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THE DURATION OF THE LENTEN FAST ACCORDING TO SAINT ATHANASIUS THE GREAT

November 8, 2017

In a previous article, “The duration of the Lenten Fast according to Ibn Siba’a”, we have seen that the 13th century Coptic theologian Yuhanna ibn abi Zakariyya who was known as Ibn Siba’a believed that the Lenten fast in early Church extended to forty one days, in emulation of Christ’s fasting for forty days and forty nights after His baptism.[1] Since early Christians did not fast on Saturdays (except Saturday that falls in between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday) and Sundays, Lent was comprised of eight weeks, with only five days (Monday to Friday) each week being fasted. Ibn Siba’a does not say why Christians did not fast on Saturday but it is clear that the reason was its association with Jewish traditions. Fasting on Sunday was not allowed, however, because “Sunday is a day of spiritual joy indicative of the General Resurrection in the coming age where there will be no tiredness or suffering”.[2]

Ibn Siba’a does not give a date to that arrangement of the Lenten fast but only says it was made by the Fathers. I would like today to talk about the duration of Lenten fast according to St. Athanasius the Great (328 – 373), the 20th patriarch of the Coptic Church. Since the days of Patriarch Demetrius I (189 – 232), the 12th patriarch, it was customary that the patriarchs of the Church of Alexandria circulated a letter after Epiphany each year to all Christendom establishing the date of Easter.

St. Athanasius wrote forty-five festal letters. Not all of them are extant or complete. The first festal letter he wrote was in 329, the year after his election to the patriarchate. Philip Schaff has collected and translated what is available of these festal letters in his The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Volume IV: Athanasius: Select Works and Letters (1891).[3]  The festal letters is sent to the churches in Egypt and abroad giving the customary notice of the holy Easter which usually included the beginning of what St. Athanasius always calls ‘the fast of the forty days’,[4] the beginning and end of the holy week of Easter,[5] the Great Sunday (Easter day) and the beginning of the seven weeks of the Great Pentecost. Fortunately, we have eight festal letters (those for the years AD 330, 331, 334, 335, 338, 339, 341 and 347) that give us the times of these events. They form invaluable sources for the understanding of the duration of Lent and the Lenten fast in Early Church.[6]

I reproduce below the relative parts in the eight festal letters that detail the Lenten fast:

AD 330. We begin the fast of forty days on the 13th of the month Phamenoth (Mar. 9). After we have given ourselves to fasting in continued succession, let us begin the holy Paschal week on the 18th of the month Pharmuthi (April 13). Then resting on the 23rd of the same month Pharmuthi (April 18), and keeping the feast afterwards on the first of the week, on the 24th (April 19), let us add to these the seven weeks of the great Pentecost, wholly rejoicing and exulting in Christ Jesus our Lord, through Whom to the Father be glory and dominion in the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen.[7]

AD 331. The beginning of the fast of forty days is on the fifth of Phamenoth (Mar. 1); and when, as I have said, we have first been purified and prepared by those days, we begin the holy week of the great Easter on the tenth of Pharmuthi (Apr. 5), in which, my beloved brethren, we should use more prolonged prayers, and fastings, and watchings, that we may be enabled to anoint our lintels with precious blood, and to escape the destroyer. Let us rest then, on the fifteenth of the month Pharmuthi (Apr. 10), for on the evening of that Saturday we hear the angels’ message, ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is risen.’ Immediately afterwards that great Sunday receives us, I mean on the sixteenth of the same month Pharmuthi (April 11), on which our Lord having risen, gave us peace towards our neighbours. When then we have kept the feast according to His will, let us add from that first day in the holy week, the seven weeks of Pentecost, and as we then receive the grace of the Spirit, let us at all times give thanks to the Lord; through Whom to the Father be glory and dominion, in the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen.[8]

AD 334. We begin the fast of forty days on the first day of the month Phamenoth (Feb. 25); and having prolonged it till the fifth of Pharmuthi (Mar. 31), suspending it upon the Sundays and the Saturdays preceding them, we then begin again on the holy days of Easter, on the sixth of Pharmuthi (Apr, 1), and cease on the eleventh of the same month (Apr. 6), late in the evening of the Saturday, whence dawns on us the holy Sunday, on the twelfth of Pharmuthi (Apr. 7), which extends its beams, with unobscured grace, to all the seven weeks of the holy Pentecost. Resting on that day, let us ever keep Easter joy in Christ Jesus our Lord, through Whom, to the Father, be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.[9]

AD 335. We begin the fast of forty days on the twenty-third of Mechir (Feb. 17), and the holy fast of the blessed feast on the twenty-eighth of Phamenoth (Mar. 24); and having joined to these six days after them, in fastings and watchings, as each one is able, let us rest on the third of the month Pharmuthi (Mar. 29), on the evening of the seventh day. Also that day which is holy and blessed in everything, which possesses the name of Christ, namely the Lord’s day, having risen upon us on the fourth of Pharmuthi (Mar. 30), let us afterwards keep the holy feast of Pentecost. Let us at all times worship the Father in Christ, through Whom to Him and with Him be glory and dominion by the Holy Ghost for ever and ever. Amen.[10]

