The venerable and sacred discipline of fasting began in the Old Testament (OT), continued into the New Testament (NT), was developed by the early Church into a highly refined spiritual art and remains to this day an integral element in the spiritual life of Orthodox Christians. Although western Christianity has over the centuries downgraded the ascetic spirit of the early Church, even to the point of rejecting fasting altogether, the Orthodox Church continues to uphold this sacred tradition with great reverence, even when many of her members do not fully practice this discipline today. The present neglect and misunderstanding over fasting should not be a surprise to anyone, simply because this sacred discipline was always a challenge from the very beginning, requiring constant clarification and reaffirmation throughout its long history, in order to be properly understood and practiced as an essential and important element in a godly way of life. Fasting is, of course, about food and what we choose to put into our mouth by way of nourishment for our physical health and well-being, but it is not only about food; it is also about practicing discipline and self-control. Fasting can never be only about physical and natural food; it must always also be about that other food of God, the “spiritual” food that sustains our spiritual nature. Fasting then is inseparable from prayer and repentance, obedience to and communion with God. In times past, believers took fasting for granted and generally knew when, how and why they were fasting. Today, as with other as pects of the sacred tradition of the Orthodox Church, fasting requires some clarification and reaffirmation. By drawing from the sacred tradition of the Orthodox Church, this article will attempt to highlight the true nature of fasting and show how it can be practiced today in the Orthodox Christian way unto the glory of God and our spiritual edification.
To begin with some definitions are in order. The Orthodox Church has two types of fasting: a) the total fast from all food and drink that is by its very nature short in duration, and b) the ascetical fast that is extended over longer but specific periods of time throughout the liturgical year of the Church. The total fast is also known as the Eucharistic fast and will normally be about twelve hours, or, in other words, from the evening meal (or even from midnight) to the time Holy Communion is received at the end of the Divine Liturgy on the next day. In the case of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, celebrated in the early evening, the total fast may begin in the morning after a very light Lenten meal or at least from noon. The ascetical fast varies both in duration of time and in dietary strictness, depending upon the particular day or the Lenten season that is being observed in the liturgical life of the Church. Both fasts are an integral part of a personal spiritual life in the Orthodox Church.
From the earliest apostolic age, Wednesday and Friday of each week were associated with the betrayal and the passion of the Lord, respectively, and designated to be days of prayer and fasting for the Christians after the Church had separated from the synagogue. The 69th Apostolic Canon confirms this practice and even imposes the sanction of being discharged from clerical duties for clergy and excommunication for laity. Today the Wednesday and Friday fast means that meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, olive oil and wine are usually excluded from the food partaken on these days by Orthodox Christians. This strict weekly fast is especially observed during the four Lenten seasons of the Church, but suspended altogether during the four fast-free weeks of the Church year. Apart from these exceptions, a more moderate fast is practiced on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year that may include vegetables, pasta and shellfish (shrimp, crab, scallops, squid, calamari) cooked with olive or vegetable oil. In addition to the weekly fasting, the early Church began introducing other recurring periods of fasting on an annual basis. The earliest such fasting is the one associated with the annual commemoration of the passion and resurrection of Christ. At first the time of fasting before Pascha was neither long— one or two days of total fasting—nor the same throughout the various regions of the ever growing and expanding Church. By 325 AD, however, according to the 5th Canon of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea, a forty-day period of fasting had already become a well-established tradition throughout the entire early Church. As the fasting period before Pascha gradually increased from several days of strict fasting to the entire Holy Week, and then, on top of that, to the forty-day fast of Great Lent, the initial total fast of only several days was naturally replaced by an ascetical fast that excluded certain foods, such as meats and fish, and other animal products, such as milk, cheese and eggs. During the time of a prolonged ascetical fast, the Church, in her pastoral wisdom and experience, allows for certain personal exceptions to be made for the very old, the very young, the sick, the nursing mothers and other people in extraordinary circumstances or with special needs. Such exceptions are to be made with discretion and appropriate guidance by the parish priest, avoiding scandal and maintaining the edifying nature of the corporate discipline of the whole Church.
