HOW AND WHY WE FAST?
There are two types of fasting. There is fasting (abstinence) before communion and fasting during feast periods. Fasting food is known as “siami” (in Arabic) and non-fasting food is called “fitari” (in Arabic). The Coptic Orthodox people fast a fair bit, to be honest.
Fasting allows us to get closer to God through prayers and fasting. Fasting is a battle against one’s soul and body. It takes a long time to train the human body to fast and abstain from food. Did you know that the Coptic Orthodox Church believers fast 210 days per year?
Fasting involves restricting the types of food we eat and restricting eating hours.
The most significant feature of fasting is the spiritual journey. We grow spiritually and get closer to God through fasting and prayer. “However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” Matthew 17:21 and Mark 9:29.
Fasting fades the body and uplifts the soul. It’s like a battle between the weak and strong. It is a battle against the body. When the body is weak your guards are down, thus evil tempts your body and is susceptible to sin. It is through prayer and fasting the holy spirit awakens ones soul. The Bible says “My knees are weak through fasting, And my flesh is feeble from lack of fatness” Psalm 109:24.
THE TYPES OF FOOD THAT THE COPTIC ORTHODOX BELIEVERS CONSUME DURING THE FASTING PERIOD
When the Coptic Orthodox community fasts, its basic dietary intake is vegan. Some fasting period will allow fish and shellfish. Whereas some fasting periods forbid fish and shell fish.
The Coptic Orthodox believers fast on Wednesday and Friday. On Wednesday and Friday no fish or shell fish is consumed. So why do the Coptic Orthodox fast on Wednesday and Friday? Wednesday is when Judas betrayed Jesus to the chief priests and on Friday we remember our Lord been crucified on the cross for our sins and for our salvation.
Christ fasted on the mount without food and water to undo Adam’s sin. Therefore, we fast without fish during Lent (Easter time) so that we can revert Adam to his original self, without sin and imperfection. (Genesis 3). God told Adam to eat fruits and vegetables. “And God said, `See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food’” Genesis 1:29. Therefore, we eat vegan food during the Lent fast.
Traditionally in Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox believers eat fava beans or broad beans (foul) and falafel (tameya). These days we are blessed with veggie burgers, canned tuna, fasting cheese, hot chips and noodles. What a blessing it is to have these types of food included in our fasting food group.
ABSTAIN BEFORE COMMUNION
We fast 9 hours before communion so that the first thing that enters our body, is the holy Eucharist and the holy blood of our Lord. We abstain from all food and drink from the time that we sleep, or midnight, the night before, the liturgy service.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE FEAST OF FASTING PERIOD?
We usually break our fast by eating non-vegan food. For most people, this means consuming meat, chicken, milk, cheese or chocolate (most Copts tend to indulge in the food they miss the most whilst fasting).
EXEMPTIONS FROM FASTING
The Church exempt young children of age, the sick, the elderly, and pregnant and nursing mothers from strict fasting.
Also, people with medical circumstances are also exempt from fasting.
We fast every Wednesday and Friday throughout the year, except in the Holy Fifty days. These fasts are without fish, seafood, or other animal products. Judas betrayed Jesus to the chief priests on Wednesday, and Friday is the day Jesus was crucified.
If you wish to be exempted from fasting you must inform the priest before you receive the holy communion. This is usually done on the spot.
WHY CAN WE EAT FISH AND SEAFOOD IN SOME FASTS AND NOT IN OTHERS?
Fasting without fish or seafood – Man’s original state involved eating only fruits and vegetables. Adam only ate fruits and vegetables in the Garden of Eden. We fast without fish or seafood to go back to our original state, resembling Adam’s original state.
God commanded Adam to eat fruits and vegetables after his fall, “Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field” (Genesis 3:18).
The Israelites ate manna in the wilderness. “Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its colour like the colour of bdellium. The people went about and gathered it, ground it on millstones or beat it in the mortar, cooked it in pans, and made cakes of it; and its taste was like the taste of pastry prepared with oil” (Numbers 11:7-8).
WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF FASTING?
The 9 hours also symbolize the time of the third hour to the 12th hour for Jesus on Good Friday. In the third hour, Jesus was scourged, beaten, and delivered to be crucified. In the twelfth hour, He was buried in the tomb.
The nine hours also corresponds to the hours of the Agpeya from sunrise (Prime) to the end of the ninth hour (None). Vespers are the Agpeya readings for sunset and come after the ninth hour readings are Orthodox Christians supposed to be in regards to checking the ingredients in certain dishes. For example, before eating a package of wheat crackers, should they read the ingredients to make sure no egg or milk extracts were used? Also, doesn’t it defeat the purpose of fasting if products are used in place of the real thing?
This form of fasting was passed on in the early Church from Jewish practice. In Matthew, Christ says, “When you fast do not be like the hypocrites,” which indicates that the Jews fasted—it also indicates that Christ assumes that one fasts, for He states “when you fast” not “if you fast.” Fasting is not something that only developed alongside Christianity; rather, it is a practice that had been followed by the Jews, and even Scripture mentions that Christ fasted.
Wouldn’t it be more sacrificial for someone to give up foods that they really loved such as chocolate, coffee, or cake rather than meat which they may not care for that much anyhow?
The purpose of fasting is not to “give up” things, nor to do something “sacrificial.” The purpose of fasting is to learn discipline, to gain control of those things that are indeed within our control but that we so often allow to control us. In our culture especially, food dominates the lives of many people. We fast in order to gain control, to discipline ourselves, to gain control of those things that we have allowed to get out of control. We do not fast in order to suffer. We fast in order to get a grip on our lives and to regain control of those things that have gotten out of control.
How picky are Orthodox Christians supposed to be in regards to checking the ingredients in certain dishes. For example, before eating a package of wheat crackers, should they read the ingredients to make sure no egg or milk extracts were used?
Just as we would say that with anything in life “moderation is best,” so too we need to approach fasting with moderation. Fasting, as I have written, helps us to let go of the control food so often has on us. But if fasting itself starts to control us—if we spend countless hours reading every ingredient label and the like—then we can become just as controlled by our fasting and, in the process, miss the whole point of fasting in the first place. There is nothing essentially wrong with meat and dairy products, in and of themselves. Hence, an obsession with reading labels can be just as problematic as an obsession with food. There needs to be a balance, lest our fasting be of the sort that Christ Himself condemns-the fasting of the Pharisees.
Also, doesn’t it defeat the purpose of fasting if products such as non-dairy milk or fake cheese are used in place of the real thing?
Indeed, being controlled by the “substitution syndrome” is just as bad as being controlled by the food one is striving to substitute…as you can see arguments go back and forth, precisely we are missing the “spirit” of fasting.
Fasting is not about avoiding certain foods, but it is also to avoid the control we allow food to have over us. If we can’t discipline ourselves in terms of what goes into our mouths, we will hardly be in a position to discipline ourselves. We must chose to be more like Jesus and spiritually grow through prayer and fasting. Therefore we become closer to God. So chose to fast (well, give it ago at least!)
“Adapted from a Coptic Orthodox site, exact reference was not noted. Sorry.”