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THE ORTHODOX CHURCH
WHY WE FAST
Fasting is as old as the human race. Fasting was practiced by pagan religions, Judaism and Christianity, and it was generally considered an important element of religious life. In the ancient religions of the East fasting meant a complete abstention from food for a certain period of time – usually one or two days. In fact the Greek word for fasting = Νηστεία means a total fast where nothing passes the mouth.
The very first commandment God gave to Adam was a type of Fast. God told Adam that he could eat freely of every tree of the garden, but not of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In other words, God instituted fasting in Paradise and from what we read in Genesis, it is clear that fasting existed even before the “original sin” of Adam and Eve, and that it was not ordered as a cure for their sin. The fasting in Paradise consisted of abstaining of a certain food — namely of “the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which was created by God as well as all other trees in Paradise. God’s commandment to Adam and Eve not to eat of the particular fruit was issued as a means for them to advance in the discipline of self-control and for spiritual growth. This means that the first man in Paradise was not perfect, but was good and capable to improve and develop his spiritual and moral personality.
By an act of disobedience, Adam and Eve violated the vow of abstinence and broke the living union of love with God. Adam’s fall was his free will; That is, he held in scorn the heavenly obligations of prayer and fasting by eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Lack of abstinence, then, was the cause of the Fall and because of this original greed, the soul became dimmed, and was deprived of the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Adam lost Paradise through gluttony, but now through fasting, through obedience to the rules 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. Fasting therefore, is a means of salvation, this salvation being a life we live in accordance with the Divine will, in communion with God.
Fasting goes hand in hand with repentance. Fasting understood in this way was practiced both in the Old and New Testament and throughout the entire history of the Church. Two events in the Bible have a great similarity and are interdependence on each other. One we find at the beginning of the Old Testament and the other at the beginning of the New Testament. The first is the ‘breaking of the fast’ by Adam in Paradise. This is how man’s original sin is revealed to us. The second event is with Christ, the new Adam, who prepares for his ministry by fasting. Adam was tempted and succumbed to temptation. The result of Adam’s failure is expulsion from Paradise and death. The fruit of Christ’s victory is the destruction of death and man’s return to Paradise. It is clear, that in this perspective, fasting is revealed to us as something decisive and ultimate in importance. It is not a mere ‘obligation’, or a custom; it is connected with the very mystery of life and death, of salvation and damnation. St. Basil the Great, said: Because we did not fast, we were chased out of Paradise; let us fast now, so that some day we return there.
In the Orthodox teaching, sin is not only the transgression of a rule leading to punishment; it is always a mutilation of life given to us by God. It is for this reason that the story of the original sin is presented to us as an act of eating. For food is a means of life; it is that which keeps us alive. But here lies the whole question: what does it mean to be alive and what does “life” mean? For us today this term has a primarily biological meaning: life is precisely that which entirely depends on food, and more generally, on the physical world. But for Holy Scripture and for Christian Tradition, this life “by bread alone” is identified with death because it is mortal life. God, we are told, “created no death.” He is the Giver of Life. How then did life become mortal? Why is death and death alone the only absolute condition of that which exists? The Church answers: because man rejected life as it was offered and given to him by God and preferred a life depending not on God alone but on “bread alone.” Not only did he disobey God for which he was punished; he changed the very relationship between himself and the world. To be sure, the world was given to him by God as “food”— as means of life; yet life was meant to be communion with God; it had not only its end, but its full content in Him. “In Him was Life and the Life was the light of man.” The world and food were thus created as means of communion with God, and only if accepted for God’s sake were to give life. In itself, food has no life and cannot give life. Only God has Life and is Life. In food itself, God, and not calories, was the principle of life. Thus to eat, to be alive, to know God and be in communion with Him were one and the same thing. The unfathomable tragedy of Adam is that he ate for its own sake. More than that, he ate “apart” from God in order to be independent of Him. And he did it because he believed that food had life in itself and that he, by partaking of that food, could be like God, and have life in himself. To put it very simply: he believed in food, whereas the only object of belief, of faith, of dependence, is God and God alone. The world and food became his gods, the sources, and principles of his life. Man may claim that he believes in God but God is not his life, his food, the all-embracing content of his existence. He may claim that he receives his life from God, but he doesn’t live in God and for God. His science, his experience, his self-consciousness are all built on that same principle: “by bread alone.” We eat in order to be alive but we are not alive in God. This is the sin of all sins. This is the verdict of death pronounced on our life.
