An History of Fasting
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.
Who can forget his instruction to the Apostles in the case of the epileptic boy whose demon the Apostles could not cast out?
This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting. Matthew 17:21
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. - Acts 13:2,3
The familiar fast days of Wednesdays and Fridays date back to Apostolic times. The first century document called the Didache, more commonly known in English as "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles" instructs the faithful:
Your fasts must not be identical with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Mondays and Thursdays; but you should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. Didache 8:1
The Jews fasted on Monday and Thursday; the followers of Christ were to fast on Wednesday - the day when Christ was betrayed - and Friday - the day of His Crucifixion.
The fasting referred to here was not simply an abstention from meat or dairy products - it was a complete abstention from both food and drink until sundown. This type of fasting was preserved in the Church on the Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent, which called for a complete fast from food and drink until the reception of Holy Communion at the evening Presanctified Liturgy. (In the modern practice a light Lenten meal early in the day is generally observed).
In the centuries following the time of the Didache the Feast of the Resurrection of the Lord - Pascha - was observed with at first a forty hour fast, then a week long fast and then a forty day fast - known to us as Great Lent. This forty-day fast was generally well established in the fourth century but was observed differently in different places. The remarks of the Church Historian Socrates Scholasticus demonstrate the wide variety of fasting that was observed in the Early Church during the Lenten Season. After pointing out that different places reckoned the forty-day fast by differing methods he goes on to talk about the fasting practices observed:
One can see also a disagreement about the manner of abstinence from food, as well as about the number of days:
Some wholly abstain from things that have life: others feed on fish only of all living creatures: many together with fish, eat fowl also, saying that according to Moses, these were likewise made out of the waters. Some abstain from eggs, and all kinds of fruits: others partake of dry bread only; still others eat not even this: while others having fasted till the ninth hour, afterwards take any sort of food without distinction. And among various nations there are other usages, for which innumerable reasons are assigned. Since however no one can produce a written command as an authority, it is evident that the apostles left each one to his own free will in the matter, to the end that each might perform what is good not by constraint or necessity. Such is the difference in the churches on the subject of fasts.
Ecclesiastical History Book V:12
In examining the practices listed here we have already mentioned the fast "until the ninth hour" (three P.M.) which survived in the Church in the liturgical fast for the Presanctified Liturgy. (The Muslims observe the fast of Ramadan in the same way - eating or drinking nothing while the sun is up - Mohammed undoubtedly copied either a Christian or Jewish fasting practice that he was familiar with).
At this time it should be pointed out that most people in the ancient world - at least in the Roman Empire - existed primarily on bread and vegetables. Fish and shellfish were common in coastal areas but meat generally was eaten only by the wealthy on a regular basis because of its cost. In the ancient world there was no means of refrigeration and meat was normally kept "on the hoof" until it was to be consumed.
The only source of inexpensive meat was that left over from sacrifices in the various pagan temples. Because the animals offered in sacrifice had to be "without blemish" this was often a better grade of meat and what was not used in the Temple was offered for sale.
Thus we read St. Paul's comments to the Corinthians about meat "offered in sacrifice to idols:
Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that "an idol has no real existence," and that "there is no God but one." For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth--as indeed there are many "gods" and many "lords" -- yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through being hitherto accustomed to idols, eat food as really offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if any one sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol's temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother's falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall.
I Corinthians 8:4-13
This passage, which taken somewhat out of context, is read on the "Sunday of the Leave Taking of Meat" (Meatfare Sunday), was the Apostle's answer to the question of purchasing and eating meat that had been offered in sacrifice or accepting an invitation to eat a meal that was offered to the public in a pagan Temple. Eating such meat is permissible unless it scandalizes someone who is weak in faith. Rather than do that the Apostle says "I will never eat meat."
This Apostle's words though, despite their being read on Meat-fare Sunday, have little to do with the reason that most people regard fasting as abstaining from meat. Abstaining from meat was a practice that developed in the monastic movement of the fourth century as this story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers shows:
Theophilus the Archbishop summoned some Fathers to go to Alexandria one day, to pray and to destroy the heathen temples there. As they were eating with him, they were brought some veal for food and they ate it without realizing what it was. The bishop, taking a piece of meat, offered it to the old man beside him, saying, "Here is a nice piece of meat, Abba, eat it." But he replied, "Till this moment we believed we were eating vegetables, but if it is meat, we do not eat it." None of them tasted anymore of the meat which was brought.
There were several reasons for this abstention. First is the undeniable fact that meat tastes good! To give it up completely was a sign of self-denial. As Abba Evagrios writes:
When the soul lusts for various foods, let us confine it to bread and water, to make it grateful for even a thin slice of bread.
The Philokalia; Abba Evagrios, On Active Life
Secondly, in the physiological theory of the ancient world meat was a food, which because of the blood in it, was held to"excit" the body. Digesting meat was seen as requiring more effort of the body and hence caused the passions to be stirred up. There were even Christians who condemned outright the eating of meat by any member of the Church. This monasticism gone awry was condemned at the Synod of Gangra in 340 A.D.:
Anathema to him who disregards legitimate marriage; anathema to him also who condemns the eating of flesh....
Canons 1 and 2
Another reