In Early Christian tradition, there were three big fasts every year.
- The first was the season of Advent: originally 40 days leading up to the great feast of Christmas. Today, Advent is shortened to 3-4 weeks, and many people down-play the fasting and penitential mood of that season.
- The second is the season of Lent: 40 days (excluding Sundays) leading up to the great feast of Easter. This is the great fast that is still remembered and practiced, though the traditional three weeks leading up to Lent have been dropped in most Christian traditions since the 1970’s.
- The third great fast was in the midst of the season after Trinity Sunday, the 40 days between the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6th) and the Feast of the Holy Cross (September 14th).
I am not aware of any Christian traditions that observe the third great fast anymore, though I would not be surprised if some among the Eastern Orthodox still do.
Like the season of Lent (and particularly Holy Week), this “third fast” is book-ended by two major moments in the life of Jesus: his transfiguration on the mountaintop and his crucifixion on the Cross. At the transfiguration, we see the divine glory of Jesus as the Word, the eternal God the Son, shining forth such that Jesus’ appearance underwent a metamorphosis. (Metamorphosis is the Greek-based word corresponding to the Latin-based word transfiguration). His clothes shone a bright white, his face was dazzling to behold, and the natural reaction of Peter, James, and John was to fall down in holy fear and worship him.
One of the key things about this moment of transfiguration is that it revealed the glory of God in Jesus Christ just as he began to go toward Jerusalem where he would be crucified. It was a glimpse of the glory he had always shared with the Father in eternity, and it was a preview of the glory of Christ on the Cross. Thus, when we get to Holy Cross Day, it is not simply a repeat of Good Friday where we mourn the death of our Lord and lament and repent over our sins that nailed Him to that Cross, but instead it is an awe-filled kneeling at the foot of the Cross to behold the glory of our victorious God!
From this we find that there are multiple reasons for fasting, also.
- In Advent, we fast to prepare ourselves for the arrival of our King; you could say it’s a fast of purification.
- In Lent, we fast to prepare ourselves for the Gospel events of the Passover and Easter; it’s a fast of repentance.
- From the Transfiguration to Holy Cross Day, we fast to take our eyes off of “Moses” and “Elijah,” in order to behold Jesus only; it’s a fast of orientation.
For, at the Transfiguration, although the three disciples saw Moses and Elijah alongside Jesus, God the Father spoke and announced his beloved Son, telling them to “listen to him.” And, as the Scriptures say, “suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.” That, I believe, is what the tradition of this third great fast was about: taking our eyes off the things of the world so we fix upon Jesus more clearly and completely. This is the life of Christian discipleship, something to which we all are called.
Whether or not you choose to fast from food or drink or any other worldly activity, I pray that this Feast of the Transfiguration will renew in you that commitment to follow Jesus only, and further unfetter yourselves from the bonds that this world slips around our hearts day by day. And I pray that, not just on Holy Cross Day but also on The Last Day, we will all be prepared to kneel before the throne of Christ in holy fear and awe, beholding his glory unashamed, and rejoicing in the victory of our great King.