Christ is the New Adam, He comes to repair the damage inflicted on life by Adam, to restore man to true life, and thus He also begins with fasting: “When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He became hungry”. (Matt. 4:2) Hunger is that state in which we realize our dependence on something else—when we urgently and essentially need food—showing thus that we have no life in ourselves. It is that limit beyond which I either die from starvation or, having satisfied my body, have again the impression of being alive. It is, in other words, the time when we face the ultimate question: on what does my life depend? It is also the time of temptation. Satan came to Adam in Paradise; he came to Christ in the desert. He came to two hungry men and said: eat, for your hunger is the proof that you depend entirely on food, that your life is in food. And Adam believed and ate; but Christ rejected that temptation and said: man shall not live by bread alone but by God. He refused to accept that cosmic lie which Satan imposed on the world, and by doing this, Christ restored that relationship between food, life, and God which Adam broke, and which we still break every day.
What then is fasting for us Christians? It is our entrance and participation in that experience of Christ Himself by which He liberates us from the total dependence on food, matter, and the world. By no means is our liberation a full one. Living still in the fallen world, we still depend on food. But just as our death—through which we still must pass—has become by virtue of Christ’s Death a passage into life, the food we eat and the life it sustains can be life in God and for God. Part of our food has already become “food of immortality’—the Body and Blood of Christ Himself. But even the daily bread we receive from God can be in this life and in this world that which strengthens our communion with God, rather than that, which separates us from God. It is only fasting that can perform that transformation, giving us the living proof that our dependence on food and matter is not total, not absolute, but that united to prayer, grace, and adoration, it can itself be spiritual. All this means that deeply understood, fasting is the only means by which man recovers his true spiritual nature, It is not a theoretical but truly a practical challenge to the great liar who managed to convince us that we depend on bread alone and built all human knowledge, science, and existence on that lie. Fasting is a denunciation of that lie and also the proof that it is a lie. It is highly significant that it was while fasting that Christ met Satan and that He said later that Satan cannot be overcome ‘but by fasting and prayer.’’ Fasting is the real fight against the Devil because it is the challenge to that one all-embracing law which he has made man to believe. Yet if one is hungry and then discovers that he can truly be independent of that hunger, not be destroyed by it but just on the contrary, can transform it into a source of spiritual power and victory, then nothing remains of that great lie in which we have been living since Adam.
So now we have seen why we fast and now come to how we fast. Our Lord Jesus Christ calls all of us to salvation through self-denial (Luke 14:26) and this is addressed to the free will of fallen man: “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” (Matt. 16:24) Thus, the Saviour calls man to the voluntary fulfilment of those heavenly obligations, which he himself freely forsook, of observing prayer and fasting. But if we want to have spiritual benefits from our fasting, we should always keep in mind what the Lord said about fasting: “When ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.” In other words when we fast bodily, we shouldn’t fast as the Pharisees did who fasted because the law told them that they must fast and took pride in showing others that they were righteous because they obeyed the law and fasted. Fasting must always be accompanied with humility, prayer and repentance. Repentance without fasting is made ineffectual since fasting is the beginning of repentance. The aim of bodily fasting is the enslavement of the flesh, for fasting bridles the lust of the stomach and of that below the stomach, meaning the removal of the passions, the mortification of the body and the destruction of the sting of lust. Thus, it is necessary to overcome the stomach for the healing of the passions.
In fasting the flesh and the spirit struggle one against the other. True bodily fasting leads to the triumph of the spirit over the body, and gives a man power over the stomach, it subdues the flesh and permits it not to commit fornication and uncleanness. Abstinence is the mother of cleanliness, the giver of health and is good for rich and poor, sick and healthy, alike. It strengthens the seeker after godliness in spiritual battles and proves to be a formidable weapon against evil spirits. As the Lord Himself said, concerning the casting-out of certain demons: “This kind never cometh out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matt. 17:21)
This fasting, however, is not to be done out of pride or self-will; It must be observed in the praise of God and must be in accordance with the canons of the Church, since it consists in the complete renunciation of self-will and of the desires. At the same time, we must realize that for fallen man to attain perfection, even intensive fasting is insufficient, if in his soul he does not abstain from those things, which further sin. Fasting is not only the abstinence from food, but also from evil thoughts and all passion, for, as the Saviour says: “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man...” (Matt. 15:17-20) Thus exterior fasting, without the corresponding interior fasting is in vain.
