Fasting in the Orthodox Church is usually considered abstaining from certain foods during fast days or periods. However, fasting means more than simply abstaining from foods. It includes refraining from evil actions and thoughts, and even marital relations.
There are four main periods of fasting (lenten periods):
- 1. Great Lent is the period of six weeks preceding Holy Week in anticipation of that greatest of feasts, Pascha.
- 2. Advent, or the Nativity fast (also called St. Philip's Fast, coming immediately after his feast on November 14), is the period from November 15 to December 24 (forty days) in anticipation of Christmas.
- 3. The Apostles' fast is the period from the week following Pentecost (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.
- Eve of Theophany (January 5)
- Beheading of St. John the Baptist (August 29)
- Elevation of the Cross (September 14)
Orthodox Christians also regularly fast on Wednesdays and Fridays to commemorate, respectively, Christ's betrayal by Judas Iscariot and His Crucifixion. Monasteries additionally commemorate the angels on Mondays by fasting.
Preparation for receiving the Holy Eucharist
Fasting is a part of the preparation for receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. Additionally, specific prayers are important in readying oneself. For morning Liturgies, one abstains from meat after the preceding Vespers, and keeps a strict fast (no food or drink, even water) from arising from sleep until receiving Communion. For afternoon or evening Liturgies, one should keep a strict fast for at least six hours if possible. Because a priest eats and drinks the remaining Eucharist, he fasts before every Liturgy he celebrates.
When travelling or ill, Orthodox are not obliged to fast. Additionally, exceptions are made for 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. If you are new to fasting, ask your priest for guidance before you begin.
After certain feasts, Orthodox Christians do not fast, in order to show their joy for the feast.
- Afterfeast of the Nativity of Christ to Theophany Eve (December 25 through January 4)
- Week following the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee (first week of the Lenten Triodion)
- Bright Week (week after Pascha)
- Trinity Week (week after Pentecost)
Fasting related to foods has many different degrees. During Great Lent, Wednesdays, and Fridays, daily fasting is at its most strict, abstaining from:
- meat (anything with a backbone),
- dairy products (eggs are in this or the previous category),
- olive oil, and
Additionally, during Great Lent, the size and number of meals, as well as the selection, are also smaller. On many other feast or fast days, particular foods are avoided or permitted, in lesser degrees of fasting.
Fasting also partners with prayer, almsgiving and confession, readying the whole person like an athlete, body, mind, and soul, for an upcoming feast, similar to the way in which Orthodox Christians would hope to be properly prepared for the Second Coming. For this reason, during fasting seasons, no marriages should take place. (Cf. Pastoral Guidelines.) Another important part of any fasting period is going to Confession.
History and Tradition
The Christians inherited the tradition of fasting from the Jews. Jesus, too, gave examples of fasting to his disciples, most notably preceding his forty days in the desert when he was tempted by the devil (Matt 4:1-11).
- "The True Nature of Fasting" by Bishop Kallistos Ware
- "The Discipline of Fasting" by Bishop Kallistos Ware
- "On Fasting at Great Lent" by Fr. Alexander Schmemann (scroll down to comment 5)