When people think of the word “Lent,” the word “fasting” is one of the first things that comes to mind. The cornerstone of Lent is not fasting, but repentance and growing in our faith. Fasting is a tool that is used to assist in spiritual growth. Fasting is also mischaracterized as a form of deprivation, rather than a spiritual discipline. Because fasting is so misunderstood, it is many times done incorrectly.
In the Orthodox world, we use the word “passions” to describe tendencies that each person has that lead us to sin. Each of us has a “passion” for anger, lust, power, greed, ego, etc. We do not get through life without wrestling with each of these, sometimes on a daily basis. The most basic “passion” is hunger. While we can go a day without a lustful thought or an angry thought, we can’t go more than a few hours without a hungry thought. So, if we can or tame our passion for eating, we can hopefully tame our other passions. If we can discipline ourselves to go without certain kinds of food, we can hopefully discipline ourselves so that we can go without certain kinds of behavior that are spiritually destructive. Thus, fasting is not about giving up something only to get it back. Fasting is about getting control of our passions, maintaining control over them, and ultimately giving control of ourselves to God.
It is the Orthodox Tradition to fast from food products that contain blood. So, we fast from meat, fish, dairy products, oil, and wine. ( Oil and wine, up until the last couple of centuries, were stored in skins of animals. This is why we can eat grapes and olives, we cannot have wine or olive oil. If the fasting “rules” were ever to be reviewed and updated, the prohibition on oil and wine would have to be examined.) We can eat shellfish because they do not contain blood. Christ shed His blood for us, so we do not consume any “blood” or “animal” products. It is the Tradition of the church to fast for the entirety of Great Lent and Holy Week. The week after the Publican and the Pharisee is fast-free, as is the week after Pascha and Pentecost (and Christmas). The week before Great Lent, we are only required to fast from meat, not dairy products. Outside of Lent, it is Tradition to fast every Wednesday (in honor of the betrayal of Christ) and Friday (in honor of His Crucifixion). There is a forty-day fast that precedes the Feast of the Nativity (November 15-December 24), a fourteen-day fast that precedes the Feast of the Dormition (August 1-14), and the Holy Apostles Fast (which begins the day after All Saints Day and lasts through June 28).
If you’ve never fasted before, I would not recommend doing a strict fast. Try fasting from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent (and then throughout the year), then next year try fasting Wednesdays and Fridays plus all of the first week of Lent and all of Holy Week. Then work up from that.
Below is a guide of some levels of fasting:
Level one — Fast from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays and during Holy Week
Level two — Fast from meat and fish on Wednesdays and Fridays and during Holy Week
Level three — Fast from meat the entirety of Lent and Holy Week
Level four — Fast from meat and fish the entirety of Lent and Holy Week
Level five — Level four and eliminate dairy products during Holy Week
Level six — Level four and eliminate dairy products on Wednesday and Fridays and during Holy Week.
Level seven — Level four plus eliminate dairy products during all of Lent and Holy Week
Level eight — Level seven plus eliminate oil and wine during Holy Week
Level nine — The strict fast – no meat, fish, dairy products, wine or oil during the entirety of Great Lent
**Fish is allowed on March 25 (Annunciation), Saturday of Lazarus and Palm Sunday; oil and wine are allowed on Saturdays and Sundays, except for Holy Saturday.
After a few years at one level, challenge yourself to go up a level.
More important, however, than fasting from food, is fasting from the behaviors that are spiritually destructive. We need to fast from things that get us in trouble – perhaps the television, alcohol, inappropriate materials on the computer and in movies, foul language, etc. Fasting also does not mean “looking” deprived, complaining about what you can’t eat, or making a show of your fasting. In fact, if you are fasting and you are invited to someone’s home for dinner and they serve meat, eat the meat, don’t make a big deal out of your fasting. Also, do not pass judgment on others who are not fasting to the degree you are. Saint Paul reminds us in Romans 14:3-4: “Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own Master that he stands or falls.” As Christ tells us, our fasting is seen by our “Father who is in secret,” and He will reward us for our efforts.
Again, Lent is not a season of deprivation, nor should we “give up” something only to get it back once Lent is over. Lent is about repentance, and making small and permanent changes to bring us closer to the Lord, changes that will last long after Lent is over. This is the purpose of the Lenten journey. Fasting is an aid to help us in this.
The time has come – the start of our spiritual contests, the victory over demons,
the full armor of self-control the angels’ dignity, the confidence before God.
Thereby did Moses become conversant with the Creator, and heard the invisible voice.
Lord, through fasting make us worthy to worship Your Passion and Holy Resurrection,
as You love humanity. (Doxastikon of Orthros, Cheesefare Sunday, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
About Great Lent, Holy Week, and Pascha
There is a 19 Sunday (18 week) period of time each year in the Orthodox Christian Church that surrounds the Feast of Pascha (Easter). The first three weeks, including four Sundays, are called the Triodion, or pre-Lenten period. The next forty days, which includes nearly six weeks and five Sundays, is called Great Lent. In the Orthodox Church, Great Lent begins on a Monday called Clean Monday, rather than Ash Wednesday, as it does in other churches. Great Lent ends on a Friday.
Holy Week follows, along with the Great and Holy Week.
The Feast of the Resurrection is called Pascha and it begins a forty-day period of celebration. After forty days, the church celebrates the Feast of the Ascension. Ten days later (fifty days after the Resurrection), the church celebrates the Feast of Pentecost. The Sunday after Pentecost is the Feast of All Saints. This ends this cycle of “movable feasts” (called this because their date moves every year), which surround the feast of Pascha.
Source: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America