Sunday, 10 March 2013

The Rules of Fasting

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you - Matthew 6:16-18
The above words of the Lord are probably the first and most important rule of fasting. With these to remind us of the spirit in which we should approach the Lenten Fast, I thought some might find the following text useful. It is taken from the introduction to The Lenten Triodion by Mother Mary and Archimandrite (now Metropolitan) Kallistos Ware (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon's Seminary Press, 2002). To complement the text in question, I have quoted the two final hymns we sang from the Triodion at Matins this morning (Sunday of the Last Judgement) as they deal with the nature and character of fasting:
Daniel the prophet, a man greatly beloved, when he saw the power of God, cried out: 'The court sat for judgement, and the books were opened.' Consider well, my soul: dost thou fast? Then despise not thy neighbour. Dost thou abstain from food? Condemn not thy brother, lest thou be sent away into the fire, there to burn as wax. But may Christ lead thee without stumbling into His Kingdom. 
Let us cleanse ourselves, brethren, with the Queen of virtues: for behold, she is come, bringing us a wealth of blessings. She quells the uprising of the passions, and reconciles sinners to the Master. Therefore let us welcome her with gladness, and cry aloud to Christ our God: O risen from the dead, who alone art free from sin, guard us uncondemned as we give the glory. 

"Within this developed pattern of Lent, what precisely do the rules of fasting demand? Neither in ancient nor in modern times has there ever been exact uniformity, but most Orthodox authorities agree on the following rules:
(1) During the week between the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee and that of the Prodigal Son, there is a general dispensation from all fasting. Meat and animal products may be eaten even on Wednesday and Friday.

(2) In the following week, often termed the 'Week of Carnival', the usual fast is kept on Wednesday and Friday. Otherwise there is no special fasting.

(3) In the Week before Lent, meat is forbidden, but eggs, cheese and other dairy products may be eaten on all days, including Wednesday and Friday.

(4) On weekdays (Monday to Friday) inclusive during the seven weeks of Lent, there are restrictions both on the number of meals taken daily and on the types of food permitted; but when a meal is allowed, there is no fixed limitation on the quantity of food to be eaten.

(a) On weekdays in the first week, fasting is particularly severe. According to the strict observance, in the course of the five initial days of Lent, only two meals are eaten, one on Wednesday and the other on Friday, in both cases after the Liturgy of the Presanctified. On the other three days, those who have the strength are encouraged to keep an absolute fast; those for whom this proves impracticable may eat on Tuesday and Thursday (but not, if possible, on Monday), in the evening after Vespers, when they may take bread and water, or perhaps tea or fruit-juice, but not a cooked meal. It should be added at once that in practice today these rules are commonly relaxed. At the meals on Wednesday and Friday xerophagy is prescribed. Literally this means 'dry eating'. Strictly interpreted, it signifies that we may eat only vegetables cooked with water and salt, and also such things as fruit, nuts, bread and honey. In practice, octopus and shell-fish are also allowed on days of xerophagy;* likewise vegetable margarine and corn or other vegetable oil, not made from olives.** But the following categories of food are definitely excluded:

(i) meat;
(ii) animal products (cheese, milk, butter, eggs, lard, drippings);
(iii) fish (i.e. fish with backbones);
(iv) oil (i.e. olive oil) and wine (i.e. all alcoholic drinks)

(b) On weekdays (Monday to Friday inclusive) in the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth weeks, one meal a day is permitted, to be taken in the afternoon following Vespers, and at this one meal xerophagy is to be observed.

(c) Holy Week. On the first three days there is one meal each day, with xerophagy; but some try to keep a complete fast on these days, or else they eat only uncooked food, as on the opening days of the first week.
On Holy Thursday one meal is eaten, with wine and oil (i.e. olive oil).
On Great Friday those who have the strength follow the practice of the early Church and keep a total fast. Those unable to do this may eat bread, with a little water, tea or fruit-juice, but not until sunset, or at any rate not until after the veneration of the Epitaphios at Vespers.
On Holy Saturday there is in principle no meal, since according to the ancient practice after the end of the Liturgy of St. Basil the faithful remained in church for the reading of the Acts of the Apostles, and for their sustenance were given a little bread and dried fruit, with a cup of wine. If, as usually happens now, they return home for a meal, they may use wine but not oil; for on this one Saturday, alone among the Saturdays of the year, olive oil is not permitted.

The rule of xerophagy is relaxed on the following days:
(1) On Saturdays and Sundays in Lent, with the exception of Holy Saturday, two main meals may be taken in the usual way, around mid-day and in the evening, with wine and olive oil; but meat, animal products and fish are not allowed.

(2) On the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March) and Palm Sunday,*** fish is permitted as well as wine and oil, but meat and animal products are not allowed. If the Feast of the Annunciation falls on the first four days of Holy Week, wine and oil are permitted but not fish. If it falls on Great Friday or Holy Saturday, wine is permitted, but not fish or oil.

(3) Wine and oil are permitted on the following days, if they fall on a weekday in the second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth week:
First and Second Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist (24 February)
Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (9 March)
Forefeast of the Annunciation (24 March)
Synaxis of the Archangel Gabriel (26 March)
Patronal festival of the Church or Monastery****

(4) Wine and oil are also allowed on Wednesday and Thursday in the fifth week, because of the vigil for the Great Canon. Wine is allowed - and, according to some authorities, oil as well - on Friday in the same week, because of the vigil for the Akathistos Hymn.

It has always been held that these rules of fasting should be relaxed in the case of anyone elderly or in poor health. In present-day practice, even for those in good health, the full strictness of the fast is usually mitigated...In cases of uncertainty each should seek the advice of his or her spiritual father. At all times it is essential to bear in mind that 'you are not under the law but under grace' (Rom. 6:14), and that 'the letter kills, but the spirit gives life' (2 Cor. 3:6). The rules of fasting, while they need to be taken seriously, are not to be interpreted with dour and pedantic legalism; 'for the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit' (Rom. 14:17)." - pp.35-37

Some additional clarifications
*While this is common, many authorities count things like octopus and shell-fish as 'oil', and do not permit them on days of strict fasting. This is the practice observed on the Holy Mountain, for example.
**It should be remembered that, while mention of 'oil' in the canons certainly refers to olive oil, vegetable oil and other such substitutes were not available at that time. The fact that olives may be eaten, but olive oil may not, would suggest that it's oil that one should fast from. Thus, while vegetable oil is permitted by some, others consider 'oil' to refer to any kind of oil, not just that made from olives.
***Some authorities do not allow fish on Palm Sunday.
****This applies to those people who are actually observing said festival.


  1. Seems a bit of a mish-mash to me. On the one hand things like "one meal in the day - after vespers" sound like established rules of the communal monastic life, but things like "meat is permitted" clearly don't.

  2. "One meal a day after Vesper" is not only a monastic rule, it's just that nowadays that's pretty much the only place where it's followed, so there's nothing inconsistent as such (Met. Kallistos' definition of xerophagy seems a bit off though). Fasting until the ninth hour was standard also for laypeople in the early church - from what I understand, in the Western Church there was no abstinence from certain foods, only a total fast until the 9th hour. That, essentially, is 'fasting'. What most Orthodox Christians observe today is 'abstinence', most only fasting before Holy Communion and perhaps a couple of other days during the year (e.g. Good Friday).

  3. I have to say, from my experience, one of the great stumbling blocks as far as fasting is concerned is not rigour, but the complexity of the rules (which days you can eat this or that, plus exceptions when a feast day falls on such and such a day). Most people do not have a life structured around the hours etc. It becomes so overwhelming, and, in the end, so focused on food (even if that was not the initial intention) that people just can't be bothered.

  4. Ironically, I find that the more rigorous the fast, the less open it is to pharisaism and pedantry. Take the thing about oil for example - it is the rule most commonly ignored and considered to be the most pedantic, and yet no oil means you have to buy vegetables and fruits and cook simple food from scratch. No reading ingredients, no soy-substitutes that look and taste exactly like the foods you're trying to avoid, no worrying about rules, hardly any thinking about food at all. Simple and cheap, you save your thoughts for prayer and your money for the poor, which is what fasting should be.