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What is Fasting?
Fasting in the Orthodox Church is usually considered abstaining from certain foods during specific days or periods. However, fasting means more than just following a prescribed diet. It also may include refraining from marital relations and limiting entertainment. Above all, it is a time of increased spiritual renewal.
History and Tradition
Christianity inherited the tradition of fasting from its Jewish ancestry. Jesus also gave examples of fasting, most notably preceding his forty days in the desert, when he was tempted by the devil (Matt 4:1-11).
Types of Fasting
Ascetic fasting is rooted in monastic tradition. These rules exist not as a Pharisaic "burden too hard to bear" (Luke 11:46), but as an ideal for which to strive. Ascetic fasting is not an end in themselves, but are means to spiritual perfection crowned in love and aided by prayer. The guidelines mainly consist of total abstinence from certain foods and a substantial dietary reduction.
Eucharistic or Liturgical Fast
Eucharistic fasting does not refer to the normal abstinence in preparation for receiving Holy Communion. It means fasting from Eucharistic celebration itself. This is accomplished during the weekdays of Great Lent along with the usual ascetic fast.
It is a total abstinence from all food and drink for a short duration. Such can be for one whole day or even just part of a day, often with the purpose of spiritual concentration on something that is to come; for example, on the eve of Christmas or the time before receiving Holy Communion. Fasting is an ultimate last preparation for a Great Feast or a decisive spiritual event.
Extended Fasting Periods
There are four main periods of extended fasting:
1. Great Lent is the period of six weeks preceding Holy Week in anticipation of the Feast of Feasts, Holy Pascha (Easter), followed by the fasting of Holy Week. Great Lent is preceded by the Meatfast that starts on the Monday after the Sunday of the Last Judgment through Cheesefare Sunday.
2. The Nativity Fast (or Advent; also called St. Philip's Fast, beginning immediately after his feast on November 14), is the period from November 15 through December 24 (forty days) in anticipation of the Feast of Christ’s Nativity (Christmas).
That Wednesday and Friday fasting was general practice in early Christianity is attested by the first or early second century writing, known as the Didaché (teaching of the twelve apostles). Outside of the Eastern Church, it was not generally recognized that this fasting tradition had been preserved unchanged from such early times until the discovery of the manuscripts of the Didaché in recent history.
3. The Apostles' Fast is the period from the Monday after All Saints Sunday (a variable feast) to the feast-day of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29.
4. The Dormition Fast is the period of the first two weeks of August in anticipation of the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos.
Other Fasting days:
• Eve of Theophany (January 5)
• Beheading of St. John the Baptist (August 29)
• Elevation of the Holy Cross (September 14)
• All Wednesdays, except for fast-free weeks, in remembrance of the betrayal of Christ by Judas Iscariot.
• All Fridays, except for fast-free weeks, in remembrance of Christ’s crucifixion.
Orthodox Christians thus regularly fast on Wednesdays and Fridays to commemorate, respectively, Christ's betrayal and His crucifixion. Monastics additionally commemorate the angels on Mondays by fasting.
Fasting partners with prayer, almsgiving and confession, readying the whole person, like that of an athlete, for an upcoming event – similar to the way in which Orthodox Christians would hope to be properly prepared for the Second Coming of Christ. For this reason, during fasting seasons, no weddings should take place. Another important part of any fasting period is going to Confession/Counseling and receiving renewal through Holy Absolution.
Preparation for Receiving the Holy Eucharist
Fasting is part of preparation for receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. For morning liturgies, one keeps an absolute fast (no food or drink) upon arising from sleep until receiving Holy Communion. Some also abstain from meat and dairy as well as marital relations from the preceding (Saturday evening) Vespers on. For afternoon or evening liturgies, one should keep an absolute fast for at least six hours.
Because the celebrating priest or deacon will always commune and then consume the remaining Eucharist, he observes an absolute fast before every Liturgy he celebrates.
The fasting discipline may be relaxed as necessary, e.g. when one is traveling or ill. Additionally, exceptions should be made when receiving another's hospitality, because the focus should not be on outward shows of piety, but rather accepting the love and generosity of others.
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 pastor for guidance before you begin.
After certain feasts, Orthodox Christians do not fast, in order to show their joy for the feast.
- From the Nativity of Christ to Theophany Eve (December 25 through January 4)
- The week following the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee (first week of the Lenten Triodion)
- Bright Week (week following Pascha)
- Trinity Week (week following Pentecost)
Fasting related to foods has many different degrees. During Great Lent on Wednesdays and Fridays, daily fasting is at its most strict, abstaining from:
- meat and fish (anything with a backbone)
- dairy products (including eggs)
- olive oil
Additionally, during Great Lent, the portion and number of meals are smaller. On many other fast days, particular foods are avoided in lesser degrees of fasting. Please consult your church Calendar about those days.