Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States
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With respect, may I ask—so many questions about fasting? There are so many fasts, how can one understand them all?

1. How does one begin?
2. How long does one fast—days, hours?
3. What to eat in that period?

The information below provides a good description of fasting in the Coptic Orthodox Church. However, since Wikipedia can be publicly edited, most of this article here is copied and pasted according to the day of this response:
The Copts, the Christians of Egypt, who belong mostly to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, observe fasting periods according to the Coptic calendar. 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.

All Coptic Orthodox Christians are expected to fast following a prescribed set of guidelines. Dispensation is however granted under special circumstances, such as pregnancy and sickness. 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 Church, this calendar is the Julian calendar. Observance of the fasting periods is very strict in the Coptic community.

The Fast of the Advent
The Nativity Fast (Advent or Winter Lent) is the 40 days preceding the Nativity of Christ (Christmas) on 29 Koiahk (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 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 St. 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.

The Fast of Nineveh
This fast commemorates the three days that the people of Nineveh fasted in repentance, after Jonah the Prophet's call for them to repent. For Christians, these 3 days are a direct parallel of and a prophecy about the three days that Christ spent in the tomb, just like the 3 days Jonah the Prophet spent in the belly of the fish. The fast of Nineveh begins on a Monday, two weeks before the Monday that marks the beginning of the Holy Great Fast. This fast was borrowed from the Syriac Tradition, as one of the Patriarchs of Alexandria (of Syriac descent) decided to adapt it for the Church of Alexandria.

The Holy Great Fast
The Holy Great Fast consists of seven 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 the Feast of the Holy Resurrection. The seven days of the Holy Week is also a period of rigorous fasting. There is an additional seven days of fasting before the beginning of the Holy Great Fast, which serve as a preparatory period-often called "Pre-Lenten Fast" or "Preparatory Week".

The Fast of the Holy Week-The Holy Pascha-Passion Week
This is the week preceding the Feast of the Holy Resurrection, which climaxes with the Crucifixion on Holy Great Friday and ends with the joyous Resurrection Feast. It is to be noted that in the early Church, since they are not related to each other dogmatically, the Holy Great 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 Fast of the Apostles
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 St. Peter and St. Paul on 5 Epep (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 the Resurrection Feast, which in turn determines the date of Pentecost. The people who are fasting are allowed to eat vegan food and seafood (seafood on Wednesdays and Fridays is not permitted).

The Fast of the Assumption of the Virgin Saint Mary (Dormition of the Theotokos)
This fast is 15 days long and precedes the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (Dormition of the Theotokos). This fasting period is fasted to ask for the intercessions of the Virgin Mary. It begins on 1 Mesore (August 7) and ends on 16 Mesore (August 22). Note: Wednesdays and Fridays-vegan.

Coptic Orthodox Christians also fast every Wednesday in commemoration of our Lord Jesus Christ's betrayal by Judas Iscariot, and every Friday in commemoration of our Lord Jesus Christ's crucifixion. Exceptions are the Wednesdays and Fridays between the Resurrection Feast and Pentecost (the 50-day period of joy during which fasting is not permitted) and any day whereon a Major Feast falls.

The Paramon Fasts
The day or days preceding the Feast of the Nativity and the Feast of Theophany are fast day(s) in preparation for the Feast day.


General Dietary Rules
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.

It is also to be noted that fish is permissible during the Advent fast, the Fast of the Apostles, and the Fast of the Virgin Mary except on Wednesdays and Fridays of these fasts. Holy Great Fast 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 with the permission of one's spiritual father.

Strict abstinence 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 abstinence 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 in 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).

Regarding the Fast of the Paramon of the Feasts of the Nativity and of Theophany

  • The Paramon Fast is a strict fasting day with abstinence and no seafood preceding the Nativity or Theophany Feast.
  • If the Feast day falls on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Saturday, then the Paramon is simply the day immediately preceding the Feast day.
  • If the Feast day falls on a Sunday, the Paramon abstinence day is substituted by the Friday before, since Saturday is a non-abstaining day. In this case, the Paramon Fast is considered as the two days, Friday and Saturday, with only Friday as a Paramon abstinence day.
  • If the Feast day falls on a Monday, then the Paramon abstinence day is similarly substituted with the Friday before, since Saturday and Sunday are non-abstaining days. In this case, the Paramon Fast is considered as the three days, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with only Friday as a Paramon abstinence day. This is the only case where a third previous day is included in the Paramon Fast.
  • If the Feast day falls on Friday, then the Paramon Fast becomes a two-day fast since Wednesday is already a strict fasting day with abstinence.

Non-fasting periods
There are 7 weeks during the year where there is no fasting even on Wednesday and Friday. These are the 7 weeks between the Resurrection Feast and Pentecost. These 7 weeks are fast free because this period is a period of joy for Christians in celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Abstinence Fasting Observance Before Partaking of the Holy Eucharist
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.

Canonical Observance
Strict fasting with abstinence is canonically forbidden on Saturdays and Sundays due to the festal character of the Sabbath and Resurrection observances respectively. Holy (Bright) Saturday is the only Saturday of the year where a strict fast is kept.

Principle of Piety
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 person 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 with permission of one's confession father.

On an individual basis to accommodate for illness or weakness, priests usually relax these strict fasting rules. Abstinence from sexual interaction 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".

Fasting requires discipline and self-control not just physically but also spiritually. It requires us to humiliate ourselves to our Lord and to communicate with our Him asking Him to forgive us for our sins with a repenting heart. Thus it is strongly advised that when one begins to fast to seek the guidance of his/her spiritual father.  When a person begins to fast, he/she must understand the meaning of that specific fast. There are many books and links to explain the meaning of each fast, the duration, and type of fast. When we fast, abstinence of meat, poultry, and dairy products is the core requirement in two levels of fasts: first degree fast (includes abstaining from seafood) and  second degree fast (seafood is allowed). Some helpful links and books to learn about our church fasts are listed below:

Lecture VIII: On Fasting Adapted from "Comparative Theology" by H.H. Pope Shenouda III .

The Spirituality of Fasting by H.H. Pope Shenouda III

A Hunger for God: The Sacred Discipline of Fasting in the Orthodox Church

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