This is the first article of the series ‘Coptic Diaries’, where Marina Makary takes Egyptian Streets’ readers on a journey in the Coptic Orthodox church — its people, history, traditions, and culture.
“Make sure that fasting has changed anything in you. Consider how much you have fasted and you’re still the same!,” – Pope Shenouda II
Fasting is one of the major pillars of the Coptic Orthodox church in Egypt. Most Egyptians are not aware that Copts fast for more than half the year — nearly 210 days out of 365. While some fasts are longer than others, Coptic fasting, in nature, ranges from intermittent fasting, a vegan diet, and a vegan fast with seafood allowed.
As the Coptic Orthodox Church approaches the longest fast of the year, Lent, also called ‘The Great Fast’, here is an overview of the fasting tradition in the Coptic Orthodox church.
Christmas and Easter are the two biggest feasts in Christianity, and therefore, both are preceded by a fasting period.
Before Christmas, the church celebrates Advent for 43 days, where Copts follow a vegan diet with seafood allowed. The 43 days of the Nativity Fast, another name for Advent, correspond to the 40 days that Prophet Moses fasted before receiving the Ten Commandments from God, and the three days that Copts fasted before the miracle of moving the Mokattam Mountain during the reign of Al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah, the fourth ruler of the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt.
Before Easter, a fasting period of 55 days is adhered to in the church. Strictly vegan, the last week, “the Holy Week”, marks the holiest time of the year in every Coptic household. A total of 55 days, the fast is divided into a week of preparation for the most sacred time of the year: the 40 days that Jesus fasted for, and the Passion Week (or Holy Week) which begins with Palm Sunday and ends with Easter Sunday.
A few days before Lent, Copts fasts for three days to commemorate Jonah’s fast or Nineveh’s fast. According to the Bible, this fast represents the three days that Jonah spent in the belly of the whale, and the repentance of the people of Nineveh.
Nevertheless, not all fasts in the Coptic church have a fixed duration, like the Apostles Fast. According to Coptic tradition, the Apostles Fast marks the beginning of the apostles’ evangelism journey after the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them; it ends with the commemoration day of the martyrdom of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
In the case of the Fast of the Virgin Mary, it is usually anticipated by many, and is popular among both Christians and Muslims alike. Although it starts on 7 August and ends on 21 August, many like to begin their fast with the start of the month out of pure love for Saint Mary. It is also a fast in which the church permits the consumption of fish, but many choose to keep it strictly vegan. During this time, churches and monasteries of Saint Mary are packed with worshippers.
To top all these fasts, Copts fast every Wednesday and Friday all year round, except during Easter season, which is 50 days from Easter Sunday onwards. During these 50 days, churches are adorned in white while ceasing from fasting. These 50 days mark the Feast of Resurrection to the Feast of Pentecost, with the Feast of Ascension in between.
Wednesday marks the day Judas the apostle betrayed Jesus to the chief priests, and Friday marks the day of the crucifixion.
Additionally, Copts abstain from any food and drink for nine hours before taking the holy communion during the holy mass. These nine hours mark the time Jesus suffered on the cross on Good Friday.
Despite the importance of fasting in Coptic tradition, the church exempts children, the elderly, pregnant and nursing mothers, as well as anyone with medical complications from strict fasting.
In the Coptic church, children are taught that fasting is more than just a change of diet — rather, it is a time of spirituality and repentance.
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