"Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me." Rev. 3: 20
by Fr. Dr. Biji Chirathilattu
The famous thirteenth century Syrian Orthodox Maphrian Yuhanon Gregorios Aboul Faraj Bar Ebroyo (1225/6–1286), commonly known in the West as Bar Hebraeus (in Araibic Ibn Al-'Ibri), who dominates the Syrian Orthodox Church History and who is rightly called the Thomas of Acquinas of the Syrian Orthodox Christianity, was the last Syrian Father to do an extensive codification of the different patristic directions towards the spiritual exercises in his Church. He is today considered as the "authority" on all matters of the Syrian Orthodox Church. In the matters of prayers and fasts, he has produced the official canon of the Church. Therefore it will be significant to consider his main instructions.
Often many questions are asked from the part of the believers as to the dos and don'ts in the fasts. There are many doubts regarding the beginning, duration, and ending of the fasts also. One example is the question, why is a forty day fast observed when in reality it is forty-eight days. Bar Ebroyo was well aware of this situation. So, both in Ethicon and Nomocanon, he narrates in minute details the number and days of the fasts observed in his Church. He quotes from the Canons of Apostles, the fourth century Synods of Gangara and Laodicea, the strict Syrian Orthodox canonist Jacob of Edessa (AD 640/5-708) et cetera; he describes the traditional rules of the Church and then gives his own interpretations and opinions by means of his directions (Hoodoye) so that everything will be clarified.
According to Bar Ebroyo, fasts until noon cannot be considered as fasting but those until the evening are the true fasts. All the believers have to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. Quoting the ninth century Patriarch John III, he says that those who eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays should be prohibited from the Church. In his directive following it, Bar Ebroyo prohibits egg, milk, and cheese also on these days and says that no believer should eat the prohibited food before the sunset. He thinks that it is the best that one does not break the fast in the evening also, rather fast till the morning of the next day. The reason behind this directive is that it is confirmed in the texts that God has begun the creation not from the darkness but from the light. Quoting Jacob of Edessa, he says that the Holy Apostles have not entrusted us anything regarding observing Friday by abstaining from the job and from the handwork. But only fast, prayer service, and reading of the holy books are suggested on Fridays and Wednesdays.
The great lent begins on the Monday coming closer, before or after the full moon between second of February and eighth of March. Quoting the Canons of the Persians, Bar Ebroyo directs that a believer who is staying in an uncivilized place having no way to know about the beginning of the fast should begin to observe the fast on twentieth February and end it on twentieth April, it means, he should observe it ten extra days. On the Sunday coming nearest, before, or after, to the completion of this time period he should end the fast with prayers and celebrate the feast. But if he is at a place where he can avail the holy elements of the Eucharist, he has no right to loosen the fast before receiving the Eucharist on the Maundy Thursday, Saturday of Annunciation and on the great Sunday of the Resurrection. But he can loosen the fast if he is in a place where he cannot avail of the Eucharist, because Bar Ebroyo sees Eucharist on all the days and on these days as alike. However, if one hopes that the Eucharist will be prepared for him in few days after the Resurrection, he should not end the lent before receiving it. But, if he does not have a hope like that, he may loosen the lent on the Resurrection day itself in the hope of the faith.
In the Nomocanon, at the beginning of the chapter on feasts, fasts, and prayers (Chapter: 5) itself, referring to the decision of the Apostles, Bar Ebroyo says that nobody should fast on the Saturdays and Sundays during the great lent. But in his "Direction" following it, he instructs that even if the release of the fast is permitted in the Canons of the Apostles because of the added fasting days in the Passion Week, it is not right to eat in the morning itself. But, because of the honor of the holy fast one should attend the Eucharistic Service at the third hour, and finish it and everything associated with it, without being haste, and come out of the Church at the noon.
This forty days great lent is being finished in 48 days. Bar Ebroyo presents the different arguments of various people regarding these extra eight days. The first view is that these days are added as the Passion Week in order to persecute our bodies more. It is the Apostles who decided that the Passion Week and the feast of Resurrection should be observed after the forty days lent. Otherwise, this fast would have been finished with the Friday of the forty-day (of the lent). Some say it is because of the Saturdays and Sundays that we break in the fast time, that we fast more than forty days. Still others say that according to the ten percent of the number of the days of the year, we separate by fasts 36.5 days for the Lord. When we reduce the number of the Sundays and Saturdays that we break, from the number of the days from the evening of the Monday of the beginning of the fasts to the morning of the Easter Sunday, we get this number. In this respect Bar Ebroyo further cites from the "Second Book" of the "Holy Clement," which is the extensive Syriac canon collection known as the "Clementinian Octateuch." The first two books of it contain the fifth century ecclesiastical order, "Testamentum Domini." Bar Ebroyo puts down the referred canon of this work as follows: "The end of the 'Pascha' (here used to denote the fast before Easter ) should happen after Saturday, namely at midnight." Bar Ebroyo interprets the word 'midnight' as follows: "So that the one tenth part of those five days, that are missing to complete the whole year also will be added." It means that the 36 fasting days unto the Saturday of the Passion Week form just one tenth of the 360 days. From the five days, which are absent to form a full year, 10% will be taken, and it results in an additional half fasting day. That is why the Great Fast is not ended on the beginning of the Easter Sunday, which begins on the Saturday evening as any other day according to the Syrian calculation of times, but only at the mid-night with the celebration of the resurrection of Christ. Bar Ebroyo evaluates these arguments and concludes that only the first one is the genuine reason.
