March 26, 2010

Fasting Rules For Annunciation and Palm Sunday

I received the following question which I thought needed to be clarified in a more public forum, due to certain canonical confusions.


John, I wanted to ask you about Palm Sunday and the Annunciation. In particular the rule for fasting regarding fish during Great Lent. A few years back there was a debate between my father and our parish priest because the Pedalion states that fish can only be eaten on the Annunciation [during Great Lent]. When the Annunciation fell during Holy Week, fish could be eaten on Palm Sunday. Together, we ended up looking at three different Pedalion [editions]: my dads is an edition from the mid-1930's in Greek, Fathers is from around 1990 in English, and another priests from the mid-1800's in Greek.

Each was the same in the rule for fish during Great Lent. Fish is only allowed on the Annunciation. Interestingly enough, in a footnote in the bottom, each edition said that any deviation from that made one a servant of the stomach, "δουλοσ τησ κοιλιασ". After all of the referencing and cross referencing, they said that over the generations they determined that people must have become accustomed to fish on Palm Sunday because on the occasion that the Annunciation fell during Holy Week, fish was eaten on Palm Sunday. The following year, having remembered they ate fish on Palm Sunday the previous year, they did so again then and also on the Annunciation which came earlier that next year, prior to Holy Week. This lead to the "new" practice of fish on both days. Are you able to tell me if you can confirm any of the this?

They did tell me that the Pedalion was compromised at one point by an individual who was trusted to take it to be published some generations ago. The one Father thought this could explain the discrepancy, perhaps the rule was fish on both days prior to this compromise. Coincidentally, the Father with the older Pedalion said that Bishops have been known to give a dispensation, so long as it is not done publicly to not scandalize others who may know differently.


I assume the information you noted which is contained in the footnotes of the Pedalion are the ones by St Nikodemos the Hagiorite. Whatever the case is, it is interesting and worth considering the "evolution" hypothesis which you explained as to how Palm Sunday became a day on which fish is eaten, but even St. Nikodemos would have to admit it is speculation. This hypothesis assumes that the practice of the entire Church and the educated clergy were compromised just by a few who confused, what seems to be clear from the canons, an important tradition. However, I'm not even sure if it was an ancient tradition that if the Annunciation fell during Holy Week that fish was eaten on Palm Sunday instead, though in other years they had abstained on Palm Sunday. There is no evidence for this, as far as I know. Ultimately we do not know the origins of eating fish on Palm Sunday, and personally I do not think it has anything to do with the Annunciation.

By custom and tradition fish as well as oil and wine are permitted on the Saturday of Lazarus along with Palm Sunday, though some also abstain on Saturday of Lazarus from fish. For example, in Russia it is customary to eat caviar on the Saturday of Lazarus, though Greeks tend to abstain from fish (they eat Lazarakia instead). St. Theodore the Studite allowed his monks to eat fish on both Saturday of Lazarus and Palm Sunday in the 9th century.

The Saturday of Lazarus and Palm Sunday are counted among the major feasts of the Church, with the latter among the Twelve Great Feasts. The interlude which separates the Great Fast from Holy Week is Paschal in character. The Saturday of Lazarus and Palm Sunday are both joyous festivals. Therefore, the priest wears festive vestments (white, gold, or green), and the Holy Table is also adorned with a bright cover. The Saturday of Lazarus is a prelude to the Resurrection while Palm Sunday is a prelude to the coming Kingdom.

According to Holy Tradition, there are seven Great Feasts of the Lord:

Elevation of the Holy Cross, September 14
Nativity of Christ (Christmas), December 25
Theophany, January 6
Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Pascha
Ascension, forty days after Pascha
Pentecost fifty days after Pascha
Transfiguration, August 6

If any of these days fall on a fast day, then fish is permitted (or the fast could be eliminated altogether), except for the Elevation of the Holy Cross which is a strict fast day. The same is true with the five Great Feasts of the Theotokos, among which is the Annunciation. When a Great Feast of the Theotokos falls on a fasting day, the fast is relaxed to permit fish, wine, and oil (Exception: when Annunciation falls during Holy Week, wine and oil (but not fish) are permitted; when Annunciation falls on Holy Friday or Holy Saturday, wine [but not oil or fish] are permitted).

The Feasts of the Lord are considered "first class" feasts and the Feasts of the Theotokos are considered "second class". This would mean that Palm Sunday is considered a greater feast than the Annunciation, as far as rank is concerned. This being the case, one can see why fish is permitted on Palm Sunday and why an elaborate "evolutionary" explanation is unnecessary.

As for the fact that the canons only allow fish on one day during Great Lent, the Annunciation, this in no way contradicts the practice of allowing fish on Palm Sunday, or even the Saturday of Lazarus for that matter. Palm Sunday is not during Great Lent, but is part of the interlude between Great Lent and Holy Week. Great Lent ends on the Friday before Palm Sunday. Therefore the canon which says that the Annunciation is the only day during Great Lent fish is allowed is not compromised. This confusion, it seems, is also one reason why the "evolutionary" hypothesis came about as well. Let alone the fact that various Orthodox sources confuse this. For example, on the OCA website for March 25 where the Feast of the Annunciation is explained, it says the following misleading information: "It is one of the two days of Great Lent on which the fast is relaxed and fish is permitted (Palm Sunday is the other)." But as we just said, Palm Sunday is not during Great Lent.

Lastly, it is hard to say what, if any, compromises there are in the Pedalion, and a study on this should be made. Some say it was done by the Venetian publishers, while English speakers may accuse the followers of Apostolos Makrakis, who translated The Rudder, of compromising the texts. I doubt this is the case on this issue however.