Fasting in the Orthodox Church

Each year leading up to Easter, the Orthodox Church enters a new Liturgical period of time, which is known as the Triodion and Great Lent. The season of Great Lent is an opportunity for all faithful to prepare for the great feast of the Resurrection of Christ. Just like any great event requires a time of preparation, so too the season of Great Lent is that time of the year where all Christians seek to renew and restore their communion with God. In this sense, Great Lent is that period of time, offered by the Church to remind her faithful to seek to do and be all that they should do and be throughout the entire year. In this way it is a time of renewed devotion to prayer, fasting, repentance and giving to those in need – that is, freely deciding to follow Christ and His commandment of loving God and neighbour.

Far from being a time of morbidity, gloominess or dreariness, as many might suppose, it is a time of joyful expectation. Indeed, it is a time of eager expectation for the bestowal, by God, of His greatest gift to the world – that is, the gift of eternal life by the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. The hymns of Great Lent begin with this air of festivity:

“Let us begin the Lenten time with delight… let us fast from the passions as we fast from food, taking pleasure in the good words of the Spirit, that we may be granted to see the holy passion of Christ our God and His holy Pascha spiritually rejoicing”.

It is precisely within this context, that fasting is to be properly understood and experienced – that is, as a means of renewing our relationship with God assured of the joy of His loving kindness and mercy. Accordingly, fasting has to be observed with a sense of resurrectional joy knowing that the victory of life has already been granted through Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Before looking specifically at the historical evolution of the Lenten fast as a means for preparing to encounter the risen Lord, we will briefly examine the place of fasting in the life of the Church in general. Only then will we be in a position to approach the true meaning of fasting.

Historical Evolution of Fasting in General

As early as the second century, in early Christian texts such as the Didache and The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles one finds references to Wednesdays and Fridays as days of fast. In the eighth chapter of the Didache, the faithful are advised as follows:
“Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.”

Until recently the opinion has been that these fasts were established in opposition to the Hebrew fast days which were Monday and Thursday. Modern scholarship, however – after the discovery of the Qumran documents – has claimed that the fast held on these days by the early Christians originated from the ancient sacred calendar which the Essences observed and which, in all probability was accepted by the early Judeo- Christian communities in Palestine. Later on, the Christians would add a new meaning to these days – as commemorations of the days of Christ’s betrayal and death. These days came to be known as days of fasting or station days. This implies that originally fasting indicated the people of God standing ready and awaiting for the Parousia of the Lord. Hence, fasting had an eschatological meaning to it and the emphasis was not on the ascetical value of fasting. That is to say, the early Christians fasted precisely because they were looking forward, into the future, at the second coming of the Lord. It becomes clear that the pre – Constantine and pre- monastic tradition understood fasting primarily as a one day fast which involved the complete abstinence from food and not the abstinence from certain foods as it understood today.

Development of the Lenten Fast

Fasting, in preparation for Pascha was universal in the Early Church, both in the East and in the West, as evidenced by various second and third century references to the practice. Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History makes reference to St Irenaeus who had written on the debate regarding the date for Pascha and on the nature of the period of abstinence preceding it:

“For the controversy is not only concerning the day, but also concerning the very manner of the fast. For some think that they should fast one day, others two, yet others more; some moreover, count their day as consisting of forty hours day and night. And this variety in its observance has not originated in our time; but long before in that of our ancestors.”

Not only does this reference establish that fasting before Pascha was already a custom in the lifetime of St Irenaeus but that it was of even earlier, if not of Apostolic origin. By the fourth century, this pre-Paschal fast had undergone a transformation, both in its form and length. It had evolved into a forty day fast and became centred, as a result of its long duration, more in the restriction of certain kinds of foods rather than total abstinence from food. The first explicit reference to a forty day fast is in the Council of Nicaea (325) in Canon 5. By the end of the fourth century Bishop Kallistos (Ware) concluded that:
“the observance of a forty day fast seems to have been the standard practice in most parts of Christendom…Lent as we know it … is the result of a convergence between… two elements – between the six day pre-Nicene fast, which was directly in preparation for Easter and the forty day post-Nicene fast, which originally formed part of the training of candidates for Baptism… [but] came to evolve the whole body of the faithful, and not just those preparing for Baptism.”

It is in this prototypic period of the Church’s history that fasting came to be marked by a restriction in the types and quantity of food eaten. And it is this latter meaning that serves as the model for the present day Lenten period of fasting in the Orthodox Church today.

It becomes clear that the Lenten fast, which is observed today, was originally a monastic fast which crept into the life of the whole Church. That is to say that this fast was ascetical, a mortification of the flesh whose purpose it was to assist the monk in his spiritual ascent to theosis. Asceticism, of which fasting is a form, is not something optional but is a necessary tool for the successful attainment of salvation. A contemporary monk of Mount Athos, Father Tichkon wrote: “whoever fasts shows that he has started to transcend earthly and temporal things and longs for the heavenly and eternal things.” However, one must be careful not to make fasting an end in itself, a law or an obligation. Rather, an honest attempt must be made to empty ourselves, to become transparent and allow the grace of God to permeate within us. Fasting, in this sense is a means, which the Church offers its faithful members as an opportunity for them to transform their hunger and thirst for food into hunger and thirst for God Himself.

