In Acts, after the Ascension, but particularly after Pentecost, the focus shifts from the work of Jesus to the disciples. Jesus’ work continues in their lives, just as he promised. Their many sacrifices for the gospel carried the church forward, from Jerusalem to the ends of the world. Even their deaths—according to tradition, the Twelve were martyred—helped to cultivate the kingdom of God far beyond the boundaries of Judea. “The blood of martyrs,” as Tertullian is loosely translated as saying, was “the seed of the church.”The Latin of this phrase is less poetic but no less powerful. “Plures efficimur,” Tertullian writes, quotiens metimur a vobis: semen est sanguis Christianorum.” More literally translated, the famous quote reads, “The more you reap us, the more we multiply: the blood of Christians is seed.”
In the life of the church, we continue to imitate, to model, to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. After Pentecost, just as Jesus promised, he is alive and interceding for his people. And he remains present in those who believe him, those who become his hands and feet, his body. They carry the gospel of the King and his kingdom to the ends of the earth, just as he promised they would.
On the church’s calendar, Pentecost is a high-water mark. At Pentecost, Jesus keeps his promise to “give you another Comforter”John 14:16, KJV. See also John 14:26; 15:26; and 16:7. The word translated “Comforter” in the KJV (paraklētos), is also translated “Advocate” (NRSV, NIV, NLT) and “Helper” (ESV, NKJV); Scriptures marked (KJV) are from the King James Version of the Bible and is in the public domain in most of the world. who will enable life after his departure. The Holy Spirit empowers disciples (then and now) for the challenging life of a kingdom emissary.
Once the “great fifty days” have passed, and Easter has given way to Ascension and Pentecost, the return to what the West calls ordinary time comes quickly. The ancient church seems more likely to have considered fasting, sacrifice, the norm, the ordinary, and so a return to ascetic practice follows soon after Pentecost. The first season of fasting begins the second Monday after Pentecost, with the Apostles Fast.
In this installment of “Telling Time in Church,” we’ll consider the history of the Apostles Fast, its connection to the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, and the invitation to imitate the Apostles’ faithfulness and endurance in sacrifice.
02. Another Fast?
“We’re fasting again?” you might be saying. “Didn’t we just complete a long fast at Lent?” Remember that feasting and fasting represent the major movements in the church calendar’s symphony. Just as a musical symphony highlights its celebratory first movement—upbeat, bright, and joyful—by contrasting it with a slower, more contemplative second movement, so fasting provides a vital contrast to feasting. As Western Christians experience limits less and less often, the conscious practice of fasting becomes even more important. All Christians would do well to rediscover the “posture” of fasting that Christians once cultivated.With the Nativity Fast, Great Lent, the Apostles Fast, and the Dormition Fast (in August), in addition to the weekly practice of fasting on Wednesday and Friday, Orthodox Christians fast to some degree for more than half the days in the year. To pick up the musical metaphor again, we might consider fasting a ‘theme’ that recurs regularly in our lives.
As past articles in this series have shown, fasting practice has a rich pedigree and deep meaning in the life of the church. A brief reminder:
Why do we fast? In an exploration of the Nativity Fast, we examined several reasons for fasting. One reason was that fasting allows us to participate in the “humiliation of the Word.” As Orthodox priest Fr. Stephen Freeman writes, “Fasting is about hunger and humility (which is increased as we allow ourselves to become weak).”Fr. Stephen Freeman, “The Nativity Fast— Why We Fast,” Glory to God for All Things (blog), November 12, 2011, accessedAugust 16, 2023, https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2011/11/12/the-nativity-fast-why-we-fast-2/ One might say that fasting allows us to taste humility, experiencing a limitation of bodily strength that we tend to avoid.