Here we should mention that fasting in the Orthodox Church has two aspects: physical and spiritual. The first one implies abstinence from rich food, such as dairy products, eggs and all kinds of meat. Spiritual fasting consists in abstinence from evil thoughts, desires, and deeds. The main purpose of fasting is to gain mastery over oneself and to conquer the passions of the flesh. It is to liberate oneself from dependence on the things of this world in order to concentrate on the things of the Kingdom of God. It is to give power to the soul so that it would not yield to temptation and sin. According to St. Seraphim, fasting is an “indispensable means” of gaining the fruit of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. The Apostles of Christ continued in prayer and fasting, and commanded others to do the same. They fasted also as they accomplished their ministries by the power of the Holy Spirit and by prayer, as we read in the Acts: “Now there were in the church that was at Antioch… As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.” (Acts. 13: 1-3)
Today, I think it is safe to say, the practice and idea of fasting is largely ignored. Some people say that God’s people need not fast since we are saved by grace and not by works, and that fasting can easily become hypocritical, done merely for show and for the condemnation of others. Many others generally dismiss fasting as something old-fashioned, simple and naďve: “This is the twenty-first century; those rules were made for the past and simpler days.” Nonetheless, in spite of present practice of most people, we must take the practice of fasting seriously. We all need to develop the habit of saying no to our carnal passions and desires. What we need is self-discipline and self-control. These are acquired only through regular spiritual exercise — namely through fasting.
Fasting is not at all an act of religiousness because we what to appear to others as religious. It is not a “little suffering” which is somehow pleasing to God. It is not a punishment, which is to be sorrowfully endured in payment for sins. On the contrary, fasting for a Christian should be a joyful experience, because fasting is a self-discipline, which we voluntarily impose upon ourselves in order to become better persons and better Christians. Fasting is essential for us to regain control over our bodies. We live in a society where the Biblical idea of fasting is completely ignored and forgotten. Gluttony has become a way of life for a fallen man and, it affects every area of life, leaving us wide open to all types of temptation. We all eat too much, and fasting is the only way to end this unnatural obsession with food. Fasting puts food into its proper perspective. We must eat in order to live, but we shouldn’t simply live to eat. The saints teach that for us to purify our hearts we must begin with the control of our bodily desires through fasting. As long as the flesh rules - purity of heart will not exist. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, fasting implies not only abstinence from food, but from sins also. “The fast,” he insists, “should be kept not by the mouth alone, but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body: the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice.” It is useless to fast from food, protests St. Basil, and yet to indulge in cruel criticism and slander: “You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother.”
As we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion… Let us observe a fast acceptable and pleasing to the Lord. True fasting is to put away all evil, to control the tongue, to forbear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury. Only if we renounce these things is our fasting true and acceptable to God. Let us keep the Fast not only by refraining from food, but by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions. Spiritual effort presumes that we are in control of our bodies. Beyond this, fasting is the ideal preparation for spiritual celebration, such as Easter, Christmas, and other Feasts, because when undertaken properly, fasting fills our hearts and minds with the task before us. It concentrates our spiritual energies and makes them more effective. Thus, when Moses fasted on Mount Sinai (Exod. 34:28) and Elijah on Mount Horeb (Kings 19:8-12), the fast was in both cases linked with a Theophany. The same connection between fasting and the vision of God is evident in the case of St. Peter (Acts 10:9-17) He went up to the housetop to pray about the sixth hour, and he became very hungry and wanted to eat; and it was in this state that he fell into a trance and heard the divine voice. Such is always the purpose of ascetic fasting — to enable us, as the Triodion puts it, to “draw near to the mountain of prayer.”
Prayer and fasting should in their turn be accompanied by almsgiving, by love for others expressed in practical form, by works of compassion and forgiveness. Fasting must be undertaken willingly and not by compulsion. God doesn't need our fasting. We don't fast as a kind of personal punishment for our sins. We cannot pay God back for sins but we can only confess them to Him to receive forgiveness. Fasting with a willing spirit and not just with an attitude of fulfilling a religious obligation means that we keep the purposes of fasting always before us, which is to develop self control and to remember God and His Kingdom. That way we fast not only in what we eat but also in how much we eat. Fasting is simplicity of eating. We leave the table not with loaded stomachs. Being a little hungry during the day becomes a constant reminder of God, of our dependence on Him, and of the fact that the Lord alone can give us “food that lasts for eternal life”. (John 6:27) In fasting and prayer, he reveals Himself to us as our true food and drink.
After all this is said, one must still remember that however limited our fasting, if it is true fasting it will lead to temptation, weakness, doubt, and irritation, In other terms, it will be a real fight and probably we shall fail many times. But the very discovery of Christian life as fight and effort is the essential aspect of fasting. A faith which has not overcome doubts and temptation is seldom a real faith. No progress in Christian life is possible, without the bitter experience of failures. Too many people start fasting with enthusiasm and give up after the first failure. I would say that it is at this first failure that the real test comes. If after having failed and surrendered to our appetites and passions, we start all over again and do not give up no matter how many times we fail, sooner. or later our fasting will bear its spiritual fruits. To attain holiness we must also practice the great and divine virtue of patience and patience firstly with ourselves. There is no short-cut to holiness; for every step we take we have to pay the full price, in other words, we have to work at it. Thus it is better and safer to begin at a minimum—just slightly above our natural possibilities— and to increase our effort little by little, than to try jumping too high at the beginning and to break a few bones when falling back to earth.
There are two types of fasting. One is called the Communion Fast and the other is called Ascetical fasting.
The Communion fast usually consists of a total abstention from all food and drink after midnight and until after partaking of Holy Communion. The Eucharist being the first food that passes our mouth before all other foods.
Ascetic fasting involves various rules according to what day it is and in which fast we are in.
Apart from Wednesdays and Fridays which are generally days of fasting,
There are four major fasts in the Church year.
Lent which is 40 days plus Holy week
The Apostles fast which varies in the number of days according to when Easter falls. It begins 8 weeks after Easter and ends on the 29th June on the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul.
The August fast is from the 1st to the 15th August
And the Christmas fast which begins on 15th November and ends with Christmas.
With the Apostles fast and the Christmas fast we are allowed fish except on Wednesday and Fridays. The August fast is a strict fast meaning that no oil and wine is permitted except on weekends and we are allowed fish on the 6th August, the feast of the Transfiguration.
Of all the fasts Great Lent is the strictest with not only what we can eat but also on how many times we can eat. Before Lent begins we Have Cheesefare week which is a form of preparation for Lent. During this week no meat is allowed, but we may eat eggs, cheese and all dairy products and fish. Then as we enter lent, we begin with a total fast which means that nothing may enter the mouth. For those who have the strength to keep this very strict fast, they will only have two meals in the first five days, on Wednesday and Friday evening after the Liturgy of the Presanctified. In practice this rule is kept only by monks, but many people keep a total fast on the first day. If one hasn’t the strength to keep a total fast then in the evening they may have some tea or fruit juice. A lay custom makes a mockery of this rule which has everyone going out into the fields and having a party on Clean/Green Monday. On other weekdays we keep to a Strict fast which signifies that we may eat only vegetables cooked with water and salt, and also such things as fruit, nuts, bread and honey. In practice Vegetable margarine and corn or other vegetable oil, not made from olives are permitted as are products made from fish eggs e.g. caviar and taramosalada. The rule is that we should only have only one meal a day and that in the evening. There is no restriction on the amount of food to be taken. On Saturdays and Sunday we are allowed Olive oil and wine. When oil and wine are allowed we may also eat octopus, calamari and shell-fish. On the feast of the Annunciation 25th March and on Palm Sunday we may eat Fish.
At all times it is essential to bear in mind what St Paul says, that “we are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6: 14), and that “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor. 3: 6). “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” (Rom. 14: 17)