When you fast...Part 2
Updated: Mar 13, 2020
In the Orthodox Church we have two cycles of fasting: one of which is the cycle which is linked to the Great Feasts, in particular Christmas and Pascha/Easter. As you are all aware we are now in the countdown to Lent, which prepares us for Pascha/Easter, and is the greatest of the Fasts linked with the Great Feasts. I will talk more about that cycle in the next newsletter.
The other cycle of fasting is the Weekly Cycle, one which, as the name implies, affects us more often than the first because we meet it every week of our lives.
Strictly speaking it could be argued that it is not every week we are involved in fasting because certain weeks are fast-free. The week after Christmas is fast free for instance. Its name is Sviatki and is from December 26th (The Afterfeast of the Nativity of the Birth of Christ) to the Eve of the Feast of Theophany. The week that we are currently in, The Week of the Publican and Pharisee is also Fast Free as is the week after next, called Maslenitsa (this year Maslenitsa is 23rd-29th February) The week after Pascha (called Bright Week) is also fast free as is the week after Trinity Sunday-which is six weeks after the end of Bright Week.
As we approach these weeks we will be looking at their significance. But at the moment, I want to explore the Weekly Fast Cycle.
I remarked in my last set of notes that historically the Church had kept Wednesdays and Fridays as weekly fast days. This practice goes back to the first century and they commemorate firstly the Betrayal of Christ by Judas (Wednesday) and Christ’s Own Death (Friday). This practice was put in place by the Church as one way to help Christians keep the commands of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount: “when you pray…”, “when you give alms…”, “when you fast…”.
By entering into a regular pattern of spiritual practices, they become easier to follow and thus easier to develop. They help us fulfill the command of the Apostle, to “grow in grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus” (2 Peter 3 v 18).
One of the objections that is often given to having a regular period of fasting is that Jesus has commanded to us to be quiet and not let on that we are indeed fasting-Matt 6 v 17-again in the Sermon on the Mount, in the section where Christ tells us to pray, give alms and fast. However, even though the Church puts these fast days into its calendar, no one will ever check up if you are fasting-except perhaps in confession, but that is not for general consumption: confession is between you, your priest or spiritual father, and God, no one else.
Everything in the Church is didactic. If you have not heard me say this before, get used to it. Absolutely everything in the Church is there to bring us closer to God. But, and it is a big but, the Church offers us everything to enable us to become what God wants us to be-the journey of salvation is called theosis and we can either receive or not bother with something the Church offers us. Fasting is one of those things.
So what does it mean to fast?. There are several ways in which we can fast. The most obvious way is by abstaining from food but the reality is that in our working lives we need food to sustain us and it would be inappropriate for Christians to faint at work through lack of food. So for those of us who are not monastics (there are different rules for monks and nuns) it is expected that we should abstain from meat and dairy products on Wednesdays and Fridays. When I was first received into the Orthodox Church there was very little around in the area of vegan food-someone of my acquaintance once complained that all that they had to eat during Lent was baked beans on toast-not a very attractive proposition, I am sure you will agree. Nowadays with vegan food being so popular we do not have that excuse.
Some of us live in households which we share with non-Orthodox family, what are we to do? Clearly it is wrong to force our beliefs onto others. My suggestion is to discuss this with Fr Stephen or your spiritual father and he will guide you in this area. It is also true that if we are unwell or take regular medication, or even approaching a senior age, it may not be appropriate to change your diet. Again, and I want to emphasise this, please talk to Fr Stephen or your spiritual father and get their guidance and blessing. I have spoken with many people in the past and they have said “Oh I am on tablets, so I don’t need to fast.” Well, we all need to fast, but the Church is wise about our health, whatever you do, do it with the blessing of Fr Stephen or your spiritual father and in that way God will bless you. This is especially important for ladies who are pregnant. Clearly pregnancy is not an illness but women’s bodies at this tien are in a state of change and it is important that both mother and child are sustained in the best way possible.
It is also important to fast before taking communion. If you plan on receiving the Mysteries at the Liturgy, please do not have anything to eat or drink after midnight the night before. Couples who are planning on receiving communion should also fast from intimate relations the night before.
I have spoken about fasting as a physical discipline. The reality is that fasting begins in the heart. In my initial set of notes I talked about the importance of attitude. Fasting is a practical way of curtailing the body’s desire for physical nourishment-not that there is anything wrong in physical nourishment, certainly in moderation, but our outward practice should reflect an inner one, otherwise it is meaningless. Fasting shows that our desire for God is more important than food, but if abstaining from food is not reflected in an inner desire for God, then it is, quite frankly, meaningless. Whilst I would want to encourage everyone to fast, prior to that I would encourage all who read these notes to develop first a love for God and a desire to reach out to Him. Out of that desire comes true fasting.