Fasting – What does it mean?

by Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Fasting, or abstaining from food, was a discipline practiced by our Lord himself. It was after forty days of prayer and fasting in the wilderness, that Jesus victoriously faced the temptations of the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). He asked his disciples to use fasting, coupled with prayer, as a means to achieve spiritual victories (Matthew 17:21; Mark 9:29; Luke 2:37), and the example of the Lord was followed by the disciples in their apostolic ministry and instruction to the early Christians (Acts 14:23; 27:9; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 2 Corinthians 6:5, 11:27).

The practice of fasting is rich with mean­ing. Many of the Holy Fathers throughout the history of the Church have written about the significance of fasting. Saint Basil, for exam­ple, tells us that fasting is not simply abstain­ing from food; it is, more importantly, the avoidance of sin. The Church in her hymnol­ogy describes fasting as the mother of chas­tity and prudence, as the accuser of sin and as the advocate of repentance, the life wor­thy of angels and the salvation of humans. Fasting becomes all of these when observed in the proper spirit.

In its most basic sense, fasting is absti­nence from food. But it is far more than that. Through a very natural process created by God, we consume food for sustenance, en­ergy, and life. However, we can be inclined to take more than we need or to be so con­trolled by our physical desire that we focus only on what we eat, neglecting our relation­ships and our spiritual needs, and even endan­gering our well-being. By subordinating the de­sires of the body, fasting helps us reestablish a proper order in our lives as Christians. It helps us to open our minds and souls to the guidance of the Spirit and to break away from our captivity to bodily appetites and selfish desires. Through fasting we overcome the burdens and pressures of physical gratification that are placed upon us in our world, and through our faith in Christ we are renewed and transformed into the holy peo­ple God created us to be. In addition, through fasting we move away from an entanglement and conformity to sinful passions and desires, into a blessed life filled with the presence, power, and grace of God.

By fasting, we also demonstrate the sincerity of our repentance. Adam and Eve disobeyed God by refusing to fast from the forbidden fruit. They were controlled completely by their own desires. But now through fasting, through obedience to the discipline of the Church regarding the use of spiritual and material goods, we may return to the life in Paradise, a life of communion with God. Thus, the discipline of fasting is a means to salvation. It aids our journey from sin and death to eternal life by helping us focus on our need for God’s grace and forgiveness. Through fasting we are engaged in the struggle against sin, and through discipline and abstinence, the sincerity of our repentance is affirmed.

This is why fasting is a regular practice for Or­thodox Christians. Fast days and periods have been established by the Church throughout the year to help us direct our hearts and minds to­ward the life of prayer and worship, our spiritual needs, and the condition of our souls and rela­tionship with God. During most weeks, Wednes­day and Friday are fast days. On these days, we are guided to abstain from meat, dairy products and oil and wine. On some days, fish, wine, and oil may be permitted if a specific feast falls on a Wednesday or Friday or a portion of a fast is not as strict as other times.

The calendar and practice of the Church has fasting periods, which include the forty days of Great Lent and Holy Week, before Pascha, the Nativity Fast (November 15-December 24), the Apostles Fast (the Monday after the Sunday of All Saints to June 28) and the Dormition Fast (Au­gust 1-14). For the complete fasting calendar you

Because of the liberating effect of fast­ing, both material and spiritual, the Church has connected fasting with the celebration of the major feasts of our tradition. Pascha is, of course, the most important feast of the Church. It is the “Feast of feasts.” It is the feast of our liberation from the bondage of sin, from corrupted nature, from death. For on that day, through His Resurrection from the dead, Christ has raised us “from death to life, and from earth to heaven” (Resurrection Canon). Christ, “our new Passover,” has tak­en us away from the land of slavery, sin and death, to the promised land of freedom, bliss and glory; from our sinful condition to resur­rected life. It is most appropriate to prepare for this celebration through both material and spiritual fasting.

During Great Lent, which culminates in the period of Holy Week and our celebra­tion of Pascha, fasting has a more profound meaning. During this forty day period of Great Lent, a period that reflects our ongo­ing journey from death to life, our Orthodox Church prescribes a more intense fast as an aid in repentance and transformation. Fast­ing, along with prayer, worship and giving during this sacred period of the year, leads us to reflect upon how we should live always in relationship with God and to commit to a life of faith and holiness. In this way, the entirety of the year, and each day of our lives, moves us closer to eternal salvation in the Kingdom of God.

In the practice of fasting it is important to re­member that we are not fasting simply for the sake of fasting. Our observance of the fasting days and periods of the Church is for our spiri­tual growth and greater communion with God. It is not to be a superficial practice aimed at ob­taining the praise of others. Fasting is also not in­tended to be so all-consuming that we become fixated by how we can design methods and recipes to experience enjoyable food without breaking the “rules.” No matter how austere our fast or how much in accordance our fast may be with purely technical “rules,” it is void of faith and grace if we are not also committed to prayer and worship, study and growth in our knowledge of our Faith, and philanthropic and charitable acts.

As Orthodox Christians, let us cherish fast­ing as a vital part of our spiritual lives and prac­tice. Let us experience the great joys that come through fasting as it contributes to a life of re­pentance and prayer. And in following the wise and spiritual traditions of the Church, let us of­fer all “to fight the good fight, to walk the way of fasting…to prove ourselves victorious over sin, and without condemnation to reach our goal of wor­shiping the Holy Resurrection,” our goal of eternal life.

Fasting – Guide

Just as there are times for feasting, there are also times set aside for fasting. During these periods, certain foods are prohibited. These are, in order of frequency of prohibition, meat (including poultry), dairy products, fish, olive oil and wine. Fruits, vegetables, grains and shellfish are permitted throughout the year. Of course, the Orthodox Church never reduces the practice of fasting to a legalistic observance of dietary rules. Fasting, that is not accompanied by intensified prayer and acts of charity, inevitably becomes a source of pride. The Church also recognizes that not everyone can fast to the same degree, and assumes that individual Christians will observe the fast prescribed for them by their Spiritual Fathers.

The following are fasting days and seasons:

  1. All Wednesdays and Fridays, except for those noted below:
  2. The day before the Feast of Theophany (January 5);
  3. Cheesefare Week (the last week before the Great Lent, during which meat and fish are prohibited, but dairy products are permitted even on Wednesday and Friday);
  4. Great Lent (from Clean Monday through the Friday before Lazarus Saturday, olive oil and wine are permitted on weekends);
  5. Great and Holy Week (note that Great and Holy Saturday is a day of strict fasting, during which the faithful abstain from olive oil and wine);
  6. Holy Apostles’ Fast (from the Monday after All Saints’ Day through June 28, inclusive);
  7. Fast for the Dormition of the Mother of God (August 1-14, excluding August 6, on which fish, wine and olive oil are permitted);
  8. Beheading of St. John the Baptist (August 29);
  9. Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14); and
  10. Nativity Lent (November 15-December 24, although fish, wine and olive oil are permitted, except on Wednesdays and Fridays, until December 17).

The following are fasting days on which fish, wine and olive oil are permitted:

  1. The Feast of the Annunciation (March 25, unless it falls outside the Great Lent, in which case all foods are permitted);
  2. Palm Sunday;
  3. The Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6); and
  4. The Feast of the Entry into the Temple of the Mother of God (November 21).

On the following days, all foods are permitted:

  1. The first week of the Triodion, from the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee through the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, including Wednesday and Friday;
  2. Diakainisimos (or Bright) Week, following the Sunday of Pascha,
  3. The week following Pentecost; and
  4. From the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord  (December 25) through January 4.