Why Do We Fast?

History of Fasting

Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself fasted and preached about its significance. Consider the following quotes from the Gospel:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempered by the devil. And when Jesus had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. (Matthew 4:1-2)

But the days will come when the bridegroom (Jesus) will be taken away from them and then they will fast in those days. (Mark 2:20)

Following this example and command of our Lord, the Apostles and the early Christians also fasted:

Then having fasted and prayed and laid hands on them, they sent them away. (Acts 13:3, Acts 10:30)

Give yourselves to fasting and prayer. (1 Corinthians 7:5)

As early as the beginning of the third century, we have documents showing the widespread tradition of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays.

How should we fast?

When we fast we begin by not eating certain foods:

  • meat
  • eggs
  • dairy products

During strict periods of fasting we also abstain from:

  • fish
  • and sometimes oil and wine

But Christian fasting is not following a particular diet. It is done with love for God and knowledge of why we are fasting. We fast because Jesus, who came in order to show us the way back to the Father, Himself fasted. Fasting also helps us to purify our body which we are told “is a temple of the Holy Spirit”. (1 Corinthians 6:19)

Individual fasting is based on the fasting periods of the Church. Through consultation with our spiritual Father, fasting is always tailored to our health, special circumstances, spiritual maturity and needs.

Fasting should never be seen as a dry observance of ‘rules.’ Saint Paul writes: “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6)

Jesus teaches about fasting

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.
(Matthew 6:18)

When do we fast?

The following days on which the Church as a whole fasts:

Wednesdays and Fridays are days of fasting for Orthodox Christians. These two days remind us of Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion.

January 5: Eve of the Epiphany, Strict Day of Fasting

Great Lent (Moveable): Strict Fast for 40 days leading up to Palm Sunday.

Holy Week (Moveable): Strict Fast for one week leading up to Pascha – the Resurrection of our Lord.

The Apostles’ Fast (Moveable): Fish is allowed during this fast which begins on the Monday after All Saints’ Sunday and lasts until June 28.

August 1 – 14: Fast for the Dormition of the Theotokos

August 29: The Beheading of Saint John the Forerunner, Strict Day of Fasting

November 15 – 24: The Christmas Fast; fish is allowed until the last week.

Purpose of Fasting

We fast in order to be free. True freedom is to be found with Christ and is achieved through spiritual struggle. Our Lord said, “Most assuredly I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin” (John 8:34). And a slave, by definition, is not free.

Fasting is one of the tools given to us by God to assist us in our struggle against sin. When we fast we say to God, not with words but with actions, that we want to be with Him, to love Him, to serve Him.

“God is the only one who can heal human infirmity. Let Him teach you and us His divine will and guide all of us into doing what is proper; because no one can help us, if we do not watch over ourselves and work with a vigilant mind at that which is proper, having God as our fellow-worker in this labour.” (Life of Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Sophronios, pages 33, 35)