The rhythm of Orthodox life is regulated by the Church calendar, which leads us through the year through a carefully balanced cycle of festal periods and fasting periods.
The Great Feasts
While every day of the year is devoted to a particular saint or event, certain feasts of our Lord, of the Virgin Mary, of St John the Baptist, and of the patron of each parish or monastery are considered great feasts.
On these days, the Church calls us to rest from secular work (if we can), so as to attend the related divine services and more generally devote the day to God, in fellowship with our family and our brothers and sisters in Christ. Below is a list of some of the main feast days of the Church year.
8th September — Birth of the Virgin Mary
14th September — Exaltation of the Holy Cross
23rd September — Conception of St John the Baptist
21st November — Entry of the Virgin Mary into the Temple
30th November — St Andrew the First-called Apostle (parish feast)
9th December — Conception of the Virgin Mary by St Anna
25th December — The birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ according to the flesh
1st January — The Circumcision of our Lord
6th January — Theophany: the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan River
2nd February — The Meeting of the Lord in the Temple
25th March — The Annunciation of the Virgin Mary (Conception of our Lord)
Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter)
Holy Pascha / Easter Sunday — the Resurrection of our Lord
The Ascension of the Lord — 40 days after Easter
Sunday of Pentecost — 50 days after Easter
24th June — Birth of St John the Baptist
29th June — The Apostles Peter and Paul
6th August — The Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor
15th August — The Dormition of the Virgin Mary
In the Gospels, Jesus does not say ‘If you fast’, but ‘When you fast’ (Matthew 6:16). He takes it as a given that fasting is part and parcel of spiritual life. For this reason, the Church calendar also sets aside certain days and periods as times of fasting: abstinence from food or drink — or types of food and drink — for a certain period of time, although fasting is about much more than food.
Why do we fast?
We fast for a number of reasons:
- Love for the poor — Fasting must not be a self-centered act, and is always accompanied by charity. By eating less and eating more simply, we have more left over for others. The same is true of time and money saved on entertainment; we can spend them on others and on God. The experience of voluntary hunger and deprivation should also kindle in us compassion for those who experience these things involuntarily.
- Freedom — While modern society tends to understand freedom as the ability to do whatever you want whenever you want, a person who lives in this way is really just a slave to their impulses, being dragged every which way like a dog on a leash. True freedom comes with self-control, and the ability to choose the good. Learning to control our most basic impulses — such as food and sex — is a way to break free from our passions and help us to attain true spiritual freedom.
- It helps us to pray — We are psychosomatic beings, a union of body and soul. How we use our bodies, including how and what we eat, can help or hinder our spiritual progress.
- To remember paradise — death is a consequence of the fall, and the killing of animals for food is something that did not take place until after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. By abstaining from animal products, we remember the state of mankind before the fall, and express our longing to return to it.
- Obedience — The cause of our fall from Paradise was pride. It was pride that caused Adam and Eve to disobey the only commandment they were given: a commandment to fast (‘Do not eat of the tree’). The way to our restoration, therefore, is humility and obedience. Observing the Church’s periods of fasting helps us to learn blessed obedience rather than egotistical self-will.
When do we fast?
More than half the days of the year involve some kind of fasting, but not all are very strict.
- Almost every Wednesday and Friday throughout the year
- The Nativity Fast — 15th November to 24th December.
- Great Lent and Holy Week
- The Apostles’ Fast — Monday after All Saints until 28th June
- The Dormition Fast — 1st to 14th August
- Elevation of the Cross (14th September), Eve of Theophany (5th January), Beheading of St John the Baptist (29th August).
We also fast from all food and drink from midnight on any day we intend to receive Holy Communion.
How do we fast?
How we fast is something that varies greatly from person to person. Each person should fast according to their own strength and spiritual maturity, and should work out their particular rule of fasting with the guidance of their spiritual father. In practice, this rule may be much more lenient (or much stricter) than the traditional standard described below:
- Total fast — days on which we traditionally eat nothing at all. These include the first three days of Great Lent and Holy Friday.
- Strict fast (no oil) — on days of strict fasting we abstain from food and drink until the 9th Hour of the day (3pm). After that, we eat a single meal, which should contain no meat, eggs, dairy or fish. Also, the food is not to be prepared with oil, but should be as simple as possible (raw or boiled). Alcohol is not to be consumed.
Strict fasting is observed on most Wednesdays and Fridays, weekdays of Great Lent and the Dormition Fast, and the last ten days of the Nativity Fast.
- Oil and wine — on ‘oil and wine’ days we keep to a vegan diet, but we eat a normal number of meals. The food can be prepared with oil, and alcohol (in moderation) may be served with the meal.
This type of fasting is observed on Saturdays and Sundays of Lent, or if a feast day falls on a day of fasting.
- Fish — Same as ‘oil and wine’ days, but fish is also permitted.
This type of fasting is observed when an important feast falls during a fasting period — e.g, the Annunciation in Lent or the Transfiguration of the Lord during the Dormition Fast. It is also observed throughout the Apostles’ Fast and the first month of the Nativity Fast.
On all days of fasting, married couples also abstain from sexual relations, but this must be done by mutual consent (1 Corinthians 7:5).
It should go without saying that fasting is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and that the inward disposition with which we fast is much more important than the outward form we observe. Moreover, fasting from food is of no use if we are eating the flesh of our brother through gossip and hatred. No act of asceticism will bear fruit unless it is accompanied by prayer, charity, love, forgiveness, and humility.