In the Orthodox Church, fasting is a deeply beneficial spiritual discipline. One that carries with it various different rules determining when and how we are to fast each day. In this post, we outline those rules in as simplistic a manner as possible.
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Fasting is not legalistic
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware once said, “The rules of fasting, while they need to be taken seriously, are not to be interpreted with dour and pedantic legalism; ‘for the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Rom. 14:17).” We must remember the purpose of fasting in our spiritual life and stop ourselves also from getting too legalistic when it comes to these rules.
The weeks preceding Great Lent
During the week between the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee and that of the Prodigal Son, there is a general dispensation from all fasting. You may eat meat and animal products, even on Wednesday and Friday of that week.
In the following week (the Week of Carnival), we keep the usual fast on Wednesday and Friday. Otherwise, there is no special fasting this week.
Then, in the final week before Great Lent begins, we fast from all meat. During this week, eggs, cheese and other dairy products are acceptable, including on Wednesday and Friday.
The seven weeks of Lent
On weekdays (Monday to Friday inclusive) during the seven weeks of Lent, the Church places restrictions both on the number of meals taken daily and on the types of food permitted; but when you do eat a meal, there is no limitation on how much you can consume at that time. We will look at the first week separately, as the rules for this week differ from the rest.
The first week of Great Lent
On weekdays in the first week, fasting is rather intense. According to the strict observance, in the first five days, one would eat only two meals total, one on Wednesday and the other on Friday. In both cases, this meal would be after the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. On the other three days, those who have the strength are encouraged to keep an absolute fast; those who cannot fast this strictly may eat on Tuesday and Thursday (but not, if possible, on Monday), in the evening after Vespers. At this time, they may take bread and water (or tea/juice), but not a cooked meal. In practice today, these rules are commonly relaxed.
At the meals on Wednesday and Friday xerophagy is prescribed. Literally this means ‘dry eating’. Strictly interpreted, it signifies that we may eat only vegetables cooked with water and salt, and also such things as fruit, nuts, bread and honey. In practice, Orthodox faithful can eat octopus and shell-fish on days of xerophagy, along with vegetable margarine and vegetable oils not made from olives. But the following categories of food are definitely excluded:
- animal products (cheese, milk, butter, eggs, lard, etc.)
- fish with backbones
- olive oil
- wine (all alcoholic drinks)
The rest of Lent
On weekdays (Monday to Friday inclusive) in the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth weeks, traditionally one would eat one meal in the afternoon following Vespers. And at this one meal you are to observe xerophagy (see above).
Related: 5 Lessons We Can Learn From Fasting
On Saturdays and Sundays in Lent, with the exception of Holy Saturday, you may eat two main meals in the usual way, around mid-day and in the evening, with wine and olive oil; but you must fast from meat, animal products and fish on these days.
Fasting during Holy Week
Holy Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. On these days, there is one meal each day, with xerophagy. Some people try to keep a complete fast or eat only uncooked food, as on the opening days of the first week.
Holy Thursday. There is one meal, with wine and oil (i.e. olive oil).
Holy Friday. On this day, those who have the strength follow the practice of the early Church and keep a total fast. Those unable to do this may eat bread, with a little water, tea or fruit-juice. If possible, try not to eat until sunset, or until after the veneration of the Epitaphion at Vespers.
Holy Saturday. According to the ancient practice, after the end of the Liturgy of St. Basil in the morning, the faithful remained in church for the reading of the Acts of the Apostles. And after this they ate a bit of bread and dried fruit with a cup of wine. Nowadays, however, most of us return home. In these cases, we may use wine, but not oil. This is the one Saturday among all Saturdays of the year on which olive oil is not permitted, because the Lord is resting in the tomb on this day.
Exceptions to the fast
During the course of the fast, there are certain days where the rules may change. For example, on the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March) and Palm Sunday, the faithful may eat fish, wine, and oil, but not meat or animal products. If the Annunciation falls on the first four days of Holy Week, we may eat wine and oil, but not fish. And if it falls on Great Friday or Holy Saturday, wine is permitted, but not fish or oil.
We may consume wine and oil on the following days, if they fall on a weekday in the second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth week of the fast:
- First and Second Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist (24 February)
- Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (9 March)
- Forefeast of the Annunciation (24 March)
- Synaxis of the Archangel Gabriel (26 March)
- Patronal Feast (Slava) of the Church or Monastery
- Wednesday and Thursday in the fifth week (vigil for the Great Canon)
- Friday of the fifth week (vigil for the Akathistos Hymn)
Can these rules be relaxed?
Absolutely. The Church does not take a legalistic approach to fasting, instead seeing it as a discipline that adapts to the spiritual state of the individual. In the case of the elderly, those in poor health, and women who are pregnant or nursing, the Church relaxes the rules of fasting (or forbids fasting altogether).
In present-day practice, even for those in good health, the full strictness of the fast is usually mitigated. Only a few Orthodox today attempt to keep a total fast on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday in the first week, or on the first three days in Holy Week. On weekdays – except, perhaps, during the first week or Holy Week – it is now common to eat two cooked meals daily instead of one. From the second until the sixth week, many Orthodox use wine, and perhaps oil also, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and less commonly on Mondays as well. The Church sometimes even allows the faithful to eat fish in these weeks.
The Church also takes into consideration each layperson’s circumstances and grants leniency where appropriate. For example, some Orthodox Christians may live with or be dependent upon others who are non-Orthodox. Some may have special health needs. Still others might have no choice but to take meals in a factory or cafeteria with limited fast-friendly options. We must begin at the level that best fits our situation.
Each of us should seek the advice of our spiritual father when it comes to fasting. At all times it is essential to bear in mind that ‘you are not under the law but under grace’ (Rom. 6:14), and that ‘the letter kills, but the spirit gives life’ (2 Cor. 3:6). The rules of fasting, while they need to be taken seriously, are not to be interpreted with dour and pedantic legalism; ‘for the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Rom. 14:17).
Keep Reading: 7 Things You Should Do During Lent This Year