Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The 4th of July and Fasting

As Orthodox Christians we have been fasting every Wednesday and Friday with very few exceptions since the earliest days of the Church. In the “Teachings of the Holy Apostles to the Nations” we find this:
But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites; (Matthew 6:16) for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week; but fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday).
Hypocrites was a reference to the unbelieving Jews who fasted on Monday and Thursday, not a reference to Christians. With very few exceptions during periods when fasting is forbidden (after Christmas, after Pascha, after Pentecost) these days remain the staple fasting guide of every Orthodox Christian. Even when Feasts of the Church fall on these days, there is fasting expected albeit lessened in honor of the feast. For example if August 15th happens to fall on a Friday, the fast is lessened to allow for fish, oil and wine, but no meat is served.

Why is this important? It happens to be the simplest manner in which the Church can teach and train her believers to place God above all other realities in life. It may be difficult for those who do not fast to understand the nuance between having steak and having fish during celebrations. Please allow me another example.

My birthday is during the Nativity Fast every year. This means I must fast every year on my birthday. If my birthday celebrations are going to include meat (I really enjoy a good prime rib) then I must “transfer” my birthday celebration prior to November 15th. “Now” I am free to celebrate with whatever food I wish in honor of my birthday. In fact, for many other reasons, we “transfer” birthdays and anniversaries to long weekends or other dates out of convenience. What does it teach our children when we can’t do the same out of respect for our Faith Tradition? The Church indeed transfers several feasts so that they can be celebrated outside of fasting periods, the most famous being the Feast of St George. When Pascha is later than April 23 (the date of the Feast of St George) then the celebration, including Divine Liturgy, is “transferred” to the Monday following Pascha. This is done in order to maintain the dignity that is Holy and Great Lent and Holy and Great Week.

HOWEVER, we can’t simply reschedule nationalized US holidays such as the 4th of July, so what alternative do we have? We should keep the fast when the 4th of July happens to fall on a Wednesday or, as is the case in 2014, a Friday. This is completely in keeping with the ancient and sacred Orthodox Christian Tradition. Greece, for example, celebrates March 25th (Greek Independence Day) EVERY YEAR during the Great Fast. The fast is “lessened” by allowing fish, oil and wine, but THIS IS IN HONOR OF THE FEAST OF ANNUNCIATION and not for Greek Independence Day.

There is a uniquely American exception to this rule of fasting on Thanksgiving Day. Early in the 20th Century, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of (then) North and South America, decided to allow for the “full celebration” of Thanksgiving including turkey, in deference to the unique fact that it is the ONLY US holiday dedicated to giving thanks to God. However, this exception is limited to Thanksgiving Day, and is not universally practiced.

As Americans who are Orthodox Christians, we owe it to our children to train them that their faith is more important than what foods we eat on the 4th of July. Then, when the time comes for them to choose between living the life their Church teaches, and the life the secular world teaches, they will have already been trained to follow the Church.

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