Bar Ebroyo depends upon the decision of the Synod of Laodicea and from him oft quoted Patriarch Timotheos and Patriarch John III of Antioch to describe the "dos and don'ts" in the great lent. The synod of Laodicea admonishes that one should fast on the whole fasting time eating only the less nutritious (dry) food. In the 40 days lent, it is not right to say the Holy Mass except on Sundays and Saturdays. It is not correct to conduct wedding feasts and birthday parties in the forty days lent. But the remembrance of the martyrs may be done. Patriarch John says that it is not allowed that the commemorations of the deceased or funeral repasts take place in the great lent except on Sundays or on Saturdays. In one of his directives, Bar Ebroyo says that, not only meat, egg, milk and cheese, but fish and wine are also prohibited for the believers during the big lent. But Patriarch Timotheos gives the exemption that if a woman delivers in the Passion Week; she is allowed to drink wine, if she wishes it. Likewise, Patriarch Cyriacus exempts all the sick people, the people under constraint, the pregnant and nursing women and all under the age of twenty from fasts. In the normal days of the great lent a Christian should not break the fast before the ninth hour. On Saturday and Sunday and in the other lent times it is ended at noon.
The general fast of the community of believers and the righteous believers (i.e. the laity in general) has eleven Canons. The first Canon is that every believer should know the computation of all the periods of fasting, especially that of the great lent. It is necessary to avoid the danger of being ignorant of the fast when one is staying at a foreign place among the heterodox people. He should know it exactly when it begins or should fast ten extra days if he does not know to compute it. The second Canon is that, everyone who fasts, should have the intention to fast from the morning time onwards. He must entreat his God to accept his fasting and to give him strength in the struggle. It is because, those who unintentionally happen not to eat until the evening, should not be considered as people who fast. Likewise, many who do not have even dried and green vegetables to eat cannot be considered as ascetics.
The third Canon is to take care that nothing edible or drinkable accidentally comes to the throat of the one who fasts, especially when he desires to partake in the vivifying Mysteries (i.e. the holy Eucharist). Even though his fast does not break, when he unintentionally swallows something, he is not allowed to approach the vivifying mysteries. But, if he just washes his face without swallowing any water, he is permitted to approach them. Nevertheless, in the Nomocanon Bar Ebroyo quotes the canonist Jacob of Edessa and the famous Bishop of Tella, John son of Qursos, to propose that one may partake in the Mysteries if he drank the water by mistake. In his directive also, Bar Ebroyo says that one should not be prohibited from partaking the Mysteries on Maundy Thursday and the Saturday of the Announcement, even if water gets into his throat while washing the face. Even when some people say that, if blood is coming out from between somebody's teeth he is not allowed to take part in the Mysteries, Bar Ebroyo permits him to partake in it on Maundy Thursday and on Resurrection, provided that he has not swallowed any blood.
The fourth Canon is that the one who fasts should not stimulate vomiting. If he vomits because of illness also, his fast is broken. In that case, he must give food to two hungry poor people in the evening. The fifth Canon is keeping the eyes away from any shameful spectacle and anything that keeps the intellect from the remembrance of God and His frightening judgement. Keeping the tongue from any vain word like falsehood, calumny, slander, mockery, injury, madness and nonsense is the sixth Canon and closing the ears to listening to shameful words is the seventh one.
The eighth Canon of the fast is dictating the hands not to commit the crime of blows, and dictating the feet not to lapse into sin. The ninth Canon is complete watchfulness, for the substances of sin and iniquity. In order to explain this canon Bar Ebroyo quotes Isaac of Nineveh, who declares the fasting of the sinners as a real disgrace, because they fast but eat usury, pray but drink of profits, and from evening till evening they eat the flesh and the blood of the poor. The tenth Canon is that a rich person should adorn his fasting with merci¬fulness, because according to Bar Ebroyo mercifulness is much more becoming for a rich person than fasting. Hence Bar Ebroyo cites a learned person who effectively portrays, the futility of the fasting of the rich without acts of charity, through the following words: "Wretched is the man, who forsakes his own occupation, but takes the occupation of others. For, it would be much more becoming for him to satisfy the hungry, to clothe the naked and to relieve the needy (cf. Mt. 25: 34-45) than to be hungry and to pray, so that his riches will increase." The eleventh Canon is to fast without ostentation. It is the hypocrites who are gloomy and who disfigure their faces in order to show the labour they perform by fasting. If one is in the habit of anointing his head, let him anoint and wash his face, and let him, according to the commandment of the Gospel, hide asceticism as much as he can (cf. Mt. 6: 16-18).
Being strict towards those who discard the rules of the Church regarding fasts, Bar Ebroyo instructs with quotations from the Apostles that, the layman who is not fasting in the 40 days fasting and on Wednesdays and Fridays, other than for the reason of sickness, should be separated. He quotes the Patriarch Cyriacus also with the same purpose. The 22nd Canon of Patriarch Cyriacus says that a priest, deacon, any male, or female believer above the age of twenty should not break the fasting on Wednesday and Friday. But those who are in sickness or in difficulty or in captivity, the pregnant women, and the stilling mother may break the fast. Except on the Saturday of the Annunciation or in the case of emergency, no believer, whether it be man or woman, has the right to fast on the Sundays and Saturdays. Any male or female believer who does not observe the 40 days lent should be separated from the Church. In the same way one who is 20 years old or above, drinking wine or anything of its category in the fast time should also be separated.
(For more details see the book: "Prayers and Fasts according to Bar Ebroyo, a study on the prayers and fasts of the Oriental Churches", by Fr. Dr. Biji Chirathilattu, Lit Publishers, Hamburg, 2004)