This week we have entered one of the least known and possibly most widely ignored fasting seasons of the Orthodox Church: the Apostles Fast. It began on Monday. If you forgot about it, you’re probably not alone. Unless your priest and your church bulletin reminded you, nothing in our society signals us that another fasting season has arrived.
One of the difficulties with the Apostles Fast is that its duration varies widely. This year it began on June 20th and will end on the 28th, followed by the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on the 29th. It’s a manageable nine days, and the fasting rules vary among jurisdictions. For Greek Orthodox, fish, wine and oil are allowed except on Wednesdays and Fridays, whereas for other Orthodox, such as the Antiochians, fish is only allowed on certain weekends. It’s basically the Nativity Fast for summer, with the usual Lenten expectation of increased prayer and almsgiving along with the dietary changes.
But I remember one year when the Apostles Fast lasted for one day, and I especially remember one year when it was about five weeks long. True confession here: I gave up midway through that one. Another true confession: I find the Apostles Fast to be extremely annoying. I mean, this is barbecue season! When the weather is warm, or blazingly hot, I can handle the usual Wednesday and Friday fast days. But anything longer than that is frustrating and, for some reason, difficult to remember.
So my hope this year is to change my attitude and pay attention. That might sound like a worthy goal, but I’m setting the bar pretty low, given the middling amount of thought I’ve given to this fast over the last decade or so. But, as always, nothing helps my attitude and mindset more than learning what the Church in her wisdom is teaching us in the Apostles Fast and the Feast Day of Ss. Peter and Paul, if I’m willing to listen.
A Changing but Ancient Practice
The reason for the unpredictability of the length of this fast is that it always ends the day before the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul—June 29th on the new calendar. But, it begins on the Monday after All Saints Day, which changes each year, depending on the date of Easter. When Pascha is later, the Apostles Fast lasts only a few days, and some years it doesn’t fit in the calendar at all. But when Pascha comes early, the fast can last for around a month.
Its variability can be confusing, and most Protestant denominations aren’t even aware of it, but the Apostles Fast is actually an ancient practice. In the late fourth century, St. Athanasius the Great and St. Ambrose wrote about it. Also around this time, when the pilgrim Egeria (or Etheria) wrote her account of her trip to the Holy Land, she recorded, “On the day following the feast of Pentecost, a period of fasting began.” The Apostolic Constitutions of that era instruct the faithful, “After the feast of Pentecost, celebrate one week, then observe a fast, for justice demands rejoicing after the reception of the gifts of God and fasting after the body has been refreshed.”
The Orthodox Church still follows this guideline: We celebrated Pentecost this year on Sunday, June 12th, enjoyed a fast-free week, and moved on to the Apostles Fast.
But why is the fast placed here on the calendar? Because the Church is following Jesus’ example. He fasted 40 days after the Holy Spirit descended upon Him like a dove, and the Apostles also fasted after the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on them. As believers, we share in the gift of the Holy Spirit as well, and like the apostles before us, we observe a fast of thanksgiving to God.
Over time the general Apostles Fast became linked with the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. In the 15th century St. Symeon of Thessalonica explained why: “The Fast of the Apostles is justly established in their honor, for through them we have received numerous benefits and for us they are exemplars and teachers of the fast.”
As I have reflected on this fast and feast, I’ve been struck by the way it highlights a significant difference between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic faiths.
Differing Perspectives from East and West
The Roman Church elevates St. Peter above all other saints, believing that he is the “rock” upon which Christ built His Church. (The Orthodox Church, in agreement with St. John Chrysostom and many other Fathers, believes that Peter’s confession of faith, not Peter himself, is the rock.)
In the Protestant world, which generally does not recognize and honor saints, I don’t recall much attention being paid to Peter, except for reading his letters in Bible studies. Even then, the emphasis was on 1 and 2 Peter as part of the Bible, not on Peter as their author. My guess is that honoring Peter sounds like a Catholic thing to do, so he is given minimal attention. A lot of Protestant practices can be explained by a pervasive Romaphobia. But that’s a different subject.
In my Evangelical past, the Apostle Paul reigned supreme over Peter, largely because of Paul’s authorship of so many books of the New Testament. The various theological systems within Protestantism also tend to filter Jesus’ words through Paul’s teachings.
In contrast to the West, the Orthodox Church honors Ss. Peter and Paul together, equally, not elevating one above the other. Both saints were martyred in Rome under Emperor Nero. Which year this happened, and whether they were actually martyred on the same day, are questions for scholars to argue. I have seen Orthodox sources that date their martyrdoms anywhere from AD 68 through 87. But we know that Peter was crucified upside down at his own request, because he did not feel worthy to die in the same way as his beloved Lord. Paul was a Roman citizen and thus was beheaded rather than crucified. Both of them established the Church and gave their lives for our Lord, and the Church gives these saints a common celebration and identical honor.
