FASTING AND ABSTINENCE IN THE HOLY ORTHODOX CHURCH
Fr. Dr. M. John Panicker, Orthodox Seminary, Kottayam
The Holy Orthodox Church gives a great deal of importance to fasting, following the example of Jesus Christ and of the apostolic community. The noun fasting means non-eating or non-feeding. But every non-eater is by no means someone who fasts and everyone who is an eater and restrains himself by an interior dedication from nourishment because of heavenly things is a also recognized as someone who truly fasts.
A materialistic society moulds us in self-indulgence and we tend to see fasting only as a time of deprivation and penance. But this is not at all the view of the Holy Orthodox Church on fasting and abstinence. This is clearly explained by the Fathers in their spiritual discourses. For them, fasting is the feast of the soul and good fasts are like medicine which cures our soul and mind, and, along with other virtuous works, it leads us to eternal life.
In our spiritual battle, fasting protects us from the evil one. It not only resists the attack but also trains our body and mind for the battle. According to St. Ephrem (4th Century Church Father) fasting is a great weapon against the evil one. Through fasting Christ defeated the Satan and has thus given us this weapon to overcome the evil. According to St. Philixenus of Maboug (6th century Church Father), fasting and abstinence are the two virtuous weapons for cultivating the a Christian life.
-Fr. Seraphim Rose
-Bishop Kallistos Ware
Other Resources on this Topic
-Bishop Kallistos Ware
‘Fasting must be undertaken voluntarily and it must be of divine dispensation’. This is the primary teaching of our Church on Fasting. Fast should sprout from our free will which makes it accessible and permanent in our life. Fasting becomes highly acceptable when it is joined with humility of hearts, charity towards all men and continuous prayers. The Lenten prayers and Liturgy of the Church extols this kind of fasting by giving the Old Testament examples of the fasting of Moses, Daniel, Elijah etc.
Fasting is the root by which all the fruits of sanctity are sustained and it is on this root that virtues like purity, delights virginity and rejoices patience are grown. Fasting dispels immodesty,; controls lust and offers the body as a holy temple for God’s inhabitation. Therefore, the Church exhorts the faithful to love and practice fasting and abstinence as a form of Christian life. Through fasting and prayers, the soul is strengthened and confirmed in the Creator; the riches of the body are increased and good aspirations are aroused in the heart.
The following are the main fasts mentioned by the Fathers of the Church according to the order in which they appear in the liturgical calendar.
The Fast before the Nativity of our Lord
This is a fast observed in the Holy Orthodox Church with great enthusiasm. It seems that in the Syrian tradition this fast is of spontaneous origin and lasted forty days for us to glorify and to give thanks to God the Father remembering his selfless love by giving His only Begotten Son for the salvation of the world. At present, however, in the Malankara Church, this fast lasts for 25 days, from the first of December till the Christmas day, and all the faithful are encouraged and admonished to observe it with great spiritual vigor.
The Fast of the Ninevites
This is one of the most strictly observed fasts in the Syrian Church tradition. This fast lasts for three days beginning on the Monday, the third week before the beginning of the Great Lent. The origin of this fast was to commemorate a miraculous cessation of plague which broke out in the region of Beth-gammae. When struck with disaster, the faithful of the place gathered in the Church to pray and began to do great acts of penance and the plague ceased suddenly. To remember this great mercy of Lord, this fast came to be observed annually. Since it is observed for three days, it is commonly known as Moonnunoimbu (three days fast) in the Malankara Orthodox Church. It is also known as the fast of Jonah since it commemorates the conversion of Nineveh through the preaching of prophet Jonah. It is time for the penitential practice for the whole Church and the Church does her penance and prayers like that of Jonah in the belly of the big fish and that of the Ninevites.
The Great Lent
The importance of this fast is evident through it’s name itself. The Great Lent is observed to ultimately participate in the joy of the Resurrection of Christ through a life of passion and suffering. The Church prescribes the forty days of fast in seven weeks which ends on Friday (Nalpatham Velly) before the passion week. But the fast is completed only with the Feast of the Resurrection and hence it is called as the fifty days lent as well (Anpathu Noimbu). The first Monday of the lent is celebrated by a special service of reconciliation also called as the Service of Subukono. The purpose of this practice enables the faithful to enter into the season of fasting in love and having been reconciled to each other. The Church recommends the faithful to be content with one meal a day and avoid all delicious food. This is also a great time to fill the stomaches of those who are hungry and deprived of the most basic needs of life.
The Apostles’ Fast
The Apostles, following the example of Jesus Christ, fasted twice - forty days each; namely from the day of Pentecost and the days before the feast of Epiphany (Denha). One could say that since Christ has said to the apostles that ‘the sons of the bride chamber cannot fast as long as the bridegroom is with them, but days shall come when the bridegroom will be taken from them and then they shall fast’ (Lk 5:34-35). Thus, after the ascension of Jesus Christ and after the day of Pentecost, the apostles began to keep this fast and gradually it was adopted as a tradition in the Church. At present, in the Malankara Church, this fast is reduced into 13 days corresponding to the number of 12 apostles and St.Paul (June 16-29). This fast is observed in order to become aware of the responsibility of the faithful of the Church in missionary activities and active evangelization.
The Fast before the Dormition / Assumption of the Holy Theotokos
A feast in commemoration of the Mother of God was celebrated in the East as early as the fourth century. Later this was identified as the dormition of the blessed Virgin and it came to be called the feast of Sunoyo (Assumtion / Dormition) of the Mother of God. This fast starts from the first day of August and ends with the Sunoyo feast on the fifteenth day.
The Fast on Wednesdays and Fridays
Besides the above fasts, the Church fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year except any solemn feast falling on these days and the fifty days after the Easter. The Significance of Wednesday is that it is was on this day that the Jews made plot to crucify Jesus Christ and Friday to commemorate His passion, crucifixion and death for the whole world. The fasting on Wednesdays are also dedicated to the Holy Theotokos and Friday fastings are dedicated to the passion of Christ and the Holy Cross.
The Fast before the Nativity of St. Mary
This is an eight days fast observed only by the Syrian Christians in India, which begins from the first day of September (Ettu Noimbu).
Fast before the Feast of Pentecost
This fast is observed only in the Malankara Orthodox Church. It begins from the day of Ascension and ends with the feast of Pentecost. The Church recommends this period as a preparatory time of the faithful for the empowering by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.
Some Special Notes
Saturdays and Sundays are the days of the Lord and of joy and therefore it is prohibited to fast on these days (with the exception of Holy Saturday) except for the motive of fasting before the reception of Holy Qurbana.
The believers who prepare themselves to receive the sacraments must observe the fasting as per the recommendation of the Church. Holy Qurbana is not conducted on fast days (especially the Great Fast and the Nineveh Fast) except on Saturday, Sundays, mid-day lent, fortieth Friday of the Great Lent and on the feast day of Annunciation. Celebration of marriage is prohibited and that of baptism is permitted in the case of extreme necessity. The feasts of martyrs, saints and departed are celebrated only on Sundays and Saturdays. The married people are asked to refrain from using their conjugal relations during the fasting season.