Biblical Basis for Fasting

The practice of fasting is clearly evident in the Scriptures and is indeed attested to by Jesus Himself, who fasted and taught His disciples to fast.

“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Mt. 6: 16-18).

Firstly, the above passage, by Jesus clearly underlines the importance of fasting. It does not say, for example “and if you fast”, that is to say, it does not make fasting an option for Christians but a prerequisite for their spiritual life: Jesus said, “and when you fast”. So important is fasting that even Jesus said that without it some forms of evil could not be conquered and overcome (cf. Mt. 17: 21).

Secondly, the passage clearly underscores that Christians are not to be ostentatious to, or Pharisaic about, their fasting, but rather to do it in secret, not drawing attention to themselves. With such a principle given by Jesus Himself, perhaps it would be better, for example, when going to somebody’s house during Great Lent, who may not know that it is a fasting period, to eat what is put in front of you thereby not drawing attention to yourself. However, a bishop once said in his sermon: “now, there is a difference between eating what is put before you and putting yourself before what is eaten.” It is not wise to put other Christians down, who may not fast, because their health may not allow. It has to be stated that Jesus Christ was extremely gentle and loving to the tax collectors but was severe to the Pharisees and to the hypocrites.

Saint Paul himself fasted, and in his teaching on food insisted that men and women fast and do so in secret, without mutual inspection and judgement. “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.” (Phil 3:17-19).

And elsewhere he wrote: “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” (1 Cor 6:12-13)

From all the above not only is fasting stressed but also the way the fast should be carried out – that is, in secret and not making it publicly known to others.

The True Meaning of Fasting

The whole purpose of fasting is to enable the Christian to commune with fervour and desire with Jesus Christ. That is to say, the whole rationale behind fasting is to make human persons aware of their dependence upon God. In our fallen state, it is only by self-denial, such as the real physical hunger or tiredness involved in not eating, that we can be led to remember both our broken and created state, and therefore our total reliance on the uncreated God without whom we would not even exist. It is true that when we have eaten well and filled our stomachs with sustenance, a false sense of over-confidence and self-assurance can easily overcome us with the renewed energy gained. And so, just like a little hunger can lead us to a desire to eat, so as to be nourished, in precisely the same way can we be lead to a thirst and hunger for ‘spiritual food’ which is Jesus Christ Himself.

Divorced, however, from this desire to commune with God, fasting can lead to a heightened irritable disposition of the person fasting or it can lead to an over-emphasis of the external rules associated with the fast. This inevitably reduces the practice of fasting to a form of legalism, that is simply to rules regarding what can be eaten and what cannot be eaten. In this way we miss entirely the inward goal of the fast. And without the inner understanding of the nature of fasting, the outward form loses all its meaning. Then the words of Christ, “without me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5) lose all their significance because as long as we think we are abiding by the external rules of fasting then we do not need God. Already we can see that fasting is the sacred pretext for all Christian persons to break the monologue, autonomy and their false sense of security inside their ego.

We can see that the Church, in all its wisdom has placed fasting at the disposal of its faithful members so as to give them the opportunity to gain mastery over themselves by becoming liberated in God. As one of the many tools given by the Church, fasting is also a means which can help us to liberate ourselves from a mere dependence on the things of this world in order to concentrate on the things of the Kingdom of God. It is to give power to the soul so that it will not yield to temptation and sin. It is precisely for this reason that St Seraphim underlined the importance of fasting in terms of an “indispensable means” of gaining the fruit of the Holy Spirit in one’s life.

Humanity does not fast because it pleases God for His servants to not eat, for, as the Lenten hymns of the Church remind us, “the devil also never eats.” Neither do the faithful fast with the belief that somehow their physical hunger and thirst can serve as a ”reparation” for their sins. Such an understanding is never given in the Scriptures nor in the writings of the Fathers. Rather, people fast so that they might more effectively serve God who loves them and has saved them in Christ and the Spirit. From this, it follows that fasting without a conscious desire to live a virtuous life is to miss the whole point of the meaning of the fast. That is to say, fasting without effort in virtue is wholly in vain.

According to Abba Dorotheos: “… in fasting one must not only obey the rule against gluttony in regard to food, but refrain from every sin so that, while fasting, the tongue may also fast, refraining from slander, lies, evil talking, degrading one’s brother, anger and every sin committed by the tongue. One should also fast with the eyes, not looking at vain things…A man that fasts wisely… wins purity and comes to humility… and proves himself a skillful builder.”

The spiritual fathers, as strictly ascetic as they were, are very clear in their teaching about fasting. They insisted with the Lord and the Scriptures that people are to fast in order to become free from passions and lust. But they insist as well that the most important thing is to be free from all sin, including the pride, vanity and hypocrisy, which comes through foolish and sinful fasting:

“Thus a man who strives for salvation… must not allow himself to eat to fullness… but should still eat all kinds of food so that on the one hand he might avoid boastful pride and on the other hand not show disdain for God’s creation…”

Just as Adam’s tasting of the forbidden fruit enslaved humanity to food, so ascetical fasting has its purpose to return humanity to freedom. We end this brief reflection with the point that unless fasting is accompanied with prayer and love for our neighbour then it is utterly valueless.

Dr Philip Kariatlis
, Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology,
 St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College