Fasting and abstinence
Fasting in the Malankara Orthodox Syrian tradition
It is widely known that the Orthodox Churches give much importance to fasting, following the example of Jesus Christ and of the apostolic community. The noun fasting means non-eating and non-feeding. But every non-eater is by no means a faster and everyone who is an eater and restrains himself by an interior dedication from nourishment because of heavenly things is a faster.
In our materialistic society, we learn to identify ourselves through self-indulgence and we tend to see the fasting only as a time of deprivation and penance. But this is not at all the view of the Orthodox Church on fasting and abstinence and it is clearly explained by the Fathers in their spiritual discourses. For them, fasting is the feast of the soul and good fasts are like medicine which cures our soul and mind, and, along with other virtuous works, it leads us to the eternal life. In our spiritual battle, fasting protects us from the evil one. It not only resists the attack but also trains our body and mind for the battle. According to Mar Aprem (4th Century Church Father), fasting is a great weapon against the evil one. Through fasting, Christ defeated the Satan and has given us this weapon to overcome the evil. For Philixenus of Maboug (6th century Church Father), fasting and abstinence are the two virtuous weapons for cultivating the field of a Christian life. ‘Fasting must be undertaken voluntarily and it must be of divine dispensation’. This is the primary teaching of our Church on Fasting. Fast is of free will and it is the voluntary fast which is accessible and permanent. Fasting becomes highly acceptable when it is joined with humility of hearts, charity towards all men and continuous prayers. The Lenten prayers and liturgy of our Church extol this kind of fasting by giving the Old Testament figures as good examples (Moses, Daniel, Elijah etc.). Fasting is the root by which all the fruits of sanctity are sustained and on this same root grows purity, delights virginity and rejoices patience. Fasting dispels immodesty, controls the lust and offers the body as a holy temple of God. Therefore, the Church exhorts the faithful to love and practice this highly acceptable form of the Christian life so that it may lead them to the great eternal fast which is going to happen in the eternal bride chamber of life. Through it, the strength of the soul is confirmed, the riches of the body is increased and good aspirations aroused in the heart. The following are the main fasts mentioned by the Fathers of the Church according to the order in which they appear in the liturgical calendar.
The Fast before the Nativity of our Lord
This is a traditional fast observed in the Church with great enthusiasm. It seems that in the Syrian tradition this fast is of spontaneous origin and lasted forty days for to glorify and to give thanks to God the Father remembering his selfless love by giving His unique Son for the salvation of the world. The Church thinks it is right for every believer to fast this season, before the Nativity of Jesus Christ, that is designed for the Father for having given us His Son, for forty days. At present, however, in the Malankara Church, this fast lasts for 25 days, from the first of December till the Christmas day, and all the faithful are bound to observe it with great vigor.
The Fast of Ninevites
This is one of the most strictly observed fasts in the Syrian Church tradition. This fast lasts for three days beginning on the Monday, the third week before the beginning of the Great Lent. The origin of this fast was to commemorate a miraculous cessation of a plague which broke out in the region of Beth-gammae. When struck with disaster, the faithful of the place gathered in the Church to pray and began to do great acts of penance and the plague ceased suddenly. To remember this great mercy of Lord, this fast came to be observed annually. Since it is observed for three days, it is commonly known as Moonnunoimbu (three days fast) in the Malankara Church. It is also known as the fast of Jonah since it commemorates the conversion of Nineveh through the preaching of Prophet Jonah. It is time for the penitential practice for the whole Church and the Church does her penance and prayers like that of Jonah in the belly of the big fish and that of the Ninevites.
The Great Fast
The importance of this fast is much evident from the name itself. This is observed to actively participate in the Resurrection of Christ through a life of passion and suffering. The Church prescribes the forty days of fast in seven weeks which ends on Friday (Nalpatham Velly) before the Passion Week. But the fast gets completed only with the Easter and therefore it is also called fifty days Lent (Anpathu Noimbu). The Monday, the beginning of the Lent, there is a special service called the service of reconciliation (Subukono) and the purpose of which is that the faithful enter into the season of fast having reconciled with all. This means that the fast is holy and being holy it would become proper only if it is approached with preparation. The Church recommends the faithful to get content with one meal a day and avoid all delicious food.
