Fasting is basic and foundational within the Christian life. So important is it that Christ’s words regarding fasting – “when you fast” – are spoken as if it is unthinkable that we would not fast:
“Moreover, 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 you, 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.”
Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 6
But what is fasting? Why, how, where, and when should we fast?
What is Fasting?
Fasting in the Orthodox Church is generally considered abstaining from all or certain foods during specific days and periods. However, fasting means more than simply abstaining from food; it is also abstaining from entertainment, marital relations, and anything else that can distract us from God.
Fasting is ultimately an aid to increased focus on prayer and simplicity, refraining from evil thoughts and actions. Fasting is not an end in itself, but is a means to spiritual perfection crowned in love and aided by prayer.
“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. If we renounce these things, then is our fasting true and acceptable to God.”
Why to Fast
According to divinely revealed Scripture – Genesis 2:16-17 – fasting was given by God even in paradise. And in Genesis chapter 3, we see that disobedience and the refusal to fast caused the catastrophic downfall of creation.
This is confirmed in the New Testament, before Jesus Christ began His earthly ministry, he was baptized and then went into the wilderness where He fasted for 40 days, resisting the temptation of the devil to satisfy His hunger by turning a rock into bread (Matthew 4:1-4). Our Lord fasted.
As bodily food fattens the body, so fasting strengthens the soul; imparting it an easy flight, it makes it able to ascend on high, to contemplate lofty things, and to put the heavenly higher than the pleasant and pleasurable things of life.
All of the benefits of fasting are impossible to count, and can only be understood by experiencing them through participation in fasting.
How to Fast
In general, fasting means to not eat certain types of food, or not eat at all. Fasting is observed differently depending on its purpose. Types of fasting are broken up into a few different categories:
1. Ascetic Fasting
This is the most common type of fasting in the Church and includes abstinence from the following foods:
- Meat – Anything with a backbone
- Dairy Products – Including eggs
- Wine – Alcohol in general
- Olive Oil – Including fried foods, etc.
2. Strict Fasting
This is a total abstinence from all food and drink for a short duration. It occurs only on certain days of the year, and is given as a help to prepare the person to participate more fully in the spiritual significance of an event.
3. Eucharistic / Liturgical Fasting
This does not refer to the normal abstinence in preparation for receiving the Holy Communion; it refers to the period during Great Lent when the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated and Holy Communion is not offered.
It is important to remember that fasting should never be done without guidance as it can be dangerous. It is also important to remember that when we fast, it must be coupled with prayer and humility, for “even the demons fast”.
When to Fast
The easiest way to keep track of when to fast is to attend church regularly and have a calendar at home and/or at work.
Throughout the history of the Church, Christians have observed two fast days throughout each week: Wednesday and Friday.
In addition to this, Christians have observed four main fasting periods, or “fasts” throughout the year. These include:
- Great Lent
- The Apostles Fast
- The Dormition Fast
- The Nativity Fast
Finally, just as God commanded preparation through a fast for those who would encounter Him at the foot of Mount Mount Sinai with the Prophet Moses (Exodus 19:15), a fast is also kept in preparation for Holy Communion. This means not eating or drinking anything after dinner (or at least after midnight ie. 12:00am Sunday morning until Communion), refraining from marital relations, and limiting entertainment on the day before receiving Communion. For afternoon or evening liturgies, the strict fast is kept for at least six hours before receiving Holy Communion.
Where to Fast
Based on the words of Christ quoted at the beginning of the page, it is not proper to make a show of our fasting wherever we may find ourselves. But, if it is a fasting day we also keep the fast wherever we may be. This is a delicate line and is often discerned only through trial and error. Here is an example of this dilemma:
If we are hosted by someone who is unaware of our dietary restrictions, and they serve something that is not fast-friendly, we thank them and God for the hospitality and eat it without question. If we are hosted by fellow Orthodox Christians who are knowingly disregarding the fast, we eat only whatever may be fast-friendly, and thank them and God for the hospitality. If we are questioned about why we are only eating a portion of what is served, it may be an opportunity to gently speak the truth in love, for “whoever confesses [Christ] before men, [Christ] will also confess before [His] Father Who is in Heaven.”