|Fasting in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition|
“Throughout the penitential period of the Fast or Great Lent, the Orthodox Church encourages her people to increase their time of prayer, both private and corporate, while at the same time invites them to abstain and to fast from those things in life which identify one as belonging to the world. The purpose of this discipline is to strengthen one's spirit, so that the mind and the heart begin to dwell on the things not of this world. In this regard the believer runs a parallel course to that which Christ traveled in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights before He went forth to be tempted by Satan. …
“The benefits of fasting or abstinence are enormous. This does not have anything to do with the reasons many today use the discipline of fasting. For in our day we see individuals fasting as a political tool or other type of protest, a way of losing extra pounds, or even as a desire to die. Christian fasting is blessed by God Himself for it is the message of the believer to God that he de-sires the eternal blessings that are to come rather than the finite blessings of this life. Its benefits include increased spiritual strength, true obedience to God and total patience with one's fellow man. It assists the believer to take control of his lower appetites that involve the physical senses. The believer becomes mentally alert and sensitive to what is happening all around him. Moreover his understanding of life is also expanded.
“Spiritual fasting for the Christian believer, then, makes him more watchful and vigilant to the expectations which God has established for His people. Fasting to an Orthodox Christian is what physical and mental exercise is to a professional athlete who aspires to win the big title and the trophy. Fasting of mind and body to the Christian, based on the obedience of prayer, renews the health of the soul, which in most people is parched and possibly dying. The achievements experienced by the believer include spiritual grace and an inner peace and joy that no one can take away. It is this blessed state that allows one not only to focus on, but to continually be mindful of the heavenly blessings that Christ promises to His people.
“Christian fasting is the most effective weapon one can have next to prayer. The two together in the name of Jesus can do wonders. One day His disciples asked Jesus why they could not heal a boy by expelling a demon from within him. They asked, "Why could we not cast it out?" The Lord's reply was, "This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting."
“In the Gospels Jesus instructs us to fast in secret. Why? Obviously, faith is an inner power; the real power of a person is in his spirit. This spiritual power is developed by the heart and the mind, which work in concert to strengthen the inner man. Man is energized and renewed by God esoterically, through his inner being and his inner heart. Anyone can have this kind of spiritual strength and power if he practices the Christian discipline of prayer and fasting. It is important to remember that many of God's most devout servants, who had the power of healing others because of their inner strength, were themselves physically infirm, such as Saint Paul the Apostle. Fasting, moreover, makes one realize that he is dependent on God, even if he may have no infirmities. He knows that without God he can do nothing.
“Increased prayer and fasting are encouraged by the Church during Great Lent as a means to purification and preparation. Both physical and spiritual purification are stressed so that the believer may feel prepared to experience a spectacular event, the event of the Lord's return. His Bride, the Church is always in anticipation of the glorious return of Her Bridegroom. This anticipation is brought into focus during the first Divine Liturgy of Holy Week, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, which is celebrated on Holy Monday morning. The Gospel reading of the Liturgy, which is taken from Saint Matthew's Gospel (24:3-35) speaks of the disciples of the Lord asking Him when His return will take place, as well as the end of the world. Fasting and prayer, therefore, during this time of the year is not simply because it is Great Lent but because the Church is awaiting the return of Her Bridegroom.”
Copyright: 1997 Bishop Isaiah of Denver
The Orthodox periods of fasting and abstinence
Meatfare Sunday -- The last day before Pascha on which meat products may be consumed. (6 March 2005)
Cheesefare Sunday – The last day before Pascha on which dairy products may be consumed (13 March 2005)
Great Lent -- Variable- Begins 47 days before Pascha
(14 March -- 24 April 2005)
Holy Week – An intensification of the Lenten ascetical fast, but stricter, with increase in liturgical services. (25 – 30 April 2005)
Fast of Saints Peter and Paul
Variable - All Saints Sunday through 29 June. Depending upon the date of Pascha, this fast can last from three days to four weeks. In 2005, the Sts. Peter and Paul fast begins on 26 June and lasts three days.
Dormition Fast --1 August – 14 August. Precedes the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God 15 August.
Beheading of Saint John the Baptist – 29 August (Strict Fast).
Elevation of the Cross – 14 September (Strict Fast).
