Fasting is the oldest and first commandment given by God to man, when He told Adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Fasting, or abstinence from that fruit, was the single commandment given to man in Paradise, and it remains the principal discipline through which we struggle to work out our salvation.
Orthodox Christians should therefore embrace the practice of fasting with great joy and eagerness. Sadly, in the world today, quite the opposite is seen. Even some Orthodox Christians have fallen prey to materialistic consumerism, denying themselves and their children nothing that they can afford or acquire. Others complain about the fasting discipline as "outmoded," or "too strict," or "only for monastics."
Yet it is clear that fasting is an essential element of the Christian Life: Christ Himself fasted and taught men to fast. It has as its goal the purification of our lives, the liberation of our souls and bodies from sin, the strengthening of our human powers of love for God and man, and the enlightening of our entire being for communion with the Blessed Trinity. The very purpose of fasting is to prepare us for, and to lead us to, eternal salvation.
The Nature of Fasting
First of all, blessed fasting is done in secret, without ostentation or accusation of others (c.f., Matthew 6:16, Romans 14). It is a private matter that concerns us and God, with the guidance of our spiritual father. Moreover, we must never be judgmental of others regarding their fasting.
Generally speaking, by "fast" we mean that we abstain from certain foods, although there are days of strict fasting when we avoid food altogether. These include Holy Week, January 5 (the day before Theophany), August 29 (the Feast of the beheading of John the Baptist), and September 14 (the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross).
Unless otherwise indicated, on a fast day we do not eat the meat of, or any product from, any vertebrate. This includes all mammals and birds (beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, etc.), as well as fish (shellfish are not included in this category). Animal products include lard, eggs, cheese, milk, etc.
In addition to meat and fish, we also abstain from olive oil on fast days. Olive oil is a symbol of God's mercy as shown by the dove that brought an olive branch back to the Ark of Noah to indicate God's compassion on the world after the Flood. On fasting days, we set aside olive oil in anticipation of God's sign of mercy.
On fast days we also abstain from wine and other alcohol beverages. Like olive oil, wine was given to man as a sign of God's mercy: "He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and green herb for the service of men, to bring forth bread out of the earth; and wine makes the heart of man glad. To make his face cheerful with oil; and bread strengthens man's heart." (Psalm 103:14-15)
When certain feast days fall on a fast day or during the fasting periods, however, olive oil and wine may be allowed because of the celebratory nature of these commemorations.
Fasting Days and Fasting Seasons
The Orthodox fast on all Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year, except during the four fast-free weeks (the weeks after: the Nativity or Christmas, the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, Pascha, and Pentecost). The Wednesday fast recalls the day on which Judas betrayed Jesus to the Jewish Council, and Friday commemorates the day on which our Savior died on the Cross.
During the Great Fast (Great Lent) the Orthodox fast from the Monday after Cheesefare Sunday through Holy Week; until after the resurrection Liturgy on Pascha. This is the strictest fast period in the Orthodox Church; no animal products, fish, wine, or olive oil are consumed during this fast. The exceptions are that wine and olive oil may be allowed on weekends, and fish is allowed on Palm Sunday. The fast is particular limited during the first week of great Lent, as well as during Holy Week and particularly on Holy Thursday, Holy Friday, and Holy Saturday.
The Apostles' Fast starts the Monday after the Sunday of All Saints (the first Sunday after Pentecost) and continues until the feast of Saints Peter and Paul (29 June). This fast is less severe than that of Great Lent, allowing fish on weekends, and on several feast days during the Fast. In addition, wine and olive oil are allowed on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The Dormition Fast is a fourteen-day fasting period, from 1 August through 14 August. Fish is allowed on the Feast of the Transfiguration (6 August), and wine and olive oil are allowed on weekends.
The Nativity Fast is forty-day fast period begins on 15 November and last through 24 December. Until 20 December, fish, olive oil and wine are allowed on weekends; from 20 through 24 December, only olive oil and wine are allowed on weekends. As during the Apostles' and Dormition Fasts, wine and olive oil are also allowed on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The Eucharistic Fast
The Orthodox also fast Before Holy Communion, yet this practice is often misunderstood and misinterpreted.
For those who receive Holy Communion frequently, the Eucharistic Fast is from after the evening meal on the day before until after the Divine Liturgy on the day of receiving the Body and Blood of Christ.
The evening meal should be a modest one, not a feast or banquet, since excessive food intake causes lethargy and has a detrimental affect on the spiritual life. Following the meal, nothing is allowed until after receiving Holy Communion. It should go without saying that the evening should be spent in quiet and in prayer preparing to receive the Lord's Body and Blood.
In the case of an evening Liturgy, such as the Presanctified Liturgy or the Vesperal Liturgies on the Feasts of the Nativity and the Theophany, it would be better to fast throughout the day. It may be permitted to fast from the midday meal or from a mid-morning meal until after the Liturgy.
For those who receive Holy Communion infrequently, such as those who come only several times a year to the Eucharist, a more substantial fast and period of preparation is necessary. This is generally true whether the reasons for not approaching the Holy Cup are voluntary or beyond a person's control.
To prepare for Communion after even a couple of months of abstinence, one should go to Holy Confession and fast for at least three days prior to the day of the Divine Liturgy.
Important Considerations Regarding Fasting
At all times it is essential to keep in mind that we are not under the law but under grace (c.f., Romans 6:14), and that the letter kills, but the spirit gives life (c.f., 2 Corinthians 3:6). The rules of fasting, must be taken very seriously since they are crucial to prepare us for salvation, but they are not to be interpreted legalistically, "for the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17).
In regard to the practice of fasting, personal factors must always be taken into account. For example, it has always been held that these rules of fasting should be relaxed in the case of anyone elderly or in poor health. Similarly the situation of an isolated Orthodox Christian living in the same household as non-Orthodox. or obliged to take meals in the military or in a school, has to be carefully considered. In cases of uncertainty each should seek the advice of his or her spiritual father.
It should be emphasized that these fasting "rules" can be used as either a goal or as a measuring stick for the Orthodox Christian. The inability, or unwillingness, to abide by them is a gauge of our interior spiritual condition. Disregard for the customs of the Church indicates a disregard for the Lord Himself, because the Church is His Mystical Body. The inability to meet the requirements of the fast because of personal weakness is an indication that much spiritual work and progress lies ahead of us.
Above all else, fasting is not an end in itself nor is it a stand-alone practice. Fasting must be coupled with prayer and almsgiving: this is one of the principal didactic themes of the Great Fast. Fasting should help us attain spiritual stamina and dispassion so that our prayer to God is more full, genuine, and honest. Fasting should help us lay aside the cares of this world and self-centeredness so that we can love our brother.
Fasting, thus, is the vital prerequisite for life in Christ: to love God above all else and to love our neighbor as ourselves. It can truthfully be said that our eternal salvation rests on these three premises: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.