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.
The Coptic Church today celebrates what is often called “Jonah’s Feast,” after concluding a 3-day fast known as “Jonah’s” fast, which is an observance exclusive to the Oriental Orthodox. But I got to thinking: how did it originate and what is its purpose? I was surprised to learn a number of things I hadn’t really known before, and thought to share with you:
I have never been so excited to stand for 7 hours to praise God and honor His mother during the Coptic month of Kiahk (in our parish it is from 5pm until midnight)! And at our parish we are trying to return to the original method of praise, which gave the Kiahk Praises the alternative title “7 and 4” (you can read more about that here)—we may be the only or one of the quite few parishes in the entire Coptic Church doing this.
I’ve been spoiled here in the United States, where Christmas is a prevalent holiday. However, it is riddled with cultural traditions that are quite secular and have nothing to do with the reason for the season: Christ, the eternal Word of the Father, Light of Light, True God of True God, who existed before all ages, never created but is the Creator with the Father and the Holy Spirit, took flesh from a humble woman named Mary, when the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, so that the Divine became incarnate.
But I can’t imagine what it was like for the earlier Christians when Christianity was not a prevalent religion, or in places outside of the United States where other religions are the majority, or atheism is rampant. In such places the thoughts and words that come out of people’s mouths and linger in their minds is (and God forgive me for writing these words): “Jesus Christ is just a man, like other good men,” or “Mary did not give birth to God, just to a man that people made out to be God although he wasn’t,” or “There is no God; all of this Christmas stuff is nonsense.”
Are you serious! We’re fasting again already!? That’s the somber realization that most of us have after being spoiled with no fasting for a single day for 50 days straight after the resurrection feast, considering especially that most of us toiled so much in fasting for so long during the Great Lent and Holy Week. This time of year, here is a typical dialogue among friends:
“Why are we fasting again?”
“I’m not going to fast it. We have too many fasts as it is.”
“But you should, at least out of obedience to your mother, the Church, and for the sake of joining the rest of your brothers and sisters in this fast.”
“No. Just can’t do it. Maybe I’ll fast near the end of it. My parents don’t even fast this fast. Lots of people skip it. Besides, this fast is something new that the Church put together more recently than not. It wasn’t around in the early Church.”
“Actually, not only is it a very ancient fast, fasting in general has proven to be of great value beyond even just the spiritual aspect; it can actually increase your lifespan.”
As Americans approach the Thanksgiving holiday, many Orthodox Christians openly or secretly grumble about how the Nativity (a.k.a. Christmas/Advent) fast interferes with their holiday eating plans. So let’s take a moment to understand why and how we (should) fast before celebrating the incarnation of our divine Lord, taking flesh and living among us.
How many days do we fast before Christmas?
(and if you are Coptic Orthodox, add an additional 3 days [reason explained below])
Spiritual basis for length of fast
The Coptic Church as well as the Eastern Orthodox agree regarding the spiritual basis for the length of the fast. Continue reading →