Today is the beginning of the Saints Peter and Paul Fast, a moveable fast that precedes the celebration of the Feast of these Holy Apostles. This year the fast will last 14 days and conclude with Divine Liturgy on Monday, June 29th. The Fast is moveable because it is calculated from the date of Pascha, and always begins the day after the Sunday of All Saints, which itself always falls 8 Sundays after Pascha. Confused yet? Well, let’s keep going into the fog together.
The length of the fast is determined by the fixed feast day of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29th, and whether you are an Orthodox Christian following the New Calendar (Revised Julian calendar) or the Old Calendar (Julian calendar), which results in a 13-day time difference. A late celebration of Pascha often cuts into the New Calendar Orthodox observance of the Apostle’s Fast and whittles it down to just a couple of days. This year we are fortunate to have the whole enchilada to participate in.
That’s a lot of information just to describe when the Fast is observed, but the “why” is a lot more difficult to pin down. This is just one of those fasts that is a little off the radar for most people. If you’d asked 10 Orthodox Christians at coffee hour yesterday, “why do we have a fast for Saints Peter and Paul?”, they’d just shrug their shoulders and offer you another cup of coffee and a doughnut. It’s just one of those things we do.
I spent a considerable amount of time searching the internet and couldn’t find more than two entries of any substance (Wikipedia) which stated
Having rejoiced for fifty days following Pascha (Easter), the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Apostles began to prepare for their departure from Jerusalem to spread Christ’s message. According to Sacred Tradition, as part of their preparation, they began a fast with prayer to ask God to strengthen their resolve and to be with them in their missionary undertakings.
Sounds good to me. Are there more practical reasons, like balancing the feast of Pascha with a corresponding fast? Saint Leo the Great taught this to his flock during his reign as pope from 440 to 461 AD (he was one of the longer serving Popes). Saint Leo’s teaching reflects a fasting practice that was ongoing for a considerable time; he speaks of it as common and customary practice. As he observed in his 78th sermon:
III. And so this fast comes very opportunely after the feast of Whitsuntide [Pentecost]
Therefore, after the days of Holy Gladness, which we have devoted to the honor of the Lord rising from the dead and then ascending into heaven, and after receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, a fast is ordained as a wholesome and needful practice, so that, if perchance through neglect or disorder even amid the joys of the festival any undue licence has broken out, it may be corrected by the remedy of strict abstinence, which must be the more scrupulously carried out in order that what was on this day Divinely bestowed on the Church may abide in us. For being made the Temple of the Holy Ghost, and watered with a greater supply than ever of the Divine Stream, we ought not to be conquered by any lusts nor held in possession by any vices in order that the habitation of Divine power may be stained with no pollution.
Sermon 78 (On the Whitsuntide Fast)
Let us all embark on the fast with the feeling of the newly descended Holy Spirit; seeking to emulate the devotion to the Church that Saint Peter and Saint Paul were willing to give, even through trials, hard work, and suffering.