Many newcomers to the Orthodox Church – and even some of us who have been Orthodox for quite some time – wonder just how fasting is supposed to work. Where did fasting come from? Why do we fast in the first place? What different kinds of fasting are there? When do we fast, and from what? All of these questions and more we answer in this ultimate guide to fasting in the Orthodox Church.
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Table of contents
What is fasting in the Orthodox Church?
It may be easier to say what fasting in the Orthodox Church is not, rather than what it is. Fasting is not the act of “self-denial” so many seem to think it is. We do not fast to bring suffering on ourselves because it “pleases God.” Fasting is not some “law” that wins us favor with God if we endure it, or brings guilt if we choose to ignore it.
On the contrary! Fasting intimately concerns itself with giving, not giving up. It involves actively taking control (or regaining control) over things we have allowed to control us. In other words, anything we should control but don’t (e.g. love of food or money, inclinations toward anger or pride).
Jesus said, ‘and when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites,
for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you,
they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,
that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret;
and your father who sees in secret will reward you:’ Matthew 6: 16-18
(Gospel of Cheesefare Sunday)
The history behind fasting
Orthodox Christians inherited the tradition of fasting from the Jews. In the Old Testament, fasting is sometimes preparation for the Feast days, but more generally it is a sign of humility before God. Fasting accompanied mourning and repentance. In time of necessity or danger, it was appropriate for an individual or the whole community to fast. Fasting, so to speak, reinforced urgent prayer.
In the New Testament, our Lord Jesus Christ introduced fasting as well. After His Baptism in the river of Jordan, He withdrew into the wilderness where He spent forty days and forty nights in prayer and fasting in preparation for His sacred ministry. Jesus taught his disciples and followers to fast. He told them not to fast like the Pharisees, but when they fast bodily they should be completely natural in their behavior — humble and penitent (Matt. 6:16-18).
Outside of the Scriptures, the practice of fasting Wednesdays and Fridays appears in the first or second century document called the Didache (“Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”). Those outside of the Eastern Church did not recognize that this fasting tradition continued unchanged from such an early date until the discovery of Greek and Latin mss. of The Didache in 1873 and 1900 respectively.
The purpose of fasting
In the Orthodox world, we use the word “passions” to describe tendencies that each person has that lead us to sin. Each of us has a “passion” for anger, lust, power, greed, ego, etc. We do not get through life without wrestling with each of these, sometimes on a daily basis.
The most basic “passion” is hunger. While we can go a day without a lustful thought or an angry thought, we can’t go more than a few hours without a hungry thought. So, if we can or tame our passion for eating, we can tame our other passions. If we can discipline ourselves to go without certain kinds of food, we can discipline ourselves so that we can go without certain kinds of behavior that are spiritually destructive. Thus, fasting is not about giving up something only to get it back. Fasting is about getting control of our passions, maintaining control over them, and ultimately giving control of ourselves to God.
Types of fasting
There are three main types of fasting practiced within the body of the Orthodox Church: ascetic fasting, eucharistic or liturgical fasting, and total fasting.
Those who participate in ascetic fasting follow a set of monastic rules that mainly consist of total abstinence from certain foods and a substantial reduction in diet. These rules exist not as a Pharisaic “burden too hard to bear” (Luke 11:46), but as an ideal to strive for. They are not an end in themselves, but are the means to spiritual perfection crowned in love, and aided by prayer.
Eucharistic or liturgical fast
Eucharistic fasting does not refer to the normal abstinence in preparation for receiving the Holy Communion; it means fasting from the holy Eucharist celebration itself. This is done during the week days of Great Lent along with an ascetic fast.
A total fast is exactly what it sounds like: complete abstinence from all food and drink for a short period of time. You can do this for a full day, such as on the eve of the Nativity of the Lord. Alternatively, you can participate in a total fast for just a part of the day. Perhaps the best example of this is in preparation for receiving Holy Communion, a total fast that can last anywhere from 6 to 12 hours.
When should we fast?
Traditionally, the Orthodox Church fasts at various times throughout the year. Altogether, the faithful should fast between 180 and 200 days out of the year! But fasting is not something to dread; rather, it is an effective tool for spiritual discipline and growth.
Keep Reading: The Rules of Fasting in the Orthodox Church
Extended fasting periods
There are four main periods of extended fasting:
- Great Lent – the six weeks preceding Holy Week and Pascha, the Feast of Feasts. These six weeks are themselves preceded by the Meatfast, which begins on the Monday after the Sunday of the Last Judgment.
- Nativity Fast (also called Advent or St. Philip’s Fast) – the forty days preceding the Nativity of the Lord (November 15 – December 24).
- Apostles’ Fast – the Monday after All Saints (the date of this feast changes depending on the date of Pascha) to the feast day of Ss. Peter and Paul on June 29.
- Dormition Fast – the first two weeks of August, in anticipation of the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos.
Individual fasting days
There are also individual days throughout the year on which we fast that are not connected to an extended fasting period:
- Eve of Theophany (January 5)
- Beheading of St. John the Baptist (August 29)
- Elevation of the Holy Cross (September 14)
Orthodox Christians regularly fast on Wednesdays to commemorate Christ’s betrayal by Judas Iscariot. Additionally, we fast on Fridays in remembrance of His Crucifixion. Many monasteries commemorate the angels by fasting on Mondays as well.
