Why Byzantine Catholics Fast in June

By observing the Apostles’ Fast, we can share in the Apostles’ struggle and consider how we are supposed to spread the gospel.

12th-century icon of Sts. Peter and Paul
12th-century icon of Sts. Peter and Paul (photo: Russian Museum / St. Petersburg / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

This year, on May 19, we celebrated Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and the holy Theotokos. Traditionally, this is marked as the beginning of the Church. It is fitting that, in the Byzantine tradition, this feast is followed by the Sunday of All Saints.

The trajectory of the Byzantine liturgical year is obvious. From the darkness of Lent to the deep sadness of the Crucifixion, the celebration of Easter lasts 40 days until Christ’s Ascension into heaven. Ten days later, the Holy Spirit descended, and with the establishment of the Church, we celebrate all of her holy saints on Sunday after Pentecost. But, at this point, the celebration is put on pause. The Monday after the Byzantine Feast of All Saints begins the Apostles’ Fast, which terminates on June 29, the Feast of the Holy Apostles, Sts. Peter and Paul.

The Apostles’ Fast is a more flexible period of fasting than the strict 40-day observance of Lent. It can range from around 40 days to just a couple of weeks since it always begins after the octave of Pentecost. This year, due to the early date of Easter and Pentecost, the Apostles’ Fast is on the longer side. It is a time of reflection and preparation leading up to the Feast of the Holy Apostles, Sts. Peter and Paul.

The scriptural basis for the fast is found in Matthew 9:15 and Luke 5:34, which recounts when Christ asks (Luke 5:34), “And Jesus said to them, ‘Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?’”

St. Cyril of Alexandria comments on this passage from Luke and says, “For all things are good in their season, but what is the meaning of the Bridegroom being taken away from them? It is his being taken up into heaven.”

In the liturgical calendar, after the Ascension of the Son and the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the Bridegroom has been taken away, and we are to set back to work, preaching the good news and preparing ourselves for his coming again.

The fast is ancient, and St. Ambrose of Milan testifies to its practice in the East and the West.

In his 61st sermon, St. Ambrose says:

The Lord so ordained it that as we have participated in his sufferings during the Forty Days, so we should also rejoice in his Resurrection during the season of Pentecost. We do not fast during the season of Pentecost since our Lord Himself was present amongst us during those days. … Christ’s presence was like nourishing food for the Christians. So, too, during Pentecost, we feed on the Lord who is present among us. On the days following his ascension into heaven, however, we again fast.

The Apostles’ Fast is one of two fasts that traditionally take place during the summer months. The second fast is the Dormition Fast, which is only a two-week fast leading up to the Dormition of the Theotokos on Aug. 15. That these fast periods take place in summer — which encourages us to forgo BBQs and summer beers — can be demanding. Nevertheless, striving for excellence in holiness, living for the next life and not for this one, is what separates the Christian from this world and makes him the wayfarer — a stranger in a strange land. 

Any spiritual journey requires continuous effort and renewal. These summer fasts are ways by which the Church helps strengthen her children on that journey. The Fast adds to the rhythm of the liturgical calendar by balancing the intense joy of Pentecost with our commission to spread the Good News and now fast in anticipation of the Bridegroom’s return. It underscores the continuity of the Church’s mission from the Apostolic age to the present day. By observing the fast, we can share in the Apostles’ struggle and consider how we are supposed to spread the gospel. In doing so, the Church honors its past and prepares its members for the ongoing task of evangelizing and living out the Gospel in everyday life.