by Father Photios Corey Zelinski
We know first-century Christians kept our Wednesday and Friday fast, partially in opposition to the Monday/Thursday fast of the Pharisees (Didache 8).
We know the days are a memorial of the betrayal by Judas and the Crucifixion, and that fasting is a powerful ascetic tool when accompanied by prayer and almsgiving.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’d like to ignore all that for a moment and explore another aspect of the fast, something we usually don’t think about.
During the Roman Persecution, Christians would visit the catacombs on the anniversary of a saint’s martyrdom, and celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy over their relics. (This is still done in every church, but the relics rest inside or atop the altar now. In part, this also explains how Christianity got its own calendar of “feast days,” distinct from the Jewish one.)
Shortly after the Roman Empire legalized Christianity in 313, the Church began formalizing many of the old practices of the Persecution era, as well as establishing newer, more public ones.
One of these practices was that of the “Station days.”
Every Wednesday and Friday was already kept as a “station” according to Tertullian (155-220), but much of the public fanfare developed after the Edict of Milan. Instead of secretly visiting the tomb of a martyr, now on certain fast days the whole city would march to a designated church in full liturgical garb, clergy and laity in rank, chanting hymns along the way. Once arrived, they would celebrate the liturgy and share a meal, breaking the fast after Vespers.
The procession itself was intended to resemble a military drill. Which is exactly what it was — but how could that be? What is this “army of peace that sheds no blood” (Clement of Alexandria), whose primary allegiance is not to any worldly empire? Why do the Christians engage in these exercises?
In the Greek of the New Testament, the word for the Second Coming is “Parousia” (παρουσία). It doesn’t precisely mean that. The Liddell-Scott says it can mean “presence,” or the arrival of a god, or the State visit of a high-ranking official. In fact, it means all of those things.
Fasting is eschatological: “‘Can you make the friends of the Bridegroom fast while the Bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the Bridegroom will be taken away from them; then they will fast in those days.’” (Luke 5:34-35 NKJV)
Wednesdays and Fridays are “drill periods” for the Second Coming.
We train by practicing our prayer, almsgiving, love of neighbor, enemies and the poor, modesty and humility, fasting from sin as well as from food. Disordered passions are the enemy, including our own spirit of hypocrisy. We should “visit the sick… [and] imprisoned, take pity on the tortured, comfort those who grieve and who weep, be merciful, humble, kind, calm, patient, sympathetic, forgiving, reverent, truthful and pious,” says Chrysostom.
We are drilling as footsoldiers of an ethereal army in service to an invisible King, unmercenary combatants under the aegis of the Prince of Peace.
But on Sunday, the “eighth day,” we experience the Second Coming for real — standing that very day (τῇ παρούσῃ ἡμέρᾳ) at Liturgy with all the angels and the saints, our ancestors and even our great-great-great grandchildren— transcending both time and space. “The Lamb stands slain" (Rev. 5:6), and His awesome and fearful presence (παρουσία) is shown forth in the consecration of ordinary bread and wine. He who died “once for all” (Heb. 10) is now present (παρών) for us, just as He was then. It is actually the same event.
Not only do we relive His timeless sacrifice, but also “His saving passion, the life-giving Cross, the three-day burial, the Resurrection from the dead, the Ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand of … the God and Father, and His glorious and dread Second Coming” (τῆς ἐνδόξου καὶ φοβερᾶς δευτέρας αὐτοῦ παρουσίας, in the Eucharistic Prayer of St. Basil the Great).
And on that Last Day, when finally the Sun of Justice arises at the end of human history, may He find us keeping watch, hearts lifted eastward, soberly expecting the unwaning Day of His Kingdom.
Maranatha, marana tha!
Used by permission. All rights reserved. Father Photios Corey Zelinski is a cleric of the Eastern American Diocese of ROCOR, currently serving as a supply priest for the Antiochian Orthodox Diocese of Worcester and New England, and at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Lawrence, Massachusetts.