“Let us fast an acceptable and very pleasing fast to the Lord. True fast is the estrangement from evil, temperance of tongue, abstinence from anger, separation from desires, slander, falsehood perjury. Privation of these is true fasting.”
– A Hymn of First Monday of Lent By St. Basil the Great
Having discussed the theological, scriptural and patristic foundations of fasting, this week we will turn our attention to the types of fasts that we follow in the Church, as well as the fasting periods. Next week, we will finish with practical suggestions and discussions of the coming Nativity Fast
Complete abstinence consists of drinking or eating nothing for a period of the fast. Complete abstinence is practiced for the Eucharistic fast. When one intends to receive the Holy Mysteries at the Divine Liturgy, it is obligatory to fast from your evening meal (or certainly from midnight if your eating schedule is not regular) until you receive Holy Communion.
The evening meal should be a modest one, not a feast or banquet, since excessive food intake causes lethargy and has a detrimental affect on the spiritual life. Following the meal, nothing is allowed until after receiving Holy Communion. It should go without saying that the evening should be spent in quiet and in prayer preparing to receive the Lord’s Body and Blood. Reading of the the pre-communion prayers is a part of your preparation as well.
Complete abstinence is also practiced for vesperal liturgies and presanctified liturgies when Communion will be received in the evenings. In the case of evening liturgies the priest will provide the faithful with the rule of fasting. It would be better to fast throughout the day. Generally, though, you would certainly not eat after lunch/noon.
Abstinence from Certain Foods
When we undertake a longer fast, the fast is characterized by abstinence from different types of foods. The fasting practice will vary by the fasting season, the day of the week, and even, at times, by the local tradition of the jurisdiction. Generally, though, there are categories of foods which are often subject to the fast.
Meats are always part of the fast. Meats encompass chicken, pork, beef and all other similar products be it duck, turkey, venison, bison or other exotic meats. These are prohibited during the fasting periods. It does not matter the form of the meat or how it is prepared.
Eggs and dairy are also prohibited in all of the fasts. Cheese, butter, yogurt, milk and the like are out during the fasting periods.
Beyond the meat and eggs/dairy, the other items of abstinence are often tied to specific days of the week or days associated with feasts that fall within a fast.
Olive oil is not permitted on certain days, but other vegetable oils are usually permitted. Opinions vary regarding why we fast from olive oil. Some say it has to do with the fact that olive oil was once stored in animal skins, which made it an animal product. The richness of the oil, and its connection with improving appearance or with being a blessing (which we forego during fasting times) certainly are reason enough to adhere to the rules. There are some (primarily in Slavic jurisdictions) who hold that all oil is forbidden during the fast. This tradition may have more to do with adapting the fast to a climate that did not readily produce olives or olive oil than anything else.
Wine/Alcohol is likewise often forbidden. Like the olive oil, there is some divergence in practice as to whether “wine” means all alcohol, or just wine. The general approach is that it means all alcohol. Oddly, some Slavic traditions hold beer is not excluded on wine fast days.
Fish is another food that is sometimes permitted although it is usually subject to the fast. When we refer to fish, we are speaking of meatfish with spines. Shellfish are not included and are always permitted. That may seem strange in a culture that prizes lobster and crab as delicacies. However, traditionally these bottom feeding creatures were the food of the humble, while the rich were able to afford the fleshy fish either because they had their own boats or were able to go to market. While times may have changed, we adhere to the traditional fasting rules – though we should be careful not to take advantage of the permissibility of shellfish to spend large amounts of money on our meals. A humble plate helps us tames the passion and also leaves us additional resources for almsgiving.
Xerophagy is a particularly strict form of fasting, most associated with monastics. Xerophagy involves all the restrictions of the fast, but furthers to strictness by eating dry food only – that is food prepared without oil, and usually prepared cold. In Eastern Christianity, xerophagy involves vegetables raw or cooked only with water and salt, together with such things as fruit, nuts, bread and sometimes honey. In some parishes, the faithful will practice xerophagy for the first week or first three days of Great Lent.
Another area where this is considerable variation both in understanding and practice is the “marital fast.” There are opinions and practices that range from a strict practice that married couples should be abstinent entirely during fasting periods to a conversely lax belief that any abstinence is optional and only to occur by agreement. Agreement is important, and this is one of the reasons why it is important that couples be of one mind in their understanding of the faith. The canons of St. Peter of Alexandria (which have ecumenical approval) do address particularly the applicability of the marital fast to the time of fasting for communion.
To one who had asked whether a married couple ought to partake of the divine Mysteries, when a liturgy is held in the morning, and they have had sexual intercourse with each other during the night immediately preceding, the Saint replied in the present Canon that they ought not to commune; and in witness thereof he cites the words of the Apostle, who orders married couples not to deprive one party the other of sexual intercourse, save by agreement of both the parties; and only then not to have sexual intercourse when a sacred liturgy is being celebrated, on Saturday and Sunday, and in general on all feast days, so that they may partake of communion (for it is thus that the passage saying “that ye may give yourselves leisure to pray” is interpreted.
Thus, there is support in the canons for construing the marital fast to apply to times of preparation for communion. There is also support for pious abstention by agreement during other fasting periods, provided such is not a temptation and is used as an aid to increased prayer and spiritual labors.
