Reader Paul Fowler
When you fast...Part 3
Updated: Mar 13, 2020
For those of you who are interested in a fuller account of how the Orthodox Church practises fasting, let me refer you to The Lenten Triodion translated by Metropolitan Kallistos and Mother Mary. His Eminence has written the introduction to this book and includes in it a very concise description of the Orthodox approach to the subject. The introduction was also published some years ago in booklet form by St Stephen’s Press,, entitled “The Lenten Journey: The Meaning of The Great Fast”. I am not sure if it is still in print but if you can get hold of a copy you will find it most helpful.
Last time I remarked on the weekly cycle of fasting. I now want to make some comments on the annual cycle of fasting which is based on the Church Calendar. These are the Four Major Fasts: Lent, The Apostle’s Fast, The Fast of the Dormition of the Mother of God and The Fast of St Philip. One of them is a moveable fast, two are fixed fasts and one links the moveable part of the calendar to the fixed part.
Let me explain: most of us will have heard of the expression “a movable feast”. This English cliche comes from the fact that Pascha, or Easter as it is called in the West, is not on the same day every year. Its date is calculated astronomically (this is not the place to explain the thinking behind how the date of Pascha is worked out, although if anyone is interested, I can put a few notes down for our website). The consequence of this is that the date varies every year. Hence it is “a movable feast”. Linked to Pascha are certain other feasts-for instance The Feast of Pentecost which is fifty days after Pascha, and they also become “moveable feasts”.
There is also a number of set feasts-the most important being Christmas, which always falls on December 25th. The set feasts are linked with “The Nativity of the Son of God According to the Flesh '' to give Christmas its full Othodox title. The Fast of St Philip is known in the West as Advent, because it precedes the feast which celebrates the First Advent or Coming of Christ. We refer to it as The Fast of St Philip because it begins on 28th November, the Day after The Feast of St Philip. St Philip, you will recall is the disciple who came to Nathaniel in the New Testament to tell him that he, Philip, had met the Messiah. Nathaniel did not believe him and so Philip invited him to “Come and see”.(John 1 vv 43-51). Philip invites us to prepare, by fasting and repentance, to “come and see” the Christ Child in the Manger at Christmas.
The Church Year ends at the end of August. We close the Church Year with the Fast of the Dormition of the Mother of God which culminates with the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God. The tradition tells us that when The Mother of God was due to end her earthly life, an angel visited her to tell her to prepare herself. She asked that the Twelve Apostles might be with her when she departed this life. All of them came, except for Thomas, who was delayed. The Eleven were with her when she went to be with her Son.
A few days later, Thomas arrived and asked to see her body. When the grave was opened and her coffin checked, they were surprised to find that her body was no longer there. Not only had her spirit gone to be with her Son, but He had also come to take her body into Heaven.
This is an archetype of The Second Coming of Christ, when Christ will return in the Clouds, those who have died in Christ will be bodily resurrected and taken to Heaven to be with Him and all those who are alive on earth and are in Christ will rise with them.
For this reason we fast prior to this feast, not just to repent of anything unconfessed from the previous year but also to prepare ourselves for His Glorious Second Advent.
The Apostles’ Fast links the two cycles. It begins the Monday after the Feast of All Saints, one week after The Feast of Pentecost. The Feast of Pentecost, as we remarked earlier on, is a movable feast. The Apostles’ Feast ends on July 11th, the day before the Feast of the Holy, Glorious and All Praised Leaders of the Apostles: Peter and Paul (July 12th), which is a fixed feast. Due to its being the link between the movable and set feasts, the length of the Apostles’ Fast can vary, from around a week to around six weeks, depending on the date of Pascha.