Knowing that the long and arduous discipline of fasting is both challenging and yet essential for the spiritual life of the faithful, the Church long ago also devised a reasonable and well-defined corporate pattern for all the faithful to follow. Before Great Lent actually begins, the theme is gradually introduced and fasting begins incrementally: The first week of the Triodion is without any fasting at all, including Wednesday and Friday; the second week of the Prodigal Son includes the usual fast on Wednesday and Friday, but all foods are eaten freely during the rest of the week; the third week of Meatfare or Judgment Sunday—marking the last day to eat meat before Pascha—fish, dairy products, eggs, olive oil and wine are consumed freely throughout the week including Wednesday and Friday. Great Lent actually begins after Cheesefare or Forgiveness Sunday, on Clean Monday, which is observed very strictly as a day of spiritual retreat, spending most of the time in prayer and reflection, while food intake is kept to a minimum, consisting of uncooked vegetables, fruit, dry nuts, bread, water and fruit juices. Sometimes, those who may be able to endure a more rigorous discipline will keep a total fast from all food for the first three days of Great Lent, drinking only water or fruit juices, and breaking this very strict fast after receiving Holy Communion on Wednesday evening at the first Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. The remainder of the first week of Great Lent is also kept with a strict fast, which excludes even the use of olive oil and wine. The use of olive oil and wine, however, may be used to moderate the strictness of the fast on the Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays of the other weeks of GreatLent, based on any special personal and discretionary needs.
From the early centuries of Church history, three more Lenten seasons were gradually introduced into the annual liturgical cycle of the Church:
A. The Christmas fast for the Nativity of Christ includes a period of forty days, beginning on November 15. Meat, poultry and meat products are entirely excluded during this period of forty days. However, from November 15 to December 12, the Feast of St. Spyridon, fish is permitted not only during Saturdays and Sundays but also on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. The time before Christmas, as with the time before Pascha, is a sober time of serious preparation, a time of prayer, fasting and charity, and not a time for parties and entertainment. The time for a joyful yet sober celebration is after Christmas, not before.
B. The Fast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul on June 29, and of all the Twelve Apostles on June 30, will vary in duration each year because it begins on the Monday after the Sunday of All Saints, following the Sunday after Pentecost, which comes fifty days after Pascha, the moveable feast falling on a different date each year. If the Fast of the Holy Apostles is only a few days in duration, then it should be kept as strictly as possible, and if it is several weeks long, then meat, poultry and meat products, dairy products and eggs are excluded. Fish is allowed on all days except Wednesdays and Fridays.
C. The fifteen-day fast of August precedes the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ on August 6 and the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos on August 15. This two-week fast is kept rather strictly, meaning that olive oil and wine are partaken only on the Saturdays and Sundays that fall within this period. On the Feast of the Transfiguration the fast is broken by adding only olive oil, wine and fish to the festive meal.
A peculiar characteristic of the Orthodox Christian fasting is the treatment of each Saturday and Sunday that happens to fall within the longer periods of ascetical fasting during the four Lenten seasons of the year. Saturdays and Sundays are never to be strict fasting days, except for Holy Saturday. In fact, the rule requires that the fast be suspended during these two days by simply adding something special to the Lenten meals, such as olive oil and wine. This is the case because Sunday is always the day of the Lord par excellence, reminding Christians of the Lord’s resurrection, the day when the faithful gather for public worship, celebrating the Holy Eucharist and having communion with the risen Christ. Saturday also remains in the mind of the Church as the special Sabbath day, when God rested from his work of creation. The special standing of these two days of the week in the life of the Church requires that they not be days of mourning and strict fasting, even during the otherwise strict and long periods of Lenten fasting.
Some additional days of strict fasting are January 5 as the Forefeast of Theophany; August 29 as the day of the beheading of St. John the Baptist; September 14 as the Feast of the Holy Cross, which associates the finding of the Holy Cross by St. Helen in 335, the recovery of the Holy Cross from the Persians by Emperor Heraclitus in 628 and the sacrificial death of Christ on the Cross on Good Friday. Additional circumstances for fasting may include times of special needs in a family, a parish, or a regional church; the reception of other sacraments, besides Holy Communion, such as adult baptism, repentance and confession, ordination and marriage.
This general outline indicates briefly when and how Orthodox Christians observe a total or ascetical fast within the liturgical year of the Orthodox Church, which designates that well over 200 days of the year are, to some degree, days of fasting. But now the more important question may be asked: Why do Orthodox Christians fast, and why are they challenged to fast so much? The answer again is to be found in the sacred Tradition of the Orthodox Church that defines the nature of the Christian life as one involving the whole person of body and soul in a spiritual and total commitment to God. Fasting is not only a dietary discipline; it includes a spiritual component with even greater expectations and challenges that are, unlike the dietary elements, never relaxed.