The Apostles’ Fast
The Apostles, following the example of Jesus Christ, fasted twice forty days each, namely from the day of Pentecost and the days before the feast of Epiphany (Denha). But, as to how this fast originated in the Church is not exactly known. One could say that since Christ has said to the apostles that ‘the sons of the bridechamber cannot fast as long as the bridegroom is with them, but days shall come when the bridegroom will be taken from them and then they shall fast’ (Lk 5:34-35). Thus, after the ascension of Jesus Christ and after the day of Pentecost, the apostles began to keep this fast and gradually it was adopted as a custom in the Church. At present, in the Malankara Church, this fast is reduced to 13 days corresponding to the number of 12 apostles and St. Paul (June 16-29). This fast is observed in order to become aware of the responsibility of the faithful in the Church and missionary activities.
The Fast before the Migration of Virgin Mary the Mother of God
This is one of the traditional fasts observed in all the Eastern Churches. A feast in commemoration of the Mother of God was celebrated in the East as early as the fourth century. Later this was identified as the migration of the Blessed Virgin and it came to be called the feast of Sunoyo (Migration) of the Mother of God. This fast starts from the first day of August and ends with the Sunoyo feast on the fifteenth day. This is the time for the faithful to prepare themselves for their death because the death of the Mother of God is a desirable and exemplary death for all.
The fast of Wednesdays and Fridays
Besides the aforesaid fasts, the Church fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year except any solemn feast falling on these days and the fifty days after the Easter. The Significance of Wednesday is that it is was on this day that the Jews made a plot to crucify Jesus Christ and Friday to commemorate His passion, crucifixion, and death for the whole world.
The Fast before the Nativity of St. Mary
This is eight days fast observed only by the Syrian Christians in India, which begins on the first day of September ((Ettu Noimbu). It seems that this fast originated in connection with the Islamic invasion and the subsequent fall of Kodungallur, the Christian center. The Christians vowed to observe a fast so that God might protect their women from the hands of invaders. During this season, women used to remain in the church in prayer and meditation till the afternoon. But it is not considered as an obligatory fast and hence it is not in the canonical list of the Church.
Fast before the Feast of Pentecost
This fast is observed only in the Malankara Church. It begins from the day of Ascension and ends with the feast of Pentecost. The Church thinks it as a preparatory time of the faithful for the empowering of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
Some Special Notes
Saturdays and Sundays are the days of the Lord and of joy and therefore it is prohibited to fast on these days (with the exception of Holy Saturday) except for the motive of fasting before the reception of Holy Qurbana. The believers who prepare themselves to receive the sacraments must observe the fasting as per the recommendation of the Church. Holy Qurbana is not conducted on fast days (especially the Great Fast and the Nineveh Fast) except on Saturday, Sundays, mid-day lent, fortieth Friday of the Great Lent and on the feast day of Annunciation. The celebration of marriage is prohibited and that of baptism is permitted in the case of extreme necessity. The feasts of martyrs, saints and departed are celebrated only on Sundays and Saturdays. The married people are asked to refrain from using their conjugal rights during the fasting season.
Feast and Festivals
Truth behind the Feast of Feasts
Easter is the greatest feast in the Orthodox tradition and the whole great lent is a pilgrimage to this feast of feasts. For fifty days from Easter, Orthodox Christians greet each other with the words ‘Christ has risen’ of which the response is ‘Indeed He has risen.’ The resurrection of the crucified Jesus Christ is the heart of Christian faith. Sunday became the most important day of worship from the time of the first century because of His resurrection on a Sunday. The Orthodox Church gives due importance to this unique event in its life and practice. They do not use crucifixion, the cross with an image of the crucified Jesus on it because they would like even their cross to communicate the importance of the risen Christ. He is no more on the cross or in a tomb but trampling down death by death he is living forever and ever.
