The History of fasting in the Maronite Church

When searching the Internet for the fasting rules in the Maronite Church, one is puzzled by the contradictory answers and guidelines. The first part of the article will examine the historical sources, mainly canonical prescriptions, in relation to the various fasts and fasting rules throughout the history of the Maronite Church. It will examine each of the fasts of the Maronite liturgical year which begins on the first Sunday of November. The second will look at the present position in relation to Maronite Fasting and the third part of this article will consider why we should reinvigorate the tradition of fasting and the benefits it can bring.

Abstinence refers to abstaining from all animal products, usually meat, but can also include dairy, eggs, fish, sea products and alcohols.

Fasting requires that one does not consume any food or any drink from midnight to noon.

Part I – Maronite Fasts through History

Fast of the Nativity

This fast precedes the feast of the Nativity and prepares us to celebrate the Incarnation of our Lord in the flesh and his dwelling among us. In the East, this fast traditionally begins on 15 November, right after the Feast of St Phillip, and ends on 24 December, on the eve of Christmas. This prescription was still observed by the Maronites until 1598, after which the Synod of Dai’at Mussa reduced the length of the fast so that it began on 5 December, the day following the feast of St Barbara (canon 30). This new prescription was renewed in 1644 by the Synod of Hrash (chapter 9, canon 4). The Lebanese Synod, held in 1736, further reduced the length of the fast to 11 days, starting it on 13 December 13 (part 1, chapter 4, canon 2).

Great Lent and Holy Week

Great Lent and the Holy Week precede the Feast of the Resurrection. These are two distinct periods, but since they follow one another, they are considered the Great Fast. This fast is the most important and the most solemn fast of the liturgical year. Many Maronites only observe this fast and some are not aware of the existence of all the other fasts. The Great Fast starts on Ash Monday, right after the Sunday of the Wedding at Cana, and ends on the eve of Easter. Ash Monday is adopted in the Maronite Church from the Latin tradition. The Eastern tradition did not originally have Ash Wednesday or Ash Monday. The Maronite Tradition marks the start of the Great Fast start at the beginning of the week after Cana Sunday and not on Wednesday.

Fast of the Apostles

This fast precedes the feast of Saints Peter and Paul. In the Eastern tradition, its length is variable from year to year. It begins after Pentecost which varies in date according to the date of Easter. The fast always ends on 29 June. The Greeks begin the fast on the second Monday following Pentecost, while the Syriacs, and therefore probably the Maronites in early medieval times, used to begin the fast on the Monday following Pentecost. The Copts still begin the fast on that Monday. In the 16th century, the Maronites fasted for approximately 30 days, even less in some regions. The Synod of Dai’at Mussa, 1598 (canon 30) and the Synod of Hrash, 1644 (chapter 9, canon 5), regulated that the fast started on 15 Jun. The Lebanese Synod in 1736 (part 1, chapter 4, canon 2), further shortened the start date to 25 June.

Fast of the Assumption

This fast precedes the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, which is celebrated on 15 August. In Eastern tradition, it usually begins on 1 August and ends on 14 August. The Synod of Hrash, 1644 (chapter 9, canon 5) stated that the fast should begin on 1 August, but the Lebanese Synod (part 1, chapter 4, canon 2) reduced its length to begin on 7 August.

Weekly fasts: Wednesdays and Fridays

Eastern Christians traditionally fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. Wednesday, to commemorate the betrayal of Christ by Judas and Friday to commemorate the Crucifixion of Christ. The Maronite Church also observed these weekly fasts (Synod of Hrash, 1644, chapter 9, canon 1). However, fasting is not required between Christmas and Epiphany, and between Easter and Pentecost, since those periods are joyful times in which we celebrate respectively the Nativity and the Resurrection of the Lord.

Communion Fast

The Book of Direction, or Kitab al-huda, is the oldest available Maronite book of canon law. It was translated from Syriac to Arabic karshuni in the 11th century by Bishop Dawud. The canon requires strict fasting prior to receiving communion. That fast may have been, as is still observed in some Orthodox Churches, from the beginning of the night, for nine hours. The Maronite Synods don’t mention fasting before communion. It may be, if this tradition existed in the Maronite Church, that it ceased before the 16th century.

Fasting Rules

According to Maronite canonist, Bishop Joseph Feghali, Maronites used to abstain from all animal products, be they warm-blooded or cold-blooded animals. Abstinence from meat, dairy, eggs, fish, sea products, and the like, was required. Abstinence from wine and possibly from all alcohols was also required. In the Greek tradition, even olive oil, and perhaps all oils are forbidden. This may not have been the case in the Maronite Church, since abstinence from oil is particular to the Greek tradition and not common to all Eastern traditions. Maronites observed a strict fast where they did not consume anything at all from midnight to noon, at least during the Nativity and Great Fast. Strict fasting was required until 3pm during the Great Fast (Synod of Hrash, 1944, chapter 9, canons 3 and 4). The Lebanese Synod, 1736, then reduced the strict fasting period by ending it at noon (part 1, chapter 4, canon 3). The Synod also regulated that fasting would only be observed on weekdays and on Holy Saturday. The strict fasting periods are related to canonical hours: noon is the sixth hour, when Christ was crucified, and 3pm is the ninth hour, when Christ died on the cross.

