Originally Published: March 16, 2021
One of the catechumens in this group asked about fasting. In case anyone else is uncertain of how we fast during the Great Lent, here are things for your consideration.
Fr. Anastasy included the following words of St. John Chrysostom on the March Pocket Calendar regarding fasting:
Fasting is a medicine and beneficial when used properly. Misuse can cause more harm than good. Fasting is the change of every part of our life; the sacrifice is not the abstinence but the distancing from sins. If you simply fast from food, in reality, you abhor and ridicule the fast. Are you fasting?
Show me your fast with your works. Which works? You see someone poor, show him your mercy. See an enemy, reconcile with him. See a successful friend, do not be jealous of him. See a beautiful woman on the street, pass her by. Not only should the mouth fast but also the eyes, the legs, the arms, the ears, etc. The fast can help us cast off every destructive madness and draw closer to our loving and merciful God, raising our thoughts from earth to heaven, reconciling with Him and those near us. Thus we gain the goods promised to us by the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So as St. John indicates, fasting is a medicine. When used properly, it helps heal us; when employed improperly, it can be lethal.
If we do not accompany what I'm getting ready to describe with a change of character, attitude, bad habits, and disposition; if we do not reject hatred, envy, lust, and attachment to the cares of this life; then all of the rigamarole of changing our diet will be at best a distraction and at worst an impediment to our physical and spiritual health.
What comprises the food part of fasting?
When Orthodox Christians fast, they limit the food they eat, both in type and in amount. The Fathers, from their ascetic experience, teach us that the belly is the gateway to the passions, so we must first conquer it to be able to mount a proper defense against the other passions.
Fasting is accompanied by an increase in prayer, reading the Holy Scriptures, giving of alms, and attendance at the Divine Services. Without these other aspects, you will be simultaneously trying to live by bread alone while also foregoing food! Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God, and this Word, Who is Christ Himself, we encounter through a life in the Church. With the help of God's grace, we can endure the physical changes that fasting from food introduces in our bodies, and coupled together with that control in fasting, God's grace gives us strength to combat our own sinful inclinations and the enemies of our salvation who seek to tempt us.
As regards rules and regulations (precisely which foods are or are not eaten on a given day), you should use an Orthodox calendar as a reference. But you are not likely to find two calendars that agree in every detail!
Each fasting period differs in its severity, with Great Lent being the strictest overall (in that even regular Divine Liturgy is not performed during the weekdays). Here are some things that hold generally for Orthodox fasting:
- Orthodox fast on appointed days of fasting (every Wednesday and Friday except during fast-free weeks; four extended lenten periods preceding Christ's Nativity, Pascha, the feast of the leaders of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos; and on a few feast days like the Beheading of St. John the Baptist), as well as before the Holy Mystery of Communion.
- The fasts throughout the year are not usually complete abstentions from food, just limits in type and amount.
- The fast before Holy Communion is a complete fast, even from water, starting midnight the night before the Divine Liturgy.
- On all fast days, we do not eat meat, dairy, eggs, and foods made with them.
- Meat includes generally any flesh of an animal. As a sometimes surprising exception, shellfish is permitted on fasting days.
- The week before Great Lent, we forego meat but continue to enjoy other foods.
- On fast days we also do not drink wine (alcohol) or eat oil except when allowed.
- If your calendar shows a cluster of grapes on a certain day, that means alcohol and oil are permitted.
- On fast days we also do not eat fish except when allowed.
- In Great Lent, fish is permitted only on the feast of the Annunciation of the Theotokos and on Palm Sunday (though Palm Sunday is not technically part of Great Lent itself).
In general, weekdays and in particular Wednesdays and Fridays are stricter fasting days, even during lenten periods. Weekends, conversely, are usually more lax, allowing wine/oil or fish depending on the fasting period. Holy and Great Friday (the day of Christ's Crucifixion) is the strictest fasting day of the year; Holy and Great Saturday permits wine, but not oil, the only day of its kind as well.
If you do not have an Orthodox calendar, you can pick one up at church, or you can use the Orthodox Calendar app on your smartphone (find links here) or use their website directly at https://www.holytrinityorthodox.com/calendar/.
Now, with all of the above having been stated, I will now write down things that normally would just be spoken about with people individually, but given the pandemic and our resulting physical separation, I want to ensure folks here make a good beginning and not an unsustainable one.
It is important that you establish a rule of fasting that you can maintain consistently. You should remove meat, dairy, and eggs from your diet, unless you have a serious medical condition that requires you eat those foods. Be sensitive to the nutritional deficits that fasting from these foods introduces and ensure, especially when first starting out, that you prepare lenten food that compensates (e.g., beans and rice as a source of protein). As for oil and fish, if you're just starting to fast you can be less strict on those fronts, but do your best to eat such things in measure. If you're struggling to think of things to eat, there are numerous Orthodox lenten cookbooks, but in general vegetable soups with added grains and/or beans can be made in large quantities, are highly nutritious, and only get tastier (less lenten?) as they're stored in the fridge.
Finally, please use your God-given common sense. You may find yourself a little foggy-brained at the beginning of a fasting period (really depends on your non-fasting diet and what your body is used to), but if you're feeling weak or sick, you likely need to adjust the amount and/or types of food you're eating. We'd rather see you in church than at the hospital!
May God help all of us to accomplish a fast that is God-pleasing: full of love for Christ and our neighbor.