The very first commandment of God at the beginning of human life was one of fasting: “From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you may not eat…” (Genesis 2:16–17). St. Basil the Great reminds us that Adam and Eve were given this stern rule to practice self-control and obedience to the divine will. While called to strive for spiritual maturity and perfection, they disobeyed God’s first commandment and lost Paradise by not fasting. Moses fasted an extraordinary fast of forty days, not only once but twice, as a spiritual preparation while ascending the mountain to receive the revelation of God in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:27–28; Deuteronomy 9:9–11, 16–18). In setting this precedent, Moses clearly projected the religious importance of fasting as an expression of sinful man’s total orientation toward God. Through the physical ordeal of fasting and the inner compunction of repentance, man willingly afflicts and humbles himself before God, and this enables him to appeal more fervently in prayer for the mercy and the forgiveness of God, but also to be vigilant and receptive to the revelation of God. Centuries after Moses, theProphet Elijah, “being zealous for the Lord Almighty,” kept a forty-day fast in the desert over the sins of Israel, and as a result the presence and power of God was finally revealed to him “in the sound of a gentle breeze” (cf. 3 Kings 19:8–12). Other prophets and pious people of the OT fasted for one reason or another (cf. Daniel 10:2–9; 1 Kings 28:20; 2 Kings 12:17; Leviticus 16:29–30; Numbers 29:7; Nehemiah 9:1–2; 1 Ezra 9:1–2; Psalm 34:13; Psalm 68:11; 108:24; Esther 4:16–17; Judith 8:5–6; Joel 2:12–15; Zechariah 7:5–12).
When the prophets of Israel referred to fasting in their preaching, they were invariably critical in their remarks. However, they did not condemn fasting itself as a religious practice, but rather the religious hypocrisy of the people in keeping the fast only externally and superficially, without the benefit of real mourning and true repentance over their sins, and, moreover, without the benefit of any works of mercy, righteousness and prayer that should have always accompanied their proper observance of the discipline of fasting. The Prophet Isaiah especially sounded the warning against such formalized fasting and enumerated those elements that make fasting authentic and acceptable to God: “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean. Put away the evils from your souls before my eyes…Learn to do good…Defend the orphan and justify the widow” (Isaiah 1:13–17). The prophet went on to define the will of God with reference to the true nature of fasting that must be complimented with a proper spiritual and moral content: “‘I did not choose such a fast,’ says the Lord; ‘Rather, loose every bond of wrongdoing; untie the knots of violent dealings; cancel the debts of the oppressed; and tear apart every unjust contract. Break your bread for the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house…Then you shall cry out, and God will hear you…God shall be with you continually…” (Isaiah 58:6–11).
The transition of true fasting from the OT into the NT is beautifully illustrated by two personalities. The Prophetess Anna, who “never left the Temple, but worshipped God day and night with fasting and prayer” (Luke 2:36), was blessed to see, together with the righteous Simeon, the forty-day old child Jesus brought to the Temple. St. John the Baptist, preaching fervently for the people to return to God with repentance and fasting, lived a most austere and ascetic life in the desert.
When Jesus himself was about to begin His public ministry, the Holy Spirit led Him into the desert and there, “He fasted for forty days and nights” (Matthew 4:1–2; Luke 4:2; cf. Mark1:12). When Jesus became hungry, after fasting, He was tempted by Satan: “‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones become bread.’ But He answered and said, ‘It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:3–4; cf. Deuteronomy 8:3). In rejecting this first temptation, Jesus reversed not only the disobedience of Adam, but also that of the Israelites, who often proved disobedient and rebellious to the will of God. Thus Jesus Christ not only confirmed the discipline of fasting of the OT, but He also gave us His personal example to emulate. In addition, Jesus also gave us a new and specific teaching about fasting, first by correcting the abuses of the Pharisees of his time, and then by reintroducing the teaching of the prophets, and finally by adding the specifically Christian element to the tradition of fasting.
The Pharisees, who represented the epitome of Jewish piety at that time and who “fasted twice a week” (Luke 19:12), did this only hypocritically, merely “to appear before the people as fasting” (Matthew 6:16), as the Lord himself indicated. Like the prophets of old, Jesus did not condemn the discipline of fasting as such, but rather preached against the insincerity with which it was being practiced. Here is His first teaching on fasting: “When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:16–18; cf. Luke 18:9–14). Here again it is clear that Jesus is teaching, like the prophets of the OT, that fasting, like every other practice of religious piety, must not be a mere external display of nonexistent piety, but rather the authentic expression of a person’s love for God and man that motivates one to do everything that one does, including fasting.