A fast never starts on a Sunday (Synod of Hrash, 1944, chapter 9, canons 4 and 5). Also, if the feasts of the Transfiguration, the Apostles Peter and Paul and the Assumption of the Virgin fall on Wednesday or Friday, we should break the fast in order to celebrate the feast properly.

Therefore, when it comes to fasting rules, we can discern three periods in the history of the Maronite Church.

  1. Medieval times. The medieval fasting rules are so ancient that they have become alien to our tradition as centuries passed by. Today, one might follow these ancient rules, but we would hardly label them as Maronite rules. However, if you feel called to this very rigorous way of fasting, you would not be alone. Many Eastern Christians still follow these ancient rules.
  2. Synod of Dai’at Mussa in 1598. This Synod reduced the length of some fasts. It is the first Maronite Synod of which we are aware that canonically defined some fasting rules. The Synod of Hrash, 1644, preserved the rules set by its predecessor in 1598 and expanded them by providing a more complete list.
  3. The Lebanese Synod of 1736. This synod is one of the most important of our Church, and certainly one of the biggest in terms of number of canons. It reduced fasting periods and defined the official Maronite fasts, many of which remain today.

The following table sets out the history of the changes:

Medieval Times Synod of Dai’at Mussa – 1598 Lebanese Synod – 1736
First Day Last Day
Fast of the Nativity November 15 December 5 December 13 December 24
Great Lent and Holy Week Ash Monday Holy Saturday
Fast of the Apostles Monday after Pentecost June 15 June 25 June 28
Fast of the Virgin August 1 August 7 August 14
Wednesdays and Fridays All Wednesdays and Fridays, except between Christmas and Epiphany, and between Easter and Pentecost

Part II – Maronite Fasting Today

Maronites never start a fast on Sunday. If the first day of a fast falls on Sunday, the fast begins the next day, on Monday. Also, we never fast on the feasts of Nativity, Resurrection, Apostles and Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

Many of the previous fasts, observed by our ancestors, are no longer mandatory.    However, there is great benefit in following and reinvigorating the ancient customs and following these fasts beyond just the obligations.  From time to time, the Maronite Church publishes regulations with the rules set by the Patriarch. Maronites are expected to follow the rules prescribed by the Church. In that regard you should check with your local Ordinary. Rules may differ depending on the jurisdiction in which the Maronite Church is located. Of course, one is free to follow the ancient customs, which are stricter than the modern regulations.

Part III – Why Fast?

Fasting is an important tradition of the Church and has scriptural basis. On many occasions, prophets and apostles fasted. This sacred tradition has wonderful benefits for our souls and bodies.

Fasting is a discipline of the body. Through fasting, we learn to control our bodily desires and to discipline them. We take back the control of ourselves that was lost with the fall of Adam. By controlling our physical impulses, we may approach God with a clear mind.  Fasting permits us to detach ourselves from our physical desires and needs to concentrate on our spiritual relationship with the Lord.

Moreover, Eastern Churches have always had a clear understanding of fasting as a penance for the remission of sins. We offer our fast so that our soul may be cleansed from all impurities. Since fasting is a discipline of the body, through it we learn to control our body, the very vehicle of most of our sins. Hence, through fasting, we don’t only pray for the remission of sins, we act on it by controlling the vehicle of our sins. For this reason, it is very important to fast not only from food, but more importantly from sins.

Fasting is the perfect occasion to learn to detach ourselves from a particular sin that keeps sucking on our souls. What is the effect of fasting if we deprive ourselves from food but not from sins? Through fasting, we must work on ourselves so as to abandon sinful comportments, including lies, swearing, hypocrisy, lust, anger, hatred, egoism and greed.

“But don’t limit the goodness of fasting by abstaining only from foods. For true fasting is the enemy of evil. Loose the chains of injustice! (Isaiah 58:6) Forgive your neighbor’s offense, and forgive his debts. Don’t fast unto judgment and strife (Isaiah 58:4). You don’t eat meat, but you eat your brother. You abstain from wine, but stubbornly hold on to insolence. You patiently wait until evening to partake, but you spend the day in court.”

Saint Basil the Great, On Fasting – Homily 1, Chapter 10

Charbel Hanna

References

Elias Atallah. Le Synode libanais de 1736. Tome II : Traduction du texte original arabe. Paris-Antélias, Centre d’Études et de Recherches Orientales, Letouzey et Ané, 2002, 388 p.

Joseph Feghali. Histoire du droit de l’Église maronite, t. I, Les conciles des XVIe et XVIIe siècles. Paris, Letouzey et Ané, 1962, 377 p.