There are even Christians who are not fully convinced about the truth of the resurrection of Jesus. Christian theologians like Bultman, influenced by the European Enlightenment movement which overemphasizes the place of reason in understanding, demythologized the gospel, further strengthening the skepticism regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Liberation theologians’ focus is on the resurrection of the victims of injustice rather than the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ or they do not give due importance to the interconnectedness of these. The Lost Tomb of Jesus, the documentary film directed by James Cameron, which became a ‘sensational news’ during the great Lent of 2007, draws attention to a burial box found near Jerusalem in 1980 which the movie with its experts claim to be containing the bones of Jesus and his family. Even if there is an inscription of Jesus’ name on an ancient burial box, why do the director and other experts deliberately hide the fact that Jesus was a common name in Palestine in the first century. Unfortunately, human creativity is misused for the business purpose or for some other hidden agendas or it is enslaved by the western rationalism repeatedly. Committed Christians have no difficulty to believe that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was really a fact which has far-reaching consequences. According to the teaching of Christ, we are also in the generations of the blessed ones after the apostles’ time because we believe without seeing Him with our naked eyes. However, our faith is based on the witness of those who saw him. In nutshell, the apostolic witness is the foundation of the faith of the church.
Even if faith does not need any evidence, we can see a couple of supporting factors to prove that the apostolic preaching about the resurrection of Jesus Christ as recorded in gospels is true: 1.) The number of the witnesses: More than five hundred people were able to see the risen Christ.(I Corinthians15:3-7) Since Hallucination and dream are individual experiences, the experience of the risen Lord by a large number of people cannot be understood as a result of a dream or hallucination. 2.) Women as the first witnesses: Mary Magdalene and other women saw the risen Jesus Christ first time and they were asked to pass on this message to the apostles. If the Gospel account of the resurrection of Jesus was only a fabricated story by the apostles they would not have presented women as the first witnesses because in those days evidence of women had no value. If it was an imaginary story the apostles would have presented themselves or at least a few other men as the first ones to see Jesus after his resurrection. 3.) Self-criticism: According to the gospel accounts the apostles did not believe the words of the women about the resurrection of Christ and when Jesus met them he criticized them for not believing. (Mathew 28:17; Mark16:14) St. Mark who was a close associate of St. Peter writes as he heard from the apostles especially from St. Peter: “He scolded them, because they did not have faith and because they were too stubborn to believe those who had seen him alive.”(Mk 16:14). Selfish minds normally, even in a true account, will not write this kind of self-depreciating words. Then if it was a false account they would never have used this criticism which is humiliating. This self-criticism points to the fact that the apostles were confessing in humility what had really happened. 4.) Empty tomb: According to Gospels, Mary Magdalene, Peter, John and other Christians and the soldiers who were guarding the sealed tomb could see the tomb of Jesus opened and without the dead body in it. Even if Jesus could have come out without moving the stone which covered the tomb, it was removed so that the world could see the empty tomb as an evidence of His resurrection. When the guards reported it to the high priests they were bribed to tell the lie that Jesus’ body was stolen by the disciples while the guards were sleeping. (Mt.28:12-15) Why were the guards not punished for failing to be vigilant? Instead of that, they receive money for spreading a lie. How could they see clearly while sleeping that it was disciples of Jesus Christ themselves who ‘stole’ it? If it was done by the disciples why did not the Jewish religious authorities, who took initiative to kill Him with the help of the Roman authorities, try to recover the dead body by arresting the weak and the frustrated disciples of Jesus Christ and foil the Jesus movement fully.? There is no reasonable answer to these questions except the truth that Jesus has really risen from the dead which was not graspable easily to human minds. 5.) Enthusiasm and fervor of the apostles: The frustrated and disappointed disciples of Jesus Christ who locked themselves in a room after Jesus’ crucifixion were able to take up the ministry of the Kingdom of God entrusted to them with added vigor and increased enthusiasm mainly because of the vision of the risen Lord. They started spreading the good news and the Jesus movement became powerful enough to challenge even the mighty Roman Empire and turn the world upside down. The two particular events which had an enormous impact on them and made them founders and builders of the church in various corners of the world were the resurrection of Jesus and the reception of the Holy Spirit.
If the resurrection of Jesus was a real fact, what does it mean for us today? It gives liberation from fear: 1.The fear of death 2. The fear of cross 3.The fear of loneliness. Jesus’ resurrection shows that through death he was not entering into emptiness but to eternity and through that opened window in the roof of history we can have a glimpse of eternity which is the foundation of our hope. The resurrection of Christ is a God-given certificate to the success of the way of the cross which encourages to commit to the discipleship of Him. The Lord Jesus is no more imprisoned in a tomb but is with us until the end strengthening us to finish our race successfully.
Rev Fr. Dr. Bijesh Philip