Fasting in the Orthodox Church
From the time of our Lord’s incarnation, fasting has been a concern in the Christian Church. It was natural that the Church, the New Israel, should continue to fast as fasting had been a common means of repentance in the Old Israel as well. We read that the friends of the Bridegroom will fast (Luke 5:34-35) and of fasting in the early Church (Acts).
In the Orthodox Church, fasting continues as an important spiritual discipline which serves as the foundation of our spiritual life. St. Paisius Velichkovsky says “The heart cannot remain firm in purity, so as not to be defiled, if it will not be crushed by fasting. It is impossible also to preserve holiness without fasting, and the flesh will not submit to the spirit for spiritual activity, and prayer itself will not rise up and act because natural needs predominate. And the flesh will be compelled to become feverish. And from thoughts the heart is aroused and is defiled, and through this, grace departs, and the unclean spirits have boldness to rule over us as much as they wish.”
The Orthodox Church calls for us to fast for approximately half of the year. The days of fasting include the following:
- Every Wednesday and Friday of the year
- The forty days from Clean Monday until the Friday before Palm Sunday (Great Lent)
- The seven days from Lazarus Saturday until Great and Holy Friday (Holy Week)
- Great and Holy Saturday
- From the Monday after the Sunday of All Saints until June 28 (Apostles’ Fast)
- From August 1st through August 14th (Dormition Fast)
- From November 15th through December 24th (Nativity Fast)
- January 5th (Eve of Theophany)
- August 29th (Beheading of St. John the Forerunner)
- September 14th (Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
There are days in which the Orthodox Church tells its children not to fast because of the joy of a prolonged feast or as a respite before a prolonged period of fasting. These include:
- The week after the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee
- The week after Pascha (Bright Week or Renewal Week)
- The week after Pentecost
- December 25th through January 4th
When the Church calls upon us to fast, we are called to fast from meat (including fish with a backbone), dairy products (including eggs), olive oil, and wine (all alcohol). Some days, because of feasts celebrated on them, may be lightened to wine and oil or fish, wine and oil days, allowing us to consume the items the type of day is named for.
When we fast, however, it is not enough that we fast from food. St. Leo the Great says “...We must then so moderate our rightful use of food that our other desires may be subject to the same rule. For this is also a time of peace and serenity, in which having put away all stains of evil doing we strive after steadfastness in what is good.” Likewise, St. John Chrysostom tells us to combine our fasting with self restraint and almsgiving, saying, “Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works. If you see a poor man, take pity on him. If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him. Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice. Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin. Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful... Let the ear fast... by not listening to evil talk and gossip... Let the mouth fast from the foul words and unjust criticism. For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers?” All of our fasting is for nothing if it does not include these things.
As in all things, the Church provides us a standard to strive for, but our fasting must not be done according to our own will, but in obedient consultation with our spiritual father toward our good.
“If anyone, while keeping fast, adds something to it by his own will, or if he fasts seeking men's praise or some gain from it, such a fast is abomination in the eyes of God. And so it is in all things. Every good action, which is done not merely from the love of God, but is mingled with one's own will, is unclean and unpleasing to God.” – Ss. Barsanuphius and John