The Feast of Pentecost remains one of the most beloved feasts in Orthodox Christian piety and experience. I’ll never forget my “Pentecostal” experience in Russia. As I walked into the church for the Pentecost Kneeling Vespers on Sunday afternoon, the smell of freshly cut greenery overwhelmed my senses. I waded through cut grass that was at least a foot deep, spread out on the floor of the nave. Along the sides of the walls, dozens of small trees had been brought into the church, in full blossom. Life was in the air! Together, we Orthodox believers—crammed into that little church, were entering into the reality of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples.
One week after this great feast of Pentecost, the Church continues Her celebration of Pentecost with the commemoration of all the “saints” —all those known and unknown who have shone forth the grace and love of the Lord. And it is on the day after this Sunday of All Saints that the Church enters into what is commonly called the Apostles’ Fast. The Apostles’ Fast, sometimes called the Fast of Ss. Peter and Paul, runs from the Monday after All Saints until the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul on June 29th.
A newcomer recently shared with me, the priest of our little mission parish in the Kentucky Bluegrass, that–while she understood why the Orthodox are so captivated by Great Lent (the forty-day fast prior to Holy Week and Pascha)—she did not understand the significance of our Apostles’ Fast. Why, she asked me, would we—coming just 2 months after the most intense ascetical time (Lent and Holy Week) in the life of our Church—undertake such an effort now?
Inwardly, I chuckled. “In case you didn’t realize it,” I reminded her, “over half the days on our Orthodox calendar for any given year are considered days of fasting and prayer!” (I have to admit that I always get a kick out of the dazed look on the faces of newcomers whenever I share this fact with them!)
I then shared with her that—in my opinion—at least two very good reasons can be put forth for why this fast developed in our Church. On one hand, there can be no doubt that the monastic fathers and mothers who played such an important role in the development of Orthodox life simply relished the times devoted to the spiritual and physical struggle, which they saw as opportunities for growth in Christ. Sanctifying a time of fasting after the exuberance of Pentecost seemed, to these monks and nuns, the most appropriate thing for them to do in the aftermath of Pentecost.
If, on that one hand, the Apostles’ Fast developed naturally from this cloistered monastic sensibility then, on the other hand, it also developed due to a sensitivity to the imperatives of Scripture. When the Lord is asked why His disciples did not fast (as did, say, the more disciplined followers of His austere cousin John), the Lord spoke words that many in the early church took as prophetic. “The days will come, ” Jesus taught, “when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matt.9:15).
The fathers and mothers of the Church clearly believed—as Orthodox Christians recognize today—that the Bridegroom has been taken away. Orthodox believers, due in large part to our yearly remembrance of the Ascension of Christ, are keenly aware of Christ’s being absent. We yearn for Him. We await His Second coming as we profess each Liturgy in the Creed. Yet we are even more keenly aware that the Spirit of Truth has now been poured out on all flesh. The Comforter has come. And He has come not just to bring us “comfort,” but to sanctify us and to equip us to emulate the ascetical struggles of the apostles that, in turn, reveal Christ to the world!
Following the apostles who are following Christ, empowered by the Spirit: it is in this mode that Orthodox believers “sanctify” this Fast of the Apostles. If we are serious about God—and about being His disciples—then we have no choice but to embrace the Cross. By embracing the Cross of prayer and fasting, we “train,” to borrow an image from St. Paul, for the spiritual contests ahead. At the end of the day, all of the spiritual efforts we Orthodox undertake are all about our training: that we might learn, by experience, to be the royal priesthood and holy nation that we were created to be to the glory of God.
— Fr. Justin Patterson