At one point, the disciples of John the Baptist posed a question to Jesus about fasting: “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (Matthew 9:14–15; Mark2:18–20; Luke 5:33–35). Jesus answered like this: “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15). Here, again, Jesus not only accepts fasting as a proper religious discipline, but He also proclaims its future necessity for His own disciples. The presence of the Messiah with His disciples is a time of joy and gladness, not a time of mourning and fasting. A time will come, however, when the bridegroom of the Church will be taken away, and then the people of the Churchwill mourn and fast. Clearly the question is not if the disciples are to fast, but rather when and why they are to fast.
A new reality has indeed come into the world with the teaching, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, as well as with the coming of the Holy Spirit and the creation of the Church. This new reality in the Church of Jesus Christ cannot be simply assimilated to an old and unredeemed way of life, much like “a new patch” cannot be superficially attached on “an old garment.” It is also unwise and impracticable for “new wine” to be placed into “old wineskins” (cf. Matthew 9:14–17; Mark 2:18–22; Luke 5:33–38). Christ is the New Man, who now demands a new way of life with new requirements and a new righteousness. The new Christian fasting, like the new teaching of Christ, will need to belong rather organically and properly to the new man in Christ and to the new Christian way of life. The Christian gospel is not a mere external corrective to some of the elements of Judaism, but rather something strikingly new. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This expression of St. Paul the Apostle is an excellent commentary on this new Christian way of life. Christianity is the “new wine” and “the good wine” ( John 2:6–10) that requires “new wineskins,” new men and women of faith in Christ, not only to accept it and contain it, but also to live by it properly and successfully with Christian humility and obedience to God.
Moreover, Jesus Christ did not come to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17–18), and He did this both in His teaching and in His person as the Savior of the world, who inaugurated the Kingdom of God and initiated the Christian way of life in His Church. As the Christian Church grew and expanded into the pagan world, the holy apostles, martyrs and fathers included in their teaching, among other important matters, the biblical tradition of fasting as noted above. The focus, however, was clearly on the ascetical spirit that characterized the Christian way of life from the very beginning, and particularly after the fourth century, when the persecutions had ended and large numbers of people were coming into the Church and needed to be instructed and guided into the truly new Christian faith and way of life.
During those early centuries of Church history, the ascetic ideal of Christian living was especially taken up and developed by the new Christian institution of monasticism, which introduced even more rigorous disciplines into its own way of life. With this in mind, we must be careful not to make a common mistake and assume that the strict discipline of Orthodox fasting, indicative of Great Lent and the other Lenten seasons in the life of the whole Church, is a monastic invention and appropriate only to its own rather strict ascetical way of life. This wrong notion is often repeated by skeptics today, and it must be dispelled again by the historical truth and the proper understanding of the tradition of fasting in the Orthodox Church. Fasting is not a monastic innovation; it is a biblical tradition adopted and practiced by the early Church and the Orthodox Church to the present time. Fasting is in fact a basic Christian virtue, a tried and true and invincible weapon against the wiles of Satan in a fallen and sinful world. And as such, fasting has the seal of approval of Christ himself, who practiced it and who thus set the supreme example for all of His followers to emulate, as they seek to live their new life in Christ and for Christ.
The theological principle of synergy provides the justification for fasting in the Orthodox Church. God has done His work of salvation, but man must now activate the spiritual life in himself by responding, cooperating and co-suffering through a spiritual life of faith, hope and love, together with prayer and fasting in body and soul. This response to God’s free gift of salvation by grace is essential for authentic Christian living, and it includes fasting in the Church and through the sacred tradition of the Church. When we fast, as when we pray, we do not fast as individuals but rather as members of the Church; we take into serious account what the Church as a whole, as a collective body of believers, believes and does from time to time. We are authentic and devout members of the Church and followers of Christ when we live according to the sacred tradition of the Orthodox Church. Fasting is an important and essential element in the Orthodox Christian life.
There is fasting in the Bible because God commanded it from the beginning; the prophets, the apostles, the martyrs, the fathers and the saints of the Church fasted because Christ himself fasted. The Orthodox Church, faithful to this sacred tradition, invites the faithful to fast through her liturgical life:
Let us begin the time of the Fast with joyfulness,
as we submit ourselves to the spiritual struggles;
Let us purify the soul and cleanse the body.