Allowances and Dispensations
The fasting rules are never intended as a means of harm or damage to the faithful. They are a means of preparation and attaining to spiritual profit. As we discussed last week, they are not to be a path to pride or despondency. Thus, the church permits the alteration of fasting practice in certain situations. These situations include (but are not limited to):
- Age – the nutritional needs of both young and old may justify departing from strict fasting practices
- Illness – one who is ill may have particular nutritional needs that prevent them from fasting according to the prescribed rule
- Medical Conditions – a woman who is pregnant, a person with allergies, or a person with a need for medication may need a dispensation from certain parts of a fast
It is important to note that any of these situations should be discussed with your priest. He will give the blessing for departing from the fasting rules. One should not unilaterally alter the fasts of the Church. They have been prescribed for our benefit in their totality, and we exercise a certain pride in adjusting them to our liking.
Periods of Fasting
Fasting has remained an act of dedication to the Will of God which reflects piety in prayers and almsgiving and especially in self-control and self-determination according to the Scriptures. There has been an evolution through the centuries concerning the methods of fasting – the duration of time and the selection of foods, from light fasting observances to very strict ones and back again to the lighter observance. Fasting is a means, according to circumstances and objectives, for achieving the virtues of uprightness by sincere Christians. The duration of time and the choice of foods was applied differently in the early Church compared to later centuries. Fasting at the beginning of the Christian era differs from that officially designated by the Church today and is much different from the practice of the Orthodox Christian today. However, the strict observances of fasting, has prevailed in the monasteries and convents where original ideals of virginity and chastity are perpetuated. The official program of the Orthodox Church today for the duration of time and the selection of foods for fasting is as follows:
- The Great Lent begins Monday after Sunday of Cheese, the fifth week before Holy Week, and lasts through Saturday of Lazarus, and continues through Holy Week. Abstention from meat, fish and dairy products is observed, except on Palm Sunday and the Annunciation, March 25, when fish may be eaten. On Saturday and Sunday of Lent, wine, oil and shellfish may be eaten. This selection of foods is applied to the other fast periods, below, except when indicated otherwise.
- Fasting before Christmas is for 40 days, from . November 15 through December 24, during which period in some traditions fish may be eaten for all or for the first half of the fast.
- Fasting of the Holy Apostles starts on Monday after the Sunday of All Saints Day and ends on June 29th, the celebration of Apostles Peter and Paul.
- August 1 to 15 is for the Repose (Dormition) of Theotokos. Wednesday and Friday of each week.
- The day before the Epiphany, January 5.
- The day of the Beheading of John the Forerunner, August 29.
- The day of the Exaltation of the Cross, September 14.
In addition, we engage in weekly fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays – Wednesday because on this day the Jews conspired against Christ, and Friday because it was the day of His Crucifixion. Some traditions also fast on Mondays. Monastics fast at all times.
Development of Fasting of Days and Foods
The development of certain days of fasting and the selection of certain foods was a long process gradually related to the feast days of the Church. It was natural for the first Christians, with a background of Jewish traditions, to apply certain days of fasting to their own religious life. They inherited the weekly two days of fasting from Jewish tradition practiced by the first Christians themselves. But the Christians gave new meaning to fasting in general as well as to the two fast days of the week. Instead of Monday and Thursday, the Christians changed the fast days to Wednesday and Friday,. These two days of fasting are first mentioned in the Didache of the Apostles, an early Christian manual on morals and Christian practices. It is not known if these two days were compulsory or voluntary. Tertuilian, a prolific Christian writer of the 3rd century, comments on these two days, “inasmuch as one has the time and the reason of his own free will and not as a commandment” (De Jejunio 2) one ought to fast.
Origen, the first great theologian in Alexandria, wrote, “we have the fourth and the sixth day of the week in which, according to the sacred institutes, we fast” (On Leviticus, Homily 10, Migne 12,528). Justin the Martyr in his Apology (150 A.D.) mentions these two days of fasting. Eucebius (c.265c.340), the great historian of the Christian Church, referring to Ireneus, Bishop of Lyon (c.130-c.200), wrote that the duration and manners of fasting were not fixed, “for some think that they ought to fast only one day, some two days, some more days, some compute their day as consisting of 40 hours night and day; and this diversity existed among those that observe, for it is not a matter that has just sprung up in our times, but long ago among those before me”. Peter the Martyr (d.311) in his Sermon on Penitence mentions the two fixed fast days of the week. From his writings the Sixth Ecumenical Synod adopted as a canon of the church that “Wednesday is to be fasted, because then the Jews conspired to betray Jesus; Friday, because he then suffered for us. We keep the Lord’s Day as a day of joy, because then our Lord arose” (Ancient Epitome of Canon 15 of Peter the Martyr; cf. Canon 69 of the Apostles). Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin, says “we abolish fasting during Novation Week on account of the great joy attending the Resurrection of the Son and Logos (and for the same reason in the week after Pentecost)”. Canon 50 of Laodicea commands that dry bread be eaten throughout Lent. Bishop Epiphanius says in Heretics 65 that during the fast of Lent dry bread and the practice of countinence are incumbent; Canon 69 of the Apostles recommends on Wednesday and Friday and in Lent the eating of bread once a day without olive oil and without drinking wine (see Interpretation of Canon 64 of the Apostles) in Pedalion. Theodore Balsamon, a 12th century commentator on the canons of the church, says, “even the eating of shell fish on Wednesday and Friday and during Lent is prohibited” The Constitutions of the Apostles (preceding the Apostolic Canons) reads, “It is obligatory to fast during Great Week and on Wednesday and Friday”. There are even ancient commentaries that suggest that during some periods of Great Lent, fasting on the weekends is dispensed with outside of Holy Week.
Fasting practices have developed over time to their present state. The fact that prior practices may, at times, have been more or less strict that present practice never justifies us in altering the prescribed practices. However, it does demonstrate to us that the fast is a spiritual discipline and one that should not be the cause of despondency if one fails. As with sin, the directive is clear: if you fall, get up and continue forward. If you fall again, repeat!