Learn about the Apostles fast (June 4 – June 29)
This summer fast, which we now call the Apostles fast, was earlier called the fast of Pentecost. The Church calls us to keep this fast according to the example of the holy Apostles, who, having received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, prepared themselves to preach the Gospels to the whole world.
On the fiftieth day after His rising from the tomb, and the ninth day after His Ascension and sitting at the right hand of the Father, the Lord sent down the Holy Spirit upon all His disciples and Apostles on the day of Pentecost. This is one of the greatest feasts of the Lord. This is the completion of the new, eternal covenant with mankind.
“After the extended feast of Pentecost, the fast is particularly needed in order to cleanse our mind by ascetic labors, and to make us worthy of the gifts of the Holy Spirit,” writes St. Leo the Great. “After the present feast, which the Holy Spirit has sanctified by His descent, all the people usually keep a fast beneficially established for the healing of soul and body, and therefore requiring that we spend it with the appropriate reverence. For we do not doubt that after the Apostles’ hearts were filled with the Spirit of truth promised to them from on high, amongst the other mystical heavenly teachings given by their Teacher, they were given also the teaching on spiritual continence, so that their hearts, purified by fasting, would be made capable of receiving gifts of grace… It is would not be possible to struggle in a pampered body and fattened flesh against the persecutions, and the fierce threats of the ungodly that lay ahead; for that which delights our outer man destroys our inner man, and the more a wise soul mortifies its flesh, the purer it becomes.
“Therefore, enlightening all the sons and daughters of the Church by their example and instruction, the teachers designated a holy fast at the onset of warfare for Christ, so that as we set out to battle against spiritual depravation, we would have temperance as our weapon, and thus mortify our sinful desires, for our unseen enemies and fleshless foes will not overcome us if we do not give ourselves over to fleshly lusts. Although the tempter constantly and invariably desires to do us harm, he remains powerless and ineffective when he does not find any side of us to attack… This is why the steadfast and saving custom has been established, after these holy and joyful days we have celebrated in honor of the Lord, Who rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and after we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, of keeping a fast.
“The custom of earnestly keeping the fast is necessary also in order to preserve those gifts imparted now to the Church from God. Having been made temples of the Holy Spirit, and having drunk more than ever the Divine waters, we must not submit to any desires, or serve any vices, so that the habitation of the virtues might not be defiled by any unclean thing. With God’s help and cooperation, we can all achieve this, if only we will cleanse ourselves by fasting and almsgiving, strive to free ourselves from sinful impurity, and bring forth abundant fruits of love.”
Further, St. Leo the Great writes, “In the Apostolic canons inspired by God Himself, the Church fathers have, at the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, established first and foremost that all virtuous labors begin with fasting. They have done this because God’s commandments can be fulfilled well only when Christ’s army is protected from all temptations of sin by holy abstinence. Thus, beloved, we must exercise ourselves in fasting especially at the present time, as we are commanded to do at the close of the fifty days that follow the Resurrection of Christ, up to the descent of the Holy Spirit, which we have solemnly observed.
This fast has been given to us in order to preserve us from slackness, for it is very easy to become slack due to the long period in which we were allowed to eat various foods. If we do not cultivate the field of our flesh continually, thorns and thistles will easily grow there, and produce fruits suitable only for burning, and not for the harvest storehouse. Therefore, we are obligated now to scrupulously preserve those seeds that we received in our hearts from the Heavenly Sower, and take precautions so that the envious foe might not spoil what God has given us, and so that the thorns of vice would not grow in the paradise of virtues. We can only avoid such evil though almsgiving and fasting.”
Blessed Simeon of Thessalonika writes that the fast was established in honor of the Apostles, because we have been vouchsafed many blessings through them, and they have been shown to us as doers and teachers of fasting, obedience… and temperance. Even the Latins witness to this, albeit against their will, honoring the Apostles by fasting in remembrance of them. But in accordance with the Apostolic canons composed by St. Clement, after the descent of the Holy Spirit, we celebrate. Then, beginning from the following week, we honor the Apostles who have instructed us to fast.
The asceticism of the Apostles fast is less austere than the forty days fast of Great Lent. During the Apostles fast, the Church rubrics prescribe for three days of each week—Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays—abstinence from fish, wine, and oil, taking uncooked food at the ninth hour after Vespers. On the other weekday, abstinence from fish is prescribed.
Patristic Testimony Concerning the Fast
The fast of the holy Apostles is very ancient, dating back to the first centuries of Christianity. We have the testimony of St. Athanasius the Great, St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Leo the Great and Theodoret of Cyrrhus regarding it. The oldest testimony regarding the Apostles Fast is given to us by St. Athanasius the Great (†373). In his letter to Emperor Constance, in speaking of the persecution by the Arians, he writes: “During the week following Pentecost, the people who observed the fast went out to the cemetery to pray.” “The Lord so ordained it,” says St. Ambrose (†397), “that as we have participated in his sufferings during the Forty Days, so we should also rejoice in his Resurrection during the season of Pentecost. We do not fast during the season of Pentecost, since our Lord Himself was present amongst us during those days — Christ’s presence was like nourishing food for the Christians. So too, during Pentecost, we feed on the Lord who is present among us. On the days following his ascension into heaven, however, we again fast” (Sermon 61). St. Ambrose basis this practice on the words of Jesus concerning his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew 9:14, 15: “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridgeroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
St. Leo the Great (†461) says: “After the long feast of Pentecost, fasting is especially necessary to purify our thoughts and render us worthy to receive the Gifts of the Holy Spirit — Therefore, the salutary custom was established of fasting after the joyful days during which we celebrated the resurrection and ascension of our Lord, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.”
The pilgrim Egeria in her Diary (fourth century) records that on the day following the feast of Pentecost, a period of fasting began. The Apostolic Constitutions, a work no later than the fourth century, prescribes: “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 lasting after the body has been refreshed.”
From the testimonies of the fourth century we ascertain that in Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch the fast of the holy Apostles was connected with Pentecost and not with the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul on June 29. In the first centuries, after Pentecost there was one week of rejoicing, that is Privileged Days, followed by about one week of fasting.
The canons of Nicephoros, Patriarch of Constantinople (806-816), mention the Apostle’s Fast. The Typicon of St. Theodore the Studite for the Monastery of Studios in Constantinople speaks of the Forty Days Fast of the holy Apostles. St. Symeon of Thessalonica (†1429) explains the purpose of this fast in this manner: “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 — For one week after the descent of the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the Apostolic Constitution composed by Clement, we celebrate, and then during the following week, we fast in honor of the Apostles.”