ meaning Christians) are required to fast the holy forty days (lent) …. This fast is to be abstention to the end of the day (sunset around 6 PM). … No abstention on Sundays or Saturdays.”
[No Synaxarion feasts during week] “During the forty days (lent) they should not celebrate the martyrs on week days, but to do those remembrance only on Saturdays and Sundays.”
[No social celebrations] “During the forty days (lent) there should be no wedding, no celebration, and no sitting to drink (parties or social gatherings).
HISTORICAL TIMELINE OF THE GREAT FAST
c. AD 100 – No Great Fast – Unclear whether by this time there is a Great Fast, but evidence seems to indicate that no such fast existed. Instead there was only a commemoration of Christ’s last week on earth, and the manner that week was commemorated differed among churches. While early texts make mention occasionally of a 40 day fast, it may actually be a fast that occurred at a separate time, such as after Theophany (Christ’s baptism and revelation of the Trinity), which is chronologically more accurate, as Christ went to the wilderness and fasted forty days just after that event.
AD 250 – Coptic Pope Instiutes Great Fast – Pope Demetrius, the 12th archbishop of the Coptic Church, is credited with moving the 40-day post Theophany fast to immediately precede Holy Pascha Week, and receiving agreement among the churches in other jurisdictions outside of Alexandria to do the same as well. At this time there was no “preparation week” yet. The Coptic Synaxarion states:
He appended the Holy Fast to the Passion Week. Pope Demetrius wrote in this respect to the Patriarchs of Jerusalem, of Antioch, of Rome, and to others. They all approved and followed it.
AD 325 – The Council of Nicea bishops formally declare a 40-day Great Fast preceding Holy Week to be the universal canon of the Church, and the Coptic (Alexandrian) pope is tasked with informing other jurisdictions each year of when the Resurrection Feast date should be. In AD 367 one of the most historically significant of those letters was distributed by the pope St Athanasius, which is the first time we have clear declaration of the New Testament canon as we know it today; that was his 39th letter since assuming the rule of pope of Alexandria in AD 328.
AD 616 – Heraclius Week, later called Preparation Week, added – In the Coptic Church, an additional week was added to the Great Fast. We find mention,of this week being referred to as “Hercules Week” as late as AD 1245 by Al-Safawy Le Ibn Al-Assal as being a fast distinct from the Great Fast proper. Here is the shameful history behind this week. Allow me to preface by noting what is known, that all people are flawed, and the people who make up a church may falter, but what is important is the Church “course corrects” and recognizes an error when there is one. This is the story of one such error. Heraclius (the more accepted spelling rather than “Hercules”) was a Roman emperor in the 7th century. In AD 613, he was besieged in Constantinople by Kessra the king of Persia. After six years he managed to escape to the land of Cush and from there he went to Persia, killed its people and defeated the army of Kessra, ending the siege of his own country. On entering Jerusalem he found it desolate, and Jewish people were alleged to have demolished churches and persecuted (including burning) Christians. Christians there are said to have asked emperor Heraclius to protect them by killing the Jews in the region, a request which he initially refused due to an oath of peace he had promised the Jews. However, Christians convinced him the Jews were not sustaining such peace and so they promised emperor Heraclius that in exchange for his killing Jews in the region, the Christians would fast for his sake for a week each year forever, a request which apparently he complied with. Note that there is no evidence I am aware of that directly links the Coptic Church go seeking such killings. However, bishops wrote to various countries declaring that a week would be appended to the Great Fast, and Pope Adronicus, the 37th Patriarch of Alexandria, acknowledged this request. From that time, “Heraclius Week” began to be observed. Later the Coptic Church recognized and rejected the historical purpose for the fast, and converted the purpose of the week to become what is now known as “Preparation Week,” giving it a spiritual dimension as a prelude to and preparation for the holy forty days of the Great Fast (this entire historical explanation was taken from the Diocese of the Southern United States website Q&A).
AD 616 – Present – The framework of the Great Fast in the Coptic Church (7 day initial week followed by a 40-day fast) has remained in effect to the present time.
For those who may feel unmotivated to fast “Preparation Week,” especially in light of the history noted above, think of the following: it is the only way to offer to God a true 40 days of strict abstinence during the Great Fast including Holy Week. There are 8 weeks of fasting beginning from Preparation Week until the feast of the resurrection. Only 5 days each week allow for strict abstinence (+1 day if you count Bright [or Apocalypse] Saturday, the day before the resurrection). 5 x 8 = 40 days which you can offer to God a true fast with abstinence. This is a common explanation for why we have 8 weeks of fasting (as His Holiness Pope Shenouda III wrote about in his book “Spirituality of Fasting”; I think it is a novel spiritual reinterpretation of the purpose for the length of the entire fasting period, but is a a suitable spiritually nonetheless).
SOURCES AND FURTHER RESOURCES
Image above was a picture I took of the St. Anthony monastery in Egypt when I had the blessing of visiting.
Sources for the above article are cited in the article itself. Note also that the rule of no prostrations on Saturdays in addition to Sundays is practiced not just in the Coptic or Oriental Church but the Eastern Orthodox Church as well (see here for more information and also this reference: Kollyvadian Book of Liturgical Rubrics of the erudite economos Fr. George Regas of Skiathos, Typikon, Thessalonica, 1994, p. 42.
For a PowerPoint presentation of the History of the Great Fast which I created and used for my lecture on this subject, you can download it here.