St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Spiritual Disciplines: Fasting

Spiritual Disciplines: Fasting

Biblical Background

The Jews at the time of Jesus fasted.  Fasting was normally observed on Monday and Thursday of each week (see Luke 18:12), though we have no record of the requirements.  The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is a day of strict fasting (Lev. 16:29-34; 23:26-32).  Jews abstain from crustaceans and pork as part of the kashrut.

After the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians (580 B.C.), fasts were held annually to mark this disaster (Zech. 7:3, 5, 8:19); a public fast preceded the festival of Purim (Esther 9:31).

Fasting in the Old Testament and at the time of Jesus was primarily done as mourning and self-denial (Joel 1:14, Psalm 109:24).  The gospels record that Jesus fasted (Matthew 4:2) and assumes the practice on the part of his disciples (Matt 6:1ff); fasting was part of his preparation for works of healing (Matt. 17:21).  The disciples followed their Lord in adopting the practice of fasting (Acts 14:23; 27:9; I Cor. 7:5).

Historic Practice

From the beginning, Christians fasted weekly on Wednesdays and Fridays; we know this from the Didache, a Syrian church document dating from before 100 A.D., in which the practice is enjoined on the faithful.   Justin Martyr mentions these days in his Apology (ca. 150 A.D.).  Origen, the great theologian of Alexandria (185-254), assumed the antiquity of the practice when he wrote ”we have the fourth and sixth day of the week in which, according to ancient institutes, we fast” (Leviticus, Homily 10).

By the mid-4th Century the practice of fasting during Lent, especially during Holy Week, was firmly in place.  The Synod of Laodicea (341) mentions the entire lenten period and also the Liturgy of PreSanctified Gifts  (see below).

A Hymn for First Monday of Lent by St Basil the Great (ca. 330-379), says “Let us fast an acceptable and very pleasing fast to the Lord.  True fast is estrangement from evil, temperance of tongue, abstinence from anger, separation from desires, slander, falsehood, or perjury.  Privation of these matters is true fasting.”

St John Chrysostom (347-407), the great preacher of Constantinople, said that true fasting was “not merely an abstinence from meats, but from sins too” (Homily III, on the Statutes); the same saint welcomed those who had been through Lent with the words, “let those who have kept the fast and those who have not come to the Pascha” (recognizing that people had a variety of observances).  This homily is read each year at the Easter Vigil in the Orthodox Church.

The Christian Orthodox Practice

“Fasting” means abstinence, for the most part, in Eastern terms.  We abstain from dairy, meat (including fish but not shellfish), wine, and olive oil.  Most people also cut down on the volume they consume, but we abstain from these foods.  Orthodox refer to total fasting as “strict fasts.”

Orthodoxy has the most elaborate practice in Christianity.  The primary fasts are called “ascetical (disciplined) fasts.”

We observe four fasting periods during the year:

  • Lent, the Great Fast, which begins seven weeks prior to Pascha
  • St. Philip’s or Nativity Fast, begins November 15 ends Christmas
  • The Apostles’ Fast begins Monday after All Saints Sunday (Sunday after Pentecost) and ends at the Feast of SS Peter and Paul (June 29)
  • The Dormition Fast begins 1 August ends on the day of the Feast 15 August

And three one-day strict fasts

  • Elevation of the Cross – 14 September
  • Eve of Theophany – 5 January
  • Beheading of St. John the Baptizer – 29 August

And weekly we observe

  • Wednesday (commemorating the betrayal of Christ) and
  • Friday (commemorating the crucifixion), and strict from
  • Midnight Saturday until after Divine Liturgy (we still have “breakfast”)

Fast-free periods

  • from Christmas to Theophany Eve;
  • Bright week;
  • Pentecost Week; and
  • the Week of the Pharisee and the Publican.

Cheesefare Week is fast-free W & F; no meats consumed; fish, dairy, and eggs allowed.

St Philip’s (Nativity) Fast

THE FOLLOWING FASTING GUIDELINES pertain also to the two shorter summer fasts, the Apostles’ (preceding SS Peter and Paul, June 29) and the Dormition (preceding the Dormition of the Theotokos, August 15).

SLAVIC PRACTICE – vegan throughout the season except on weekends and special days (Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple and St Nicholas), when fish, wine and oil are permitted.

