The History of fasting in the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch

By Charbel Hanna


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 part will look at the present position in relation to Maronite Fasting. The third part will consider why we should reinvigorate the tradition of fasting and the benefits it can bring, while the fourth part will give practical advice to those who will be fasting for the first time.

Abstinence refers to abstaining from all animal products: meat, dairy, eggs, fish, and shellfish. Abstinence from fish and shellfish is no longer required in the Maronite Church, since it was abolished by patriarch mar Youssef III al-Rizzi (1597 – 1608).

Fasting requires that one does not consume any food nor any drink from midnight till 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 40 days later, on 24 December, on the eve of Christmas. According to St. Simeon of Thessaloniki;

“The forty days of the Nativity fast is an image of the fast of Moses, who having fasted for forty days and forty nights, received the words of God inscribed on stone tablets. But having fasted for forty days, we gaze upon and receive the living Word from the Virgin, inscribed not on stones, but incarnate and born, and we partake of His Divine flesh.”

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), as per the Latin tradition. 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 12 days, starting it on 13 December (part 1, chapter 4, canon 2).

Fast of the Ninevites

This fast emerged in the Syriac Churches of Mesopotamia around the 6th century, and from there it spread to the Armenians, the Copts, and the Abyssinians. It is observed by all Oriental Churches except the Byzantine Churches. It commemorates the three days spent by the prophet Jonah inside the belly of the fish and the fast and repentance of the Ninevites thereafter. Originally, it was a three-days of strict fasting during which the faithful did not eat nor drink anything at all, from Monday midnight to Wednesday noon, on the third week before the beginning of the Great Fast – on the first week of the period of commemorations, at the end of the season of Pentecost. Since this strict fasting is very difficult, most people apply the usual fasting and abstinence rules during the three days.

According to Patriarch Mar Estefan al-Douaihy (1670 – 1704), Patriarch Mar Youssef III al-Rizzi (1597 – 1608) abolished this fast. It may be true, since we know from pope Paul V (1605 – 1621) that mar Youssef III al-Rizzi abolished some Maronite customs. In addition, this fast being originally Syriac suggests that it would have been adopted by the Maronites. However, this fast is not mentioned in the Maronite synods which regulated fasting rules since 1598, pope Paul V himself does not mention it among the customs abolished by mar Youssef III al-Rizzi, nor does Fr. Dandini, SJ, who visited the Maronites in 1596, in his description of the Maronite fasting customs. This being said, this fast is nonetheless specifically mentioned in numerous Maronite manuscripts, such as a calendar to calculate the dates, up until the Lebanese Synod (1736), with specific prayers and readings. Thus, despite not being mentioned in the synods, this fast was observed by our forefathers.

Great Fast and Passion Week

The Great Fast and Passion Week precede the Feast of the Resurrection. These are two distinct periods, but since they follow one another, they are often considered altogether as the Great Fast, or Lent. This fast is the most important and the most solemn fast of the liturgical year. The Great Fast starts on Ash Monday, right after the Sunday of the Wedding at Cana, and ends on the Friday of the Arrival at the Harbour, 40 days later – it is the Friday before Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday. Then, the Passion Week fast starts on Lazarus Saturday 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 Sts. 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. It 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 starts on 15 June. The Lebanese Synod in 1736 (part 1, chapter 4, canon 2), further shortened the start date to 25 June.

Fast of the Dormition and Assumption of the Mother of God

This fast precedes the Feast of the Assumption of the Mother of God, which is celebrated on 15 August. In the Eastern tradition, it 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, after the feast of the Transfiguration.

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 observes these weekly fasts (Synod of Hrash, 1644, chapter 9, canon 1; Lebanese Synod, 1736, part 1, chapter 4, canon 2). However, fasting is forbidden 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. Also, if the feasts of the Apostles Peter and Paul and of the Assumption of the Virgin fall on Wednesday or Friday, we should break the fast in order to celebrate the feast properly.

Eucharistic Fast

The Book of Guidance, 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. It requires strict fasting prior to receiving communion. That fast may have been, as is still observed in most Eastern Churches, from the beginning of the night, for nine hours. The Maronite Synods don’t mention fasting before communion, perhaps because it was too obvious to be mentioned. Nowadays, our patriarch requires that we fast one hour prior to the beginning of the divine liturgy.

Fasting Rules

According to the 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, shellfish, and the like, was required. Abstinence from fish and shellfish is no longer required in the Maronite Church, since the patriarchate of mar Youssef III al-Rizzi (1597 – 1608). Abstinence from wine and from all alcohols was also required. In the Greek tradition, even olive oil, and perhaps all oils are forbidden. This was not the case in the Maronite Church, since abstinence from oil is particular to the Greek tradition and not common to all Eastern traditions.