This weakness creates a powerful paradox:
Our weakness becomes strength because our own humiliation in fasting confirms not only our utter dependence on God for sustenance, but also [on] his absolute provision of himself. The church fathers and mothers would have agreed heartily with what Dallas Willard writes in The Spirit of the Disciplines: “Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in him a source of sustenance beyond food. . . . In fasting, we learn how to suffer happily as we feast on God.” Like the crew of the Dawn Treader in C. S. Lewis’s classic tale, we discover that the water God provides makes us feel “almost too well and strong to stand it,” and enables us to look and see more light than we thought possible.Jamie Cain, “Watching for the Light: Advent,” Conversatio Divina, December 4, 2020, accessed August 19, 2023, https://conversatio.org/watching-for-the-light-the-nativity-fast-advent/?collection=5040; Dallas Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines(New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 166–167; C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1952), 194.
The apostles understood this dependence; they had heard Jesus say, ‘apart from me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5, ESVScripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.). This posture fits well with the Apostles Fast, as Christians join those ‘spiritual athletes’ in their sacrifice for the gospel, an exercise of humility that is not only symbolic—we are likely not facing imminent persecution or death—but is also more than mere symbol because we actually feel our deep dependence in our hunger pangs. And Peter and Paul, who occupy the first rank among equals in the ‘glorious company of the apostles.’
03. Beginning at the End: The Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul
The Apostles Fast begins on a variable date, because it depends on the date of Pentecost, which also varies according to the date of Easter. (In 2023, Pentecost is May 28 in the western churches; June 4 in Orthodox churches. See ‘How Did the Church Get Two Easters?’) The first Sunday after Pentecost is the Orthodox observance of All Saints, and the fast begins the next day. So the Apostles Fast begins the second Monday after Pentecost. And, although it begins variably, it always ends on June 29, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul.
The feast is one of several secondary feasts after the Twelve Great Feasts we have already explored. Some churches call these secondary feasts solemnities (Roman Catholic) or festivals (Anglican and Lutheran). But they remain deeply important to the church. As the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) explains, the church observes these festivals because their subjects “are so closely connected with the earthly life and ministry of Jesus that their stories are literally part of the Gospel itself.” I will follow the Orthodox practice and simply call it a feast.
Honoring Peter and Paul began early in the church’s history. When Clement of Rome (d. circa 99 AD) wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, he singled out Peter and Paul as “recent spiritual heroes” and “noble examples” who suffered martyrdom after enduring persecution with patience.First Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 5. Ignatius of Antioch (d. second century) called Paul “the holy, the martyred.”Epistle to the Ephesians, chapter 12. Their feast day is combined because tradition says they were martyred the same day. Some evidence for a combined feast on June 29 as early as 258, but certainly by the fourth century, at the time of St. Augustine, who notes the combined feast.
The two are often pictured or placed together in icons and in the art and architecture of the church. One icon shows the two Apostles holding a church between them, Peter holding his keys and Paul, a Gospel book. Similarly, in the Duomo in Orvieto, Italy, statues of Peter and Paul stand to either side of the altar. Peter again holds his keys, while Paul’s arm extends to hold a now-missing sword, the means of his execution.
The honor given Peter and Paul is based on their positions in the life of the early church. Peter’s story begins earlier than Paul’s, with his calling in the Gospels and solidifying with his confessing Jesus as Messiah at Caesarea Philippi. This declaration led to Jesus saying he would build the church on “this rock” (Mt. 16).Some believe this “rock” to be Peter himself, while others say it refers to his confession, or to the sacred tradition. Nearly all church traditions consider him a leader among the Apostles, and he is usually listed first in the larger listing of the Twelve, and in the smaller inner circle of three. Some further interpret Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to Peter, when he told him to “feed my lambs,” as a special commission to care for the young church. Peter’s faithfulness extended to his martyrdom. According to tradition, he was crucified in Rome under Nero, between 64 and 68 AD. Some early sources, including the apocryphal Acts of Peter, say he asked to be crucified upside down because he was unworthy to suffer as Jesus did.Displayed in the Basilica Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.