GREEK PRACTICE – fish allowed on all days during the first weeks of the fast with the exception of Wednesdays and Fridays, which remain vegan. In the days from the Sunday of the Forefathers (this year the 12th December) the fast is vegan but wine and oil are allowed on weekends, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Bear in mind that all practices permit shellfish (shrimp, lobster, clams, oysters, scallops) throughout the fasting periods. While this seems strange to us today, it is based in the fact that in early centuries these creatures were considered the bottom of everyone’s cuisine, rather like refuse of the sea.

In all practices, the day before Nativity (Christmas) is a strict fast.

In all practices, the week following the Nativity is fast-free.

Exemptions from fasting are granted on a case by case basis on grounds of age, infirmity, or illness.  Exemptions shorten the fasting periods to one week.

When you are traveling, the fasting rules are suspended on the assumption that you will have difficulty following them when on the road.

Necessary medications and other health concerns mitigate fasting.

“Liturgical fasting” means to abstain from Divine Liturgy on weekdays of Lent (most parishes have only one liturgy a week, so this is a moot point), an ancient law of the church.  During Lent, however, the faithful desire increased reception of the sacrament.  To satisfy both needs, the church instituted the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, a paradoxical practice of special lenten Vesperal eucharists at which communion is given from gifts consecrated at the preceding  Sunday liturgy.

The point is to enter Life in Christ body and soul

  • We do not fast to punish ourselves
  • We do not fast because we loathe our bodies
  • We do not fast because God needs it or grants us merit because of it
  • We do not fast because we prefer a vegan diet
  • We fast in reverence for God, in solidarity with fellow Christians on the Way, and in humble obedience to commandments old and new.

We fast as a way to

  • witness to a greater expectation: the Parousia of Christ, the coming of the Kingdom, which we know liturgically in a “foretaste of the feast to come” – this we affirm in the Gospel for the Liturgy of the PreSanctified Gifts on Holy Monday, which is from Matt 24:3-35 and speaks of Christ’s return.
  • concentrate on prayer — fasting has always been the handmaiden of repentance and of prayer in general; lessened attention to other things leaves more time to pray.
  • move toward a life oriented to forgiveness — Forgiveness Sunday marks the beginning of Lent, in response to the Gospel we hear on that day: “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you…” (Mark 6:14-15).
  • strengthen the will and increase self-control — Clement of Alexandria (150-215): “Total abstention empties the soul of matter, and presents the soul pure and nimble to the body. …Divine nourishment is faith, hope, love, patience, knowledge, peace, prudence” (Selections from the Prophets).
  • identify with the hungry and the poor — St John Chrysostom again: “It is possible for one who fasts not to be rewarded for his fasting.  How?  When we abstain from foods, but not from iniquities – when we do not eat meat, but gnaw to pieces the homes of the poor.”
  • heighten consciousness of the world — abstinence and fasting as sensory deprivation heighten other senses, esp. seeing and hearing, which may be devoted to God.
  • increase bodily health — abstinence increases tone and helps to flush out the system, although this is not a primary consideration.

Holy Saturday

According to ancient practice, on Holy Saturday there was in principle no meal. After the end of the Liturgy of St. Basil, the faithful remained in church for the reading of the Acts of the Apostles, and for their sustenance were given a little bread and dried fruit (dates and figs), with a cup of wine. If, as usually happens now, you return home for a meal, you may use wine but not olive oil; on this one Saturday of the year, olive oil is not permitted.

The guide books today say, “On Saturdays and Sundays in Lent, with the exception of Holy Saturday, two main meals may be taken in the usual way, around mid-day and in the evening, with wine and olive oil; but meat, animal products and fish are not allowed.”

This needs interpretation. It means is that you do not use olive oil on this one Saturday of the year, whereas on all the other Saturdays you may. Because of our schedule, our local practice may allow one meal in the morning, then fast until the 4:00 PM service from about 11:00 AM. Eat again after the 4:00 PM Vesperal Liturgy, then fast from about 8:00 PM. The meals should be simple and spare as for the other days in Lent and Holy Week.

As always there is leniency in the rule for those who are young and for those who are old (the general rule is over 70) and for those who, for medical reasons, cannot abstain from food with certain medications. The rules are also usually suspended when traveling long distances, simply because of the difficulty of observation if you are not in control of your own menu.  We have to be careful with fasting because we want to steer a path between scrupulosity or “pharisaism,” on one hand, and licentiousness on the other. The preparation of the mind and heart are the intention, not the observance (or non-observance) of rules. “The Kingdom of God is not meat or drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).