“A fast is not a hunger strike. Fasting submits to God’s commands. A hunger strike makes God submit to our demands.” - Edwin Louis Cole
Today is the first day of the Orthodox “Little Lent”, that is, the period of fasting that accompanies the Christmas Advent period. Fasting in the Orthodox Church does not mean not eating at all, but is rather the abstention from certain foods (and often, from other distractions, such as television, parties, non-liturgical music, etc). Complete abstention from food and drink is also practiced, with Orthodox Christians eating and drinking nothing after Vespers on the day preceding a day on which the Divine Liturgy is celebrated until the eucharist itself is over.
In contrast to some other religions that emphasise absolute fasting periods or forbid the consumption of certain animals or their products, no food is marked as forbidden in Orthodox thought, following the belief that all things are “made new” in Christ. Orthodox Christians also justify this by citing the dream that St Peter related of being told to eat even those animals deemed unclean in Jewish dietary laws. Fasting is regarded as a spiritual discipline and training for the devout person. It is a self-imposed restriction, an obedience to one’s spiritual father, and a liberation from one’s habits so as to remove ourselves from the tyranny of those habits, to allow us to rule our body rather than be ruled by it.
The basic rule of fasting, as it is practiced in monasteries, is that Wednesdays and Fridays are “strict fast” days, meaning that meat, dairy, fish, alcoholic beverages, and oil are not allowed. Most monks and nuns refrain from eating meat every day in any case, unless they are ill. In addition to the food group restriction, the amount of food eaten is also reduced so as to purposefully reduce the body’s energy level, with the idea of making it easier to pray by quietening and focussing the mind. The money saved by eating less can be used to practice the virtue of compassion, by giving alms to the poor and needy.
There are also various extended fasting periods throughout the year, the most important, of course, being Lent. Lent, often called the “Great Lent” in Orthodox practice, in opposition to “Little Lent” (as the Nativity Fast is sometimes called) begins forty-seven days before Easter Day, forty-seven because the week immediately preceding Easter is counted as Holy Week, a thing unto itself. During the Great Lent, the strict fast applies every day and in keeping with the penitential character of the season, there is also a “eucharistic fast” throughout it, during which the Divine Liturgy is not served (remembering that Saturday and Sunday don’t count).
The fast is not always so strict, however. Even in Lent, if there’s a big feast day that happens to fall during Lent (eg. the Feast of the Annunciation) the fast is relaxed to allow consumption of fish, wine, and oil. During Bright Week (the week following Easter), in the twelve days after Christmas, and the week between the feast of Pentecost and the feast of All Saints, and the week prior to Meatfare Sunday, fasting is not prescribed at all, even on Wednesdays or Fridays. Some conditions preclude fasting: Pregnant women and nursing mothers, small children, the elderly, the sick. Some of the fasts themselves are simply relaxed ones, also.
The Orthodox strict fasts are:
Great Lent - beginning and ending varies as it is based on the date of Easter, which is a movable feast
Holy Week - week immediately before Easter
Dormition Fast - lasts from the first of August to the fourteenth of August, just before the Dormition of the Virgin on August 15
The Orthodox moderate fasts are:
Nativity Fast (“Little Lent”) - 15 November to 24 December
Ss. Peter and Paul Fast - beginning is variable since it starts on All Saints, which is based on the date of Easter, but it ends on 29 June
In addition, Mondays are sometimes kept as an additional fast day during the year, refraining from eating flesh meats in honour of the Angels or “Fleshless Ones”. Monday is liturgically devoted to the remembrance of angels. All that has been said thus far has been mainly for those under monastic rule. For lay Orthodox Christians, the standard is the same, but can vary widely by parish practice. Generally, decisions on fasting are made by the person involved and his or her spiritual advisor, who is usually the parish priest, but not always. It is for them together to decide what would be helpful and appropriate for any individual.