The longest and most significant fast of the year for the Coptic Orthodox Church started this week with the beginning of Great Lent.
Although the Coptic calendar designates approximately 210 days of fasting during the year, the 55 days of fasting for Lent are the days most widely observed by members of the Coptic Church. Those fasting adhere to a vegan diet, abstaining from meat and dairy.
“God created a vegetarian man,” said the late Pope Shenouda in his book The Spirituality of Fasting. “Adam and Eve, while in Paradise, ate nothing but plants, beans and fruit.”
Forty days of the fast represent the forty days Jesus committed to fasting on the mountain. Seven preparatory days are set aside before those forty, intended to allow Copts to prepare themselves for the most sacred part of the calendar.
Unlike certain periods of fasting including Advent, the 40 days before Christmas, Copts also refrain from eating fish during Lent.
Many Egyptian Christians resort to diets heavy in carbohydrates, including grains, foul, taameya, and other cheaper vegan options common in Egypt.
Coptic Christians don’t see fasting as a physical exercise, but rather as a form of worship and love in which the faster offers his or her body up to God. Sacred scripture and the history of the Coptic Church is filled with accounts of fasting during trying times as a way of surrendering oneself to God, which according to church tradition has led to divine intervention in many cases.
Pope Cyril VI, Shenouda’s predecessor, said in an address to his congregation: “Let your fast be also accompanied by prayer and by reading the Bible and spiritual books and the lives of the saints. Let your fast be also accompanied by meditation, especially concerning the holy and precious memories with which this blessed season abounds.”
The pontiff, who is regarded as one of Coptic history’s most deeply spiritual figures, also told his congregation that Lent was a time to set one’s mind on spiritual matters and be constantly conscious of offering a “bright image of your holy church”.
For Copts, prayer and fasting are two forms of worship that are constantly interwoven and seen as the two most powerful tools to communicate with God and to develop spiritually.
Shenouda referred to fasting as a “blessing from God” that enhances spiritual life and development. “Through fasting, we prepare ourselves to receive every blessing that God offers us,” he wrote.
Bishop Mettaous wrote that the purpose of fasting before Easter was to “become ready for the joy of the Resurrection and the power it gives”.
Holy Week, which begins with Palm Sunday and ends on Easter Sunday, is a period of intense prayer and fasting. Church members attend Paschal prayers twice a day, recounting the events of Holy Week as described in the Bible and by various historical Christian figures. Coptic Christians typically abstain completely from food and drink on Good Friday, the day of Crucifixion.
The fast is broken on Easter, following the Saturday night liturgy, when families typically gather to enjoy a meal of the meat and dairy they have forsaken for almost two months.