The Book of Acts begins with Peter, who is the church’s main mouthpiece after Pentecost. His story eventually gives way to Paul’s after the latter’s conversion to Christianity in chapter 9. His subsequent missionary journeys extended far beyond Jerusalem in the Book of Acts, culminating in his journey to and subsequent house arrest in Rome. Paul was the father of the church’s missionary work, apostle to the Gentiles, and the author of half the books of the New Testament. He too was executed in Rome under Nero, and tradition says he was beheaded there before 68 AD.
In the late third century the church began to observe the apostles’ martyrdom in earnest, and their feast day settled on June 29, followed on June 30 with a commemoration of the all the Apostles.
04. The Fast
I have written about fasting in several previous columns. Here, I will focus on the history and features of the Apostles Fast, specifically. At least as early as the fourth century, Christians observed a fast shortly after the day of Pentecost. The fast is mentioned by both St Athanasius (d. 373) and St Ambrose (d. 397). In addition, the pilgrim Egeria, who we have discussed before, records a fast during this period. The collection of Apostolic Constitutions, which gathered several documents of early Christian liturgy and practice, says, “After the feast of Pentecost, celebrate one week, then observe a fast, for justice demands rejoicing after the reception of the gifts of God and fasting after the body has been refreshed.”
Though the fast began with a stronger connection to the post-Pentecost season, as the church developed a standard date for commemorating Peter and Paul, the fast became more associated with them and the other apostles remembered on June 30.
In terms of practice, the Apostles Fast is not as strict as the two great seasonal fasts before Nativity and Easter. During those fasts, with few exceptions, Orthodox Christians abstain from all meat that contains blood (shellfish is allowed), dairy, wine, and oil. The Apostles Fast, by contrast, may allow fish, wine, and oil on every day except Wednesdays and Fridays. As with all fasting practice, these guidelines are followed in community and under the spiritual care of a priest.
The faithfulness of Peter and Paul extended through their lives and to their deaths. But we dare not assume it sprang to life fully formed. We can see the growth of both men over the course of their discipleship to Jesus. A strong connection to Jesus the vine sustained them and enabled them to bear fruit. They also benefited from Jesus’ life and example, as Peter watched and imitated his Master, and Paul likely listened to the stories from those who saw and heard Jesus for themselves. They both practiced the way of Christ, devoting themselves to repentance, prayer, fasting, and other spiritual disciplines in their apprenticeship to Jesus. They became the men we honor through this practice.
We must do the same things. The Apostles Fast invites us to do just the same, to walk after the Apostles, who followed Jesus. We imitate them in sacrifice through fasting and prayer, doing the work of the way. For these disciplines are work, in the sense that they and other disciplines provide the structure of our apprenticeship to Jesus. They are things we do, in our power and in the power of the Holy Spirit, “which [bring] us to a point where we can do what we at present cannot do by direct effort.”Dallas Willard, The Great Omission (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006), 150; “Spiritual Disciplines, Spiritual Formation and the Restoration of the Soul,” Journal of Psychology and Theology, Spring 1998, Vol. 26, #1, 101–109.
That is the heart of the Apostles Fast: to help us come to the point where faithfulness like the apostles’ arises not merely from duty but from joy. We can then, as St. Augustine wrote in a sermon for the Feast of Peter and Paul, “embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith.”The Works of Saint Augustine, Sermon 295.
- Set aside some time for devotional reading on Lazarus Saturday. You can download the nine verses of St Andrew’s Canon of Lazarus here. (It begins on page 4.) If you’d like to hear it sung, 4 of the odes are chanted in this video.
- One of the Greek traditions associated with Lazarus Saturday is the baking of lazarakia, sweet buns reminiscent of hot cross buns that are shaped like Lazarus. If you’re inclined to baking, they are fairly easy to make. You can find one recipe here.
- If your church uses palm branches for Palm Sunday, you might consider setting the branches aside. It’s common in some traditions to burn the branches to make the ashes used in the next year’s Ash Wednesday service. It serves as a powerful connection between years, reminding participants that repentance, for the Christian, is cyclical.
George E. Koronaios, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons