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The Copts, the Christians of Egypt, who belong mostly to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, observe fasting periods according to the Coptic calendar. These fasting periods are matched by no other Christian community. Out of the 365 days of the year, the Copts fast over 210 days.
There are spiritual, symbolic, and even practical reasons for fasting. In the fall from Paradise man became possessed of a carnal nature; he adopted carnal practices. Through fasting, the Orthodox Christians attempt to recapture Paradise in their lives by refraining from those carnal practices. In general, Coptic fasting means adhering to a vegan diet, thus abstaining from meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and other animal products.
There are those[who?] who see fasting as an exercise in self-denial and Christian obedience that serves to rid the believer of his or her passions (what most modern people would call "addictions"). These often low-intensity and hard-to-detect addictions to food, television or other entertainments, sex, or any kind of self-absorbed pleasure-seeking are seen as some of the most significant obstacles for man seeking closeness to God. Through struggling with fasting, the believer comes face to face with the reality of his condition - the starting point for genuine repentance.
The time and type of fast is generally uniform for all Orthodox Christians. The times of fasting are dependent on the ecclesiastical calendar. In the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, this calendar is the Coptic Calendar, which corresponds largely to the calendars of other Christian denominations. Observance of the fasting periods is very strict in the Coptic community.
The major fasting periods during the ecclesiastical calendar year are:
The Nativity Fast (Advent or Winter Lent) is the 40 days preceding the Nativity of Christ (Christmas) on 29 Koiak (January 7, which also falls on 28 Koiak in leap years). The 40 days correspond to the 40 days that the Prophet Moses fasted on the mountain, before receiving the Ten Commandments from God, which were at that time considered the word of God to his people. Thus, with Christ being the Word of God, the Christians fast those 40 days in preparation of receiving the Word of God in flesh at the Feast of the Nativity.
An additional 3 days were added at the beginning of the 40 days of Advent during the 10th century AD to commemorate the 3 days that the Copts fasted before God awarded them the miracle of moving the Mokattam Mountain, which lies within a suburb of Cairo on the hands of Saint Simon the Tanner during the ruling of the Muslim Fatimid Caliph Al-Muizz Li-Deenillah. Thus, the fast of Advent begins on 16 Hathor (November 25, which also falls on 15 Hathor in leap years). The three added days are considered a separate fast rather than part of the fast of Advent.
It commemorates the three days that Jonah the prophet fasted while in the belly of the whale. For Christians, these 3 days are a direct parallel of and a prophecy about the three days that Christ spent in the tomb. The fast of Jonah begins on a Monday, two weeks before the Monday that marks the beginning of the Great Lent.
Great Lent consists of six weeks (40 days), which correspond to the 40 days that Christ fasted on the mountain. It precedes Palm Sunday, and the Holy Week, which precede Easter. The seven days of the Holy Week is also a period of rigorous fasting.
There are an additional seven days of fasting before the beginning of the Great Lent, which serve as a preparatory period. Often called "Pre-Lenten Fast" or "Preparatory Week".
It is to be noted that in the early Church, since they are not related to each other dogmatically, the Great Lent Fast and the Holy Week Fast were fasted separately. It was later in the Church history, when the Fathers of the Church saw it as spiritually beneficial to join then concurrently, and later added the Preparatory week to enable the faithful to prepare themselves spiritually and bodily to experience the benefits of the fasts.
The Apostles' Fast varies in length from 2 to 6 weeks (15 to 49 days). It begins on the Monday following the Sunday of Pentecost and extends to the feast day of Saint Peter and Saint Paul on 5 Epip (July 12). This fasting period commemorates the struggles of the holy apostles to preach Christianity to the world. Its length varies yearly depending on the date of Easter, which in turn determines the date of Pentecost. The people who are fasting are allowed to eat vegan food and fish.
This fast is 15 days long and precedes the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (Repose of The Virgin Mary). This fasting period is fasted to ask for the intercessions of the Virgin Mary. It begins on 1 Mesori (August 7) and ends on 16 Mesori (August 22).
Coptic Orthodox Christians also fast every Wednesday in commemoration of Christ's betrayal by Judas Iscariot, and every Friday in commemoration of his crucifixion. Exceptions are the Wednesdays and Fridays between Easter and Pentecost, the 50-day period of joy during which fasting is not permitted.
According to the Coptic Orthodox tradition of fasting periods, the diet is mainly vegan, cooked with either oil or water. No animal products (meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, butter, etc.) are allowed.
A strict abstinence period, where no food or drink whatsoever may be taken, is encouraged for those who can endure it. The original tradition of the Church is for this period of abstinance to begin at midnight and last through sunset. Those who cannot endure this length of fast are still encouraged to strictly abstain from all types of food and drink between midnight and a certain time in the day, depending on each individual's strength and spiritual needs (this is usually based on the suggestion of the person's father of confession). For many parishioners, fasting is more likely to end at noon (the hour when Christ was placed on the Cross) or three o'clock on the afternoon (the hour when Christ died on the Cross). Strict abstinence is also expected to be kept on Great Friday between midnight and the end of the Great Friday prayers (usually around 6pm).
It is also to be noted that fish is permissible during the Advent fast and during the Apostles' Fast, except on Wednesdays and Fridays of these fasts. Lent and the Holy Week fasts are stricter than the other fasts in their discipline. Those who wish to take a vow of strict discipline for the fast of the Virgin Mary may also do so.
There are 7 weeks during the year where there is no fasting even on Wednesday and Friday. These are the 7 weeks between Easter and Pentecost. These 7 weeks are fast-free because this period is a period of joy for Christians in celebration of the Resurrection of Christ.
Coptic Orthodox Christians who expect to receive communion of the Eucharist on a certain day do not eat or drink at all during the nine hours preceding the partaking of the communion or from midnight of the previous night, whichever is longer.
Strict fasting is canonically forbidden on Saturdays and Sundays due to the festal character of the Sabbath and Resurrectional observances respectively. Holy (Bright) Saturday is the only Saturday of the year where a strict fast is kept.
It is considered a greater sin to advertise one's fasting than to not participate in the fast. Fasting is a purely personal communication between the Orthodox Christian and God, and in fact has no place whatsoever in the public life of the Coptic Orthodox Church. If one has responsibilities that cannot be fulfilled because of fasting, then it is perfectly permissible not to fast.
These strict fasting rules are usually relaxed by priests on an individual basis to accommodate for illness or weakness. Abstinence from sexual intercourse is also encouraged but not mandatory, and largely depends on the decision of each couple. The Coptic Orthodox fasting periods are designed to foster spiritual development and focus on liturgical practices.
Fasting is not generally viewed as a hardship, but rather a privilege and joy in preparing for the coming “Feast Day”.
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