In the article “The Apostles Fast” on the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of San Francisco, Rev. Dean Koudulkis writes,
To understand the purpose of the Apostles Fast we are invited to remember that both Saints Peter and Paul worked diligently to establish our Lord’s Church. The focus of the Book of Acts is on the ministry of these two holy men as they preached our Lord crucified and resurrected. Hence, the Orthodox Church has always acknowledged Saints Peter and Paul as pillars of the Church, and especially Saint Paul as a stellar example of what it means to be a missionary.
Honoring Saints Peter and Paul in Iconography
Individual icons of St. Peter and St. Paul are available, but the Orthodox Church also has many icons of the saints together. In one common depiction, the two men are shown embracing each other, Peter depicted on the left as older and with gray hair and beard, and Paul on the right with dark hair and beard.
Another popular presentation shows the apostles together holding up an image of the Church. Apostle Paul, as a great missionary, also holds a Gospel book in his left hand, and Apostle Peter offers a blessing with his right. At the top of the icon, a semicircle representing the heavenly realm sometimes shows Christ but usually shows extending rays of light, representing God’s blessings upon the two great apostles of the Faith.
An oft-reposted explanation of this icon of Peter and Paul upholding the Church—I can’t find the original source—states,
They are portrayed together because both apostles, being chosen by our Lord, were instrumental in the establishment and growth of the early Church through their boldness, spiritual strength, and wisdom. Thus they are recognized as “pillars” of the Church, having offered all even unto death for the sake of the Gospel of Christ.
Significance of the Apostles Fast for Us Today
What does this fast, somewhere around the beginning of summer, say to us today? These two great apostles offer us three lessons to contemplate:
1. We need to pray for our missionaries.
Father Koudulkis writes, “The Apostles Fast invites us to remember in prayer the missionaries of our Church, those who are serving the Lord by working diligently to establish churches in conditions that are, at times, difficult.”
The article “What Is the Apostles Fast?” from the website of St. Philip Orthodox Church of Souderton, Pennsylvania, notes,
Following Jesus’ admonition recorded by St. Matthew, the Apostles left behind their parents, their children, and their possessions in order to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to people who did not know Him. Christian missionaries around the world are still doing this today. During the Fast of the Apostles we are reminded to pray for them all, and for Orthodox mission everywhere.
But those of us who are not full-time missionaries are not off the hook.
2. We should reflect on the lives of St. Peter, St. Paul, and the other apostles, and model our own lives after them.
Father Koudulkis continues:
This period of fasting also reminds us that we too have an obligation to be a missionary for our Lord. Jesus invites us when He says to us “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).
What if I’m not called to foreign missions? Saint Peter states, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet. 3:15). Hence, we are invited through the Apostles Fast to prayerfully think through our own testimony and to ask our Lord to help us share it whenever He gives us the opportunity. All around us are people who need Christ; our families, our friends, our neighbors, the people we work with. Perhaps our witness will open the door of their hearts to the grace of our Lord. Finally, when we are all united in heaven, we may discover that our witness played a role in their salvation.
3. Unity in Christ Transcends Personal Differences.
This truth is powerfully represented in the icon of Sts. Peter and Paul embracing. The two men had experienced sharp disagreement. Paul writes in Galatians 2 that Peter ate with the Gentiles, but when the pro-circumcision Jewish Christians arrived, he would sit and eat with them instead. Paul called out Peter’s hypocrisy and “withstood him to his face” (v. 11).
The division over whether or not Gentile believers should be circumcised in order to be true Christians led to the Jerusalem Council. The apostles and elders of the early Church, led by the Holy Spirit, came to the decision that practicing circumcision and kosher dietary laws is not necessary for anyone to become part of the Church.
The article “What Is the Apostles’ Fast?” explains the significance of these controversies and their resolution:
These events remind us to seek God when we have disagreements within the Church. This requires humility on our part, and the willingness to accept others even when we might not have agreed with them before. We let go of our own personal wishes or demands, and pray for the good of the Church and for a recognition of the will of God for all of us together.
At the conclusion of the Fast, therefore, we celebrate Peter and Paul together. The icon of the Feast depicts the two men standing side by side, holding the Church together in their hands. This is a powerful symbol of the supernatural love for one another which is given by the Holy Spirit. In the Holy Spirit we have agreement and new life. For this reason, Orthodox Christians today can regard the Fast of the Apostles as one of the most important times of the year, a time to humble ourselves and pray for genuine love and unity in the Church around the world.
One of the most important times of the year, even though this fast is easy to miss during the busy days of summer. Okay, maybe I shouldn’t be so annoyed at the inconvenience of the fast and instead put into practice its lessons: praying for missionaries, following the apostles’ examples, and practicing unity. I could use some improvement in each of those areas. During some years, we have an entire month to reflect on these things; during other years, only a few days.
But that’s okay. These are lessons for life.
Next time, we’ll begin a new series called “Behind the Icon Screen,” where we’ll examine some of the mysterious things that go on during the Divine Liturgy. Some of them occur out of sight of the laity. Others involve clergy prayers and actions that we can observe but that aren’t really explained, like the priests waving that rectangular fabric over the altar.
We all know by now that everything in the service means something—this is the Orthodox Church, after all—but we don’t necessarily know what those “somethings” are. So let’s find out together.
I hope you can join me.