Preparation for receiving the Holy Eucharist
Along with Holy Confession and prayer, fasting is a part of the preparation for receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. For morning Liturgies, we should keep an absolute fast (no food or drink, even water) on arising from sleep until receiving Communion. Some also abstain from meat and dairy after the preceding Vespers service. For afternoon or evening Liturgies, we should do our best to keep an absolute fast for at least six hours. When in doubt about the expectations here, always ask your priest!
The fasting discipline may be relaxed, if necessary, when one is travelling, ill, or receiving another’s hospitality. Orthodox Christians should not fast to the detriment of their health. Fasting is a means to an end and not an end in itself. If you are new to fasting, ask your priest for guidance before you begin.
After certain feasts, Orthodox Christians do not fast, in order to show their joy for the feast:
- December 25 – January 4 – Afterfeast of the Nativity of Christ to Theophany Eve
- First week of the Lenten Triodion – Week following the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee
- Bright Week – Week after Pascha
- Trinity Week – week after Pentecost
How should we fast?
Within the community, each person fasts differently, according to his or her personal capability, spiritual insight, and vision. In every instance, our fasting should be done:
- in secret, without revealing to others what we are doing; and
- joyfully, because our aim lies in giving, rather than giving up.
Related: 4 Things Fasting Is NOT
If possible, fast as a family. This makes the experience all the more edifying, because you are growing spiritually together. Set a schedule for which days you will fast (Fridays are usually are great starting point, to commemorate our Lord’s crucifixion). And teach yourself, your spouse, and your children about the spiritual benefit of what you’re doing.
What should we fast from?
Orthodox Tradition counsels us to fast from any food products that contain blood. Christ shed His blood for us, so we do not consume any “blood” or “animal” products. That means we fast from meat, fish with vertebrae (shellfish is okay), dairy products (including eggs), oil, and wine. (Oil and wine, up until the last couple of centuries, were stored in skins of animals. This is why we can eat grapes and olives, but not wine or olive oil.
To know what to fast from on any particular day of the year, check this fasting calendar!
Though food is one of the key things people think of when they think of fasting, one does not always fast from food alone. For example, we should always try to fast from sexual activity, harsh speech, idle time, etc. during a fast. There are so many ways you can grow spiritually through this practice.
Why do we fast?
The Old Testament Prophet Isaiah tells us fasting will “loose the bonds of wickedness.” It helps free us from sin and from the clutches of other gods. Isaiah likens fasting in the Orthodox Church to sharing with the hungry and caring for others, homeless, poor, naked, imprisoned, and thirsty. When we fast, we regain balance in our lives. We focus again on our ultimate goal: becoming closer to God.
Perhaps the best reason for Orthodox Christians to fast? Jesus Himself did. He prepared Himself for doing His Father’s work by fasting forty days and forty nights. While fasting He endured temptation as we all do, and set the ultimate example for us. Jesus shows us we all have the ability to overcome these temptations through prayer, fasting, and faith.
Not only that, but fasting redirects our lives toward God and reminds us of our dependence on Him. It challenges us to put food in its proper place after Adam and Eve’s misuse of it in Paradise. We eat to live, rather than live to eat! As such, this aids us in attaining salvation. One of the Orthodox Church’s Lenten hymns illustrates this beautifully when it tells us to begin the fast with joy. It tells us that if we only fast from food and not from our passions/vices, we fast in vain. The true fast, it says, rejects evil, silences the tongue, lays aside anger, and cuts off lust, lying, and cursing.
Common questions about fasting
Orthodox Christians fast on Wednesdays to commemorate the betrayal of Christ. We fast on Fridays in remembrance of His crucifixion and death.
The form of fasting we see in the Orthodox Church today had been passed on to the early Church from Jewish practice. In Matthew, Christ says, “When you fast do not be like the hypocrites,” which indicates that the Jews fasted—it also indicates that Christ assumes that one fasts, for He says “when you fast” not “if you fast.” Fasting is not something that only developed alongside Christianity; rather, it is a practice that had been followed by the Jews, and even Scripture mentions that Christ fasted.
The purpose of fasting is not to “give up” things, nor to do something “sacrificial.” We do not fast to suffer. We fast in order to get a grip on our lives and to regain control of those things that have gotten out of control, the chief among which is (for a great many of us) food. Giving up chocolate—unless one is controlled by it—is not true fasting.
The goal of fasting is to let go of the control that food has on our bodies and our souls. But if we spend so much time and energy reading every label, obsessing over the ingredients of every item we purchase or consume, then food is still controlling us. Just in a slightly different way. And then we misunderstand the point of fasting in the first place!
As the saying goes: “Everything in moderation.” When you can, try your best to adhere to the rules of the fast. In times when you cannot, that is okay! There must be balance, lest our fasting become the fasting of the Pharisees, which our Lord Himself condemns.
We can become just as controlled by soy milk and tofu as we can be controlled by beef and butter. The reason we use these substitutes is to preserve the taste of the original; so we can have that taste without “breaking the rules” and eating the real thing. At best, this is a way to observe the “law” while missing the “spirit” of fasting in the first place.
Fasting is joyful for the Orthodox
Fasting, then, is not an exercise in dark, gloomy remorse in the Orthodox Church. It is a joyful act that benefits both our souls and our bodies. And it is this joy that transforms days and seasons of fasting – and, in fact, every season of our lives – into times of rejoicing. Rejoicing in the opportunity to change our words, our thoughts, our actions, and our lives through conquering those things which all too often conquer and control us.
Read More: 7 Things You Should Do During Lent This Year