As we abstain from foods,
let us also abstain from the sinful passions;
And then, let us also delight in the virtues of the Holy Spirit…
(Cheesefare or the Sunday of Forgiveness Vespers)
The spiritual life offered by the Orthodox Church is the ascetical experience of the saints. It is an ascetic effort, not simply to increase our human potentialities and become bettermoral human beings, but rather to transfigure and transform the whole person, body and soul, according to the measure made possible by God the Father in Jesus Christ the Son, through the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church.
The Christian asceticism of Orthodox fasting can be adapted to the new realities and circumstances of modern life by including a disciplined time to find peace and quiet, to really focus on prayer, to become aware and sensitive to the presence and needs of other human beings around us. Such Orthodox fasting has the capacity to raise a prophetic voice and oppose the temptations of our secular culture. “Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit…glorify God in your body and in your spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).
Orthodox asceticism is not perfection itself; it is a way to perfection. It is an expression of our dependence upon God, our existential hunger and thirst for God and His righteousness. It is the humble yet earnest seeking for the ultimate goal of human life: the kingdom of God. Fasting, the simple control of what we put into our mouth, goes hand in hand with selfcontrol in general, with bodily and mental vigilance, humility, obedience, repentance and tears of contrition—all these are means, all reasonable efforts on the part of the conscientious believer to approach the ultimate goal and participate in the holiness of God.
Clearly then the asceticism of the Orthodox Church does not seek to punish, to deprive, to torment; it does not seek to reject or diminish human nature. Rather it seeks its therapy and purification, its unfettering and liberation from every sinful bond and passion that hinders and frustrates true and eternal life in God. It is a ceaseless effort of the whole person, body and soul, seeking to abolish and destroy the roots of evil, to do battle against Satan and his primeval deceptions and influences. It is the necessary orientation of life, requiring constant denial and renewal and ceaseless effort, toward transcendence, toward the evangelical way of transfiguration and restoration of human nature to its original beauty, glory and honor, and to its being truly in the image and likeness of God.
No ascetic effort by itself suffices, however, without the love revealed in Christ, to bring us close to God. We must avoid the ever-tempting hypocrisy of false religiosity and direct the secondary elements of all ascetic efforts and fasting to their primary goals: the purity and humility of the heart and to the purity and fullness of our love for God and for humankind. Fasting is one of the classic forms of asceticism, ever reminding all Christians of their fallen state of being. On the contrary, without fasting one becomes indolent, negligent and weak in other spiritual struggles, allowing the victory to go to Satan, who is an ever-vigilant and ever-fasting deceiver, who catches us off guard without our proper armor and weaponry. One who is thus well armed and well disciplined in fasting and prayer will acquire the firmness of mind and body to be ready and adequate to respond and repel every sinful temptation or passion.
Here is a beautiful excerpt from St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies on Fasting to conclude this article:
“The period of bodily fasting comes to an end, yes, but the period of spiritual fasting never ends! This spiritual fasting is superior to the bodily fasting, which has been established in the Church for the sake of this ongoing spiritual fasting. Earlier, when you were fasting, I often warned you that it is possible to be fasting and yet to be not truly fasting. Now, after the fast, I can again say that it is possible to be not fasting, but in fact to be truly fasting! How does one truly fast without fasting? When one eats and partakes freely of all foods, one must also continue in spiritual sobriety and virtue by abstaining from anything that is sinful. It is in this manner, therefore, that we can be truly fasting while not fasting. Sometimes, however, when trying to fast strictly from foods, we may readily find some excuses to adjust or to avoid such ascetic efforts. This is permissible in some cases and for certain people. Although we may sometimes suspend our ascetic fasting from foods, no one can ever have an excuse to suspend or interrupt their spiritual fast, which seeks to avoid sin and to practice virtue!”
Rev. Fr. Peter A. Chamberas is Chaplain at Hellenic College–Holy Cross in Brookline, MA. He is the author A Hunger for God: The Sacred Discipline of Fasting in the Orthodox Church, as well as several other books and translations, including Baptism and Chrismation: Beginning Our Christian Life in the Orthodox Church and This Is a Great Mystery: Christian Marriage in the Orthodox Church, which include the texts of the sacraments in both English and Greek, as well as extensive commentaries.