AD 338. We begin the fast of forty days on the nineteenth of the month Mechir (Feb. 13); and the holy Easter-fast on the twenty-fourth of the month Phamenoth (Mar. 20). We cease from the fast on the twenty-ninth of the month Phamenoth (Mar. 25), late in the evening of the seventh day. And we thus keep the feast on the first day of the week which dawns on the thirtieth of the month Phamenoth (Mar. 26); from which, to Pentecost, we keep holy-day, through seven weeks, one after the other. For when we have first meditated properly on these things, we shall attain to be counted worthy of those which are eternal, through Christ Jesus our Lord, through Whom to the Father be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.[11]

AD 339. We begin the fast of forty days on the ninth of the month Phamenoth (Mar. 5); and having, in these days, served the Lord with abstinence, and first purified ourselves, we commence also the holy Easter on the fourteenth of the month Pharmuthi (April 9). Afterwards, extending the fast to the seventh day, on the seventeenth of the month, let us rest late in the evening. And the light of the Lord having first dawned upon us, and the holy Sunday on which our Lord rose shining upon us, we should rejoice and be glad with the joy which arises from good works, during the seven weeks which remain—to Pentecost—giving glory to the Father, and saying, ‘This is the day which the Lord hath made: we will rejoice and be glad in it, through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, through Whom to the same, and to His Father, be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.[12]

AD 341. We begin the fast of forty days on the thirteenth of Phamenoth (9 Mar.), and the holy week of Easter on the eighteenth of Pharmuthi (Apr. 13); and resting on the seventh day, being the twenty-third (Apr. 18), and the first of the great week having dawned on the twenty-fourth of the same month Pharmuthi (Apr. 19), let us reckon from it till Pentecost. And at all times let us sing praises, calling on Christ, being delivered from our enemies by Christ Jesus our Lord, through Whom to the Father be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.[13]

AD 347. We begin the fast of forty days on the sixth day of Phamenoth (Mar. 2); and having passed through that properly, with fasting and prayers, we may be able to attain to the holy day. For he who neglects to observe the fast of forty days, as one who rashly and impurely treads on holy things, cannot celebrate the Easter festival. Further, let us put one another in remembrance, and stimulate one another not to be negligent, and especially that we should fast those days, so that fasts may receive us in succession, and we may rightly bring the feast to a close.

The fast of forty days begins then, as was already said, on the sixth of Phamenoth (Mar. 2), and the great week of the Passion on the eleventh of Pharmuthi (Apr. 6). And let us rest from the fast on the sixteenth of it (Apr. 11), on the seventh day, late in the evening. Let us keep the feast when the first of the week dawns upon us, on the seventeenth of the same month Pharmuthi (Apr. 12). Let us then add, one after the other, the seven holy weeks of Pentecost, rejoicing and praising God, that He hath by these things made known to us beforehand, joy and rest everlasting, prepared in heaven for us and for those who truly believe in Christ Jesus our Lord; through Whom, and with Whom, be glory and dominion to the Father, with the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen.[14]

Since the festal letter of AD 334 (50 anno Diocletiano/anno Martyri)[15] is the most detailed on the Lenten fast, I will use it to study the matter:

  • In that year, the fast of the forty days started on 1st of the Coptic month of Phamenoth[16] (25 February), which was Monday.
  • The holy week of Easter started on 6th of the Coptic month of Pharamuthi (1 April), which was a Monday.
  • Late in the evening of the Saturday, the 11th of Pharamuthi[17] (7 April), and as the holy Easter Sunday dawned, the Lenten fast ended.
  • Easter Day, the holy Sunday, was on 12th of Pharamuthi (8 April).
  • Easter Day is followed by seven weeks of the holy Pentecost that were crowned by the movable Pentecost feast.

It is clear that the fast of the holy week of Easter did not comprise a separate fast but it was an integral part of the forty days fast.

The following table shows the details of Lent and the Lenten fast in AD 334, according to St. Athanasius.