On fasting days, Maronites observed a strict, or natural, fast, in which they did not consume anything at all from midnight till either 3 pm, the ninth hour, when Christ died on the Cross, or noon, the sixth hour, when Christ was crucified. Since Maronites originally did not have a grading of fasts, meaning that fasting days were all observed similarly, it follows that they used to fast till 3 pm on every fasting day, except on Saturdays and Sundays. Indeed, the Apostolic Canon 66 forbids fasting on Saturdays and Sundays, except on Saturday of the Light (the day preceding Easter), when fasting is required. The Eastern Churches interpreted this canon as forbidding strict fasting, without lifting the abstinence.

The Synod of Hrash, 1644, required that Maronites observe a strict fast from midnight till 3 pm during the Great Fast and Passion Week only, and from midnight till noon during the Nativity Fast (chapter 9, canons 3 and 4). The Lebanese Synod, 1736, then reduced the strict fasting period by ending it at noon, and only required it for the Great Fast and Passion Week (part 1, chapter 4, canon 3).

Therefore, on every fasting day, Maronites abstained from all animal products and strictly fasted from Midnight till 3 pm, and they maintained the abstinence, but not the strict fast, on Saturdays and Sundays – except, of course, during Saturday of the Light, when fasting and abstinence were both required.

The Synod of Hrash, 1644, commanded that a fast never begins on a Sunday (chapter 9, canons 4 and 5). Therefore, if the first day of a fast fell on a Sunday, the fast was delayed till the day after. However, this rule is no longer enforced.

In summary, 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 have been forgotten by most Maronites and are no longer binding on Maronites. However, if you feel called to this very rigorous way of fasting, you would not be alone. Many Eastern Christians, including many Maronites, 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 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, which remain today.

The following table sets out the history of the changes:

Syriac Maronite Fasts and Fasting Rules Medieval Times Synod of Dai’at Mussa (1598) & Synod of Hrash (1644) Lebanese Synod (1736)
First Day Last Day
Fast of the Nativity November 15 December 5 December 13 December 24
Fast of the Ninevites Third Monday before Lent Not mentioned Not mentioned Third Wednesday before Lent
Great Fast Ash Monday Ash Monday Ash Monday Friday of the arrival at the Harbour
Passion Week Lazarus Saturday Lazarus Saturday Lazarus Saturday Saturday of the Light
Fast of the Apostles Monday after Pentecost June 15 June 25 June 28
Fast of the Virgin August 1 August 1 August 7 August 14
Wednesdays and Fridays All Wednesdays and Fridays, except between Christmas and Epiphany, between Easter and Pentecost, and on Apostles and Assumption
Eucharistic Fast Medieval Times: 9 hours Modern Era: 1 hour before liturgy

Abstinence: all animal products (meat, dairy, eggs, fish, shellfish) and alcohol

Natural fast: no eating nor drinking from midnight till 3 pm or noon

If the first day is in bold italic or bold the natural fast applies from midnight till 3 pm or noon, in addition to abstinence, for the whole duration of the fast, except on Saturdays and Sundays, on which only abstinence applies. On Saturday of the Light, abstinence and natural fast apply. If the first day is not bold, only abstinence applies. Fish and shellfish are permitted since 1598. On Wednesdays and Fridays, a natural fast was prescribed until 1598, in addition to abstinence. Since then, only abstinence applies on these days. The fasting day may begin and end on vespers (6 pm) or at midnight.

Part II – Maronite Fasting Today

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 bishop. 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 souls 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 comportment, 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

Part IV – Fasting for the first time?

The Eastern fasting disciplines are very rigorous, and the Syro-Maronite discipline is no exception. Hence, a typical fast will likely be overwhelming for one who is undergoing their first fast. For this reason, a beginner should not observe all the rules at once.

The best way to build a fasting plan is to discuss it with your priest: he knows you better than we do and will likely give you better advice than you’ll ever receive from us! Nonetheless, here are some suggestions we humbly offer you for your first fast.

  • Observing only the natural fast, without abstinence.
  • Abstaining from meat only.
  • Adding a second rule (either of abstinence, or of natural fast) on Wednesdays and Fridays only.

Then, on your second fast, you may level up the challenge, and again on your third fast, and so on and so on. In any case, keep in mind that fasting is a discipline: just like any other discipline, it’s all about training, and the route matters as much as, if not more than, the destination. Do not overwhelm yourself with unattainable objectives, be gentle to yourself, be patient, and most importantly, pray.

Through fasting and prayer, souls are made pure, bodies are made chaste, spirits are raised, passions are restrained, mercy abounds, and the Holy Spirit dwells in the soul that was created to be the temple of God.

Extract from the Syriac Maronite sedro of the first weekday cycle of Lent


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.

Kalendarium – Michaele Hersonita, Maronita Archipraesb. Abbateque S. Georgij in Monte Libano, 1637.

Pope Benedict XIV. Allatae Sunt – On the Observance of Oriental Rites, 1755.