Nativity Fast --15 November -- 24 December.
All Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year are also fasting days (with the exception of during the week following Pascha, the 12 days after Christmas, the week between Pentecost Sunday and All Saints, and the week beginning the 2nd Sunday before Meatfare). The Wednesday fast recalls the betrayal of Christ and the Friday fast recalls the Crucifixion.
The variable fasts vary based upon the date of Pascha, which infrequently coincides with the date on which the western Christian denominations celebrate Easter. The Orthodox Church calculates Pascha as falling on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox after the Jewish Passover. For a fuller discussion about the divergence between the dates on which Pascha/Easter are celebrated, see: “Towards a Common Date for Easter, WCC Publications. Geneva, 1997. http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/what/faith/easter.html
The Orthodox fast consists of abstinence from meat and animal products, milk and other dairy products, fish, wine or other alcohol, and olive oil. No food is to be consumed between meals and meals are generally smaller. Shellfish is permitted. On some days during a fasting period fasting is even stricter, with only one small meal to be consumed. On other days, the strict guidelines are relaxed, allowing consumption of fish, oil and wine (for example, on Palm Sunday). Additionally, during fasting periods, Orthodox Christians are expected to abstain from marital relations, from television, radio, music, movies, parties, entertainment.
In most Orthodox monasteries the traditional fasting rule is followed strictly. The monastic rule is generally held up as the ideal, but in regular parish practice, the rule is often pastorally modified to meet the specific spiritual need of each person. Fasting in parish practice is considered a pastoral matter undertaken in consultation with a person’s pastor or spiritual father.
There are some circumstances in which fasting is prohibited. Pregnant or nursing mothers, small children, the aged, and the sick may not fast.
In Russia, Greece and the Middle East, where the Orthodox liturgical calendar shapes the lives of large portions of the Christian population, maintaining the tradition of fasting is part of the cultural tradition of the population, reinforcing fasting as the norm during fasting periods.
Jesus Christ Himself instructed us about fasting: "And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites ... But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father" (Matt. 6:1617). The late Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann discusses fasting in his book, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha. As an example of antimony, what Eastern theologians describe as paradoxes that characterizes Christian life, fasting, Schmemann reveals, "rather than weakening us makes us light, concentrated, sober, joyful, pure."
See: Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2000 ), 98.
Fasting in the Coptic Orthodox tradition (Oriental or non-Chalcedonian Orthodox)
The Coptic Orthodox Church traditionally designates about two-thirds of the year as days of fasting, including abstinence from all animal products, including meat, fish and dairy products, and fasting from midnight to sunset, although in non-monastic settings, the fast may be broken by 3:00 PM. Receiving the Holy Eucharist does not break the fast for that day. Abstinence only, without fasting, is generally the rule for Saturdays during fasting periods. The following days are traditionally observed as fasting days in the Coptic Orthodox Church:
1. The Holy Lent Season, which total 55 days: seven days of preparation, forty days and nights (as Jesus Christ fasted), and the seven days of Paschal Worship.
2. The fast of the Apostles begins on the day following Pentecost, and ends on 12 July, the feast of the Apostles.
3. The Fast of the Virgin Mary Starts on 7 August and Ends on 22 August.
4. The Advent fast is 43 days, beginning 25 November and ends on 6 January, the eve of 7 January, the Birth of Christ (Christmas).
5. Wednesdays and Fridays of every week of the year except during the Pentecost Season (fifty days following Resurrection). It is not permissible to fast during the Pentecost Season.
6. The fast of Nineveh or (Jonah the Prophet), three days of fasting usually two weeks before Lent, to remember the mercy of God on the people of Nineveh (a city in Northern IRAQ) and their repentance that was brought by Jonah the Prophet.
7. Days of Preparation ('paramoan'), the day preceding Christmas and Epiphany. When the day before the feast falls on a Thursday, to the Wednesday fast the Church adds Tuesday and the paramoan becomes three days instead of one day.
Exceptions: Exceptions are limited to situations of pregnant and lactated women, as well as old age and require permission from the spiritual father. Additional fasting is expected of men ordained to the priesthood of forty days following ordination, and of men consecrated bishop for one full year following his consecration.
Compiled by Anne Glynn Mackoul, Member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, representing the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and Board of the US Conference for the WCC.