Baptism2              Table showing Lent and the Lenten fast in the year AD 334 (50 AM), extending from 1 Phamenoth to 11 Pharmuthi, while Easter Day was on 12 Pharmuthi (blue-shaded areas represent days of fasting)

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Since the Lent period was six weeks in length, one would expect the Lenten fast to be 41 days (35 days in the first part of Lent, and 6 days of the Paschal week in the second part); however, St. Athanasius tells us that this wasn’t the case as during the first part of Lent, fasting was suspended on Saturdays and Sundays: “We begin the fast of forty days on the first day of the month Phamenoth; and having prolonged it till the fifth of Pharmuthi, suspending it upon the Sundays and the Saturdays preceding them, we then begin again on the holy days of Easter, on the sixth of Pharmuthi.” This is not explicitly stated in Athanasius’ other festal letter but is so clear here that it cannot simply be ignored. In fact, it confirms what Ibn Siba’a has said in the 13th century that no fasting occurred on Saturdays and Sundays in early Church, except on the one Saturday that fell between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Schaff confirms this early tradition, saying, “The Saturdays and Sundays during Lent were not observed as fasts, with the exception of the day before Easter-day;” and he uses as a reference St. Ambrose of Milan (374 – 397).[18]

St. Athanasius speaks of ‘the fast of the forty days’, but, although Lent lasted for 41 days, not all these days were days of fasting: Christians fasted on Phamenoth 1 to 5, 8 to 12, 15 to 19, 22 to 26, and Phamenoth 29 to Pharmuthi 3 – they suspended fasting on five Saturdays and Sundays (total of 10 days), on Phamenoth 6, 7, 13, 14, 20, 21, 27 and 28, and on Pharmuthi 4 and 5. The total days on which the fast was observed during these six weeks of Lent were only 31 days (25 days in the first part of Lent, which occupied the first five weeks of Lent, and 6 days in the second part, which was the Paschal week at the end).

Although St. Athanasius confirms what Ibn Siba’a has said about the suspension of fasting on Saturdays (except the one Saturday before Easter Sunday) and Sundays, he differs from him in one important matter: Lent, for St. Athanasius, occupied a period of six weeks only, not the eight weeks period that Ibn Siba’a speaks of. Ibn Siba’a refers his understanding of the Lent duration to the early Church; however, it is clear that the eight weeks duration of Lent was introduced at some point after the fourth century in which St. Athanasius lived. At the present I don’t have any idea as to the timing of that change, but it is possible to speculate on the reason behind such a change. As we have seen, the Lenten fast was arranged by the early Church to imitate Christ in His forty days and forty nights fast. In reality, though, the Lenten fast differed from Christ’s fast: first, no human being could fast continuously for forty days and forty nights in succession; second, since the Christians banned fasting on Saturdays and Sundays, fasting during the six weeks of Lent was intermittent, being performed in blocks of five days (Monday to Friday) every week in the first five weeks, and a block of six days in the last week. The Lenten fast, therefore, was observed only on 31 days out of the 41 days of Lent.

The reason for the later increase of Lent to eight weeks, as Ibn Siba’a attests, is open for speculation; but, it is reasonable to assume that the Christians at a later stage, after the fourth century, wanted to fast for forty days rather than only thirty one days, and, thereby, be closer to the fast of Christ. The two extra weeks that were added to the top of Lent made it possible to increase the days of fasting to forty one days by adding two Monday-Friday fasting blocks from each week to the total. So, while continuing the suspension of the fast on Saturdays and Sundays, they were able to have their ‘forty days fast’ in full.

___________________________________

[1] After Epiphany, “Jesus [was] led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungered.” (Matt. 4:1-2 [KJV]).

[2] See: Jean Périer, Ibn Sabba, Yohanna ibn Abi Zakariya, La Perle Précieuse in Patrologia Orientalis. Tome 16, fasc. 4 (Paris, 1922); p. 671.

[3] Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Volume IV: Athanasius: Select Works and Letters (WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1891); pp. 506 – 553.

[4] The Early Church always knew the Lenten fast as ‘the fast of the forty days’ (Quandragesmia [the fortieth] in Latin and ‘Saracosti’ in Greek and Coptic).

[5] St. Athanasius speaks of the holy week of Easter in various terms including: the holy paschal week, the holy fast, the holy week of the great Easter, the holy days of Easter, the holy fast of the blessed feast, the holy Easter fast, the holy Easter, the holy Easter feast and the great week of the Passion.

[6] In the years AD 329, 332, 333 and 342, St. Athanasius speaks about the holy week of Easter only; while in the years AD 345 and 346 he barely declare Easter Day.

[7] Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, p. 512.

[8] Ibid, p. 515.

[9] Ibid, p. 523.

[10] Ibid, p. 527.

[11] Ibid, p. 532.

[12] Ibid, p. 538.

[13] Ibid, p. 541.

[14] Ibid, p. 548.

[15] The era of Diocletian started in AD 284, using the Julian calendar. The Copts later called the era of anno Diocletiani, ‘anno Martyri’ to commorate the many martyrs from Egypt who suffered under Diocletian.

[16] Phamenoth is the seventh month in the Coptic calendar. In the fourth century, it extended from 25 February to 26 March in the Julian calendar (in leap Coptic years: 26 February – 27 March).

[17] Paramuthi is the eighth month in the Coptic calendar. In the fourth century, it extended from 27 March to 25 April in the Julian calendar (in both simple and leap Coptic years).

[18] Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, n. 4128.

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