And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bride chamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast. Matthew 9:15
In the Orthodox Tradition fasting is seen as a vital part of the spiritual life of the individual and the Church, not only because of its practice in the Old Testament but most importantly because our Lord Himself combined fasting and prayer in His earthly life. At the beginning of His ministry, immediately after His Baptism, He retreated into the wilderness where we read:
And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward hungry.
The Lord Himself gave instructions for fasting:
But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face; That you appear not unto men to fast, but unto your Father which is in secret. Matthew. 6:17-18
The Apostles themselves kept in the Church the Lord’s example and mandate on fasting. As an example in the Acts of the Apostles we read:
As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. –
As with anything else one has never done before, one should start slow and then make a gradual increase. This may mean abstaining just from meat for the period of the fast, and then next fast abstaining from meat and dairy products. But whatever level of abstinence you choose (and it is advisable to consult with your priest when doing so) should be carried out through the entire fasting period, not just on particular days of the week.
Fasting, strictly speaking, means a totally going without food and drink for a certain short period of time, usually until a particular time of day (say noon, 3pm, or sundown) or for the whole day (such as on Great and Holy Friday). This type of fast is kept when preparing for Holy Communion, as physical hunger helps to cultivate the spiritual expectation of receiving the Body and Blood of Christ.
Fasting is not dieting. Fasting is not about keeping a Christian version of kosher. Fasting is about hunger and humility (which is increased as we allow ourselves to become weak). Fasting is about allowing our heart to break.
As Fr. Alexander Schmemann explains, “The time factor is essential for it takes time to uproot and to heal the common and universal disease which men have come to consider as their ‘normal’ state”, that is it takes time for man to realize that he is not meant to live on bread alone but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.”
St Symeon the New Theologian: ‘Let each one of us keep in mind the benefit of fasting… For this healer of our souls is effective, in the case of one to quieten the fevers and impulses of the flesh, in another to assuage bad temper, in yet another to drive away sleep, in another to stir up zeal, and in yet another to restore purity of mind and to set him free from evil thoughts. In one it will control his unbridled tongue and, as it were by a bit, restrain it by the fear of God and prevent it from uttering idle and corrupt words. In another it will invisibly guard his eyes and fix them on high instead of allowing them to roam hither and thither, and thus cause him to look on himself and teach him to be mindful of his own faults and shortcomings. Fasting gradually disperses and drives away spiritual darkness and the veil of sin that lies on the soul, just as the sun dispels the mist. Fasting enables us spiritually to see that spiritual air in which Christ, the Sun who knows no setting, does not rise, but shines without ceasing. Fasting, aided by vigil, penetrates and softens hardness of heart. where once were the vapors of drunkenness it causes fountains of compunction to spring forth. I beseech you, brethren, let each of us strive that this may happen in us! Once this happens we shall readily, with God’s help, cleave through the whole sea of passions and pass through the waves of the temptations inflicted by the cruel tyrant, and so come to anchor in the port of impassibility.
‘My brethren, it is not possible for these things to come about in one day or one week! They will take much time, labor, and pain, in accordance with each man’s attitude and willingness, according to the measure of faith and one’s contempt for the objects of sight and thought. In addition, it is also in accordance with the fervor of his ceaseless penitence and its constant working in the secret chamber of his heart that this is accomplished more quickly or more slowly by the gift and grace of God. But without fasting no one was ever able to achieve any of these virtues or any others, for fasting is the beginning and foundation of every spiritual activity’.
— Symeon the New Theologian: the Discourses, pub. Paulist Press. pp. 168-169.
Abba Daniel of Sketis: ‘In proportion as the body grows fat, so does the soul wither away.’
The Orthodox Church: No only standing for the Truth, but never sitting down either!
OK, how many Russian Orthodox does it take to change a light bulb?
None. Orthodoxy never changes, and, in addition to burning candles like the Catholics, uses oil-burning lamps. ‘Electricity is for those Gregorian calendar-using, liberal ecumenist jurisdictions.’
‘Fasting is one of our greatest weapons against the Evil One. I will repeat what Father Lazarus told me once. In 1962, I went to the USA. I stayed there a long time and traveled to many states. The letters of Father Lazarus were a great help… He used to say: “Go anywhere you like, do whatever you like, as long as you observe Fasting”… Because not a single arrow of the Evil One can reach you when you fast. Never.’
— Ascetic of Love, the biography of Mother Gavrilia, pub. Series Talanto. pg. 200.
A practical guide to Fasting is here.
FASTING: There are many things that you can do during the Nativity or the Great Lent that will benefit your soul and body. You can keep the fast or at least part of it. By participating in the Fast and watching what goes into your mouth, you have a much better chance of controlling what comes out of it. Fasting and abstinence teach self-discipline, an important aspect of our lives as Orthodox Christians. In addition, the practice of asceticism (self-denial) helps us to become more aware of ourselves as we really are. Asceticism enlightens our senses, enabling us to see our sins and shortcomings. So do not be afraid of being hungry. Be willing to experience it, realizing that it can bring more than a mere empty feeling in the stomach It can help you to be aware of who you really are — and who you can be.
Go to the extra services at Church. Try to go to All-Night Vigils on Saturday nights. Make every effort to participate in the increased liturgical life of the Church. You could even come early on Sundays and attend the Hours. Worship is a very important part of life — something most of us should do more often.
Now is the time for you to respond to what your Church has to offer. Do not let this wonderful and important season of the year pass you by. Take advantage of our Holy Tradition — a tradition that teaches us the way to love God and others. Prepare yourself for the joy of Christ’s Resurrection through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, repentance and worship. To do nothing is easy — and its reward is the same: nothing! Enter into prayer and fasting and allow yourself to draw nigh unto God the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The joy will be indescribable.
Why do we fast? We fast so that we may live like a dying man – and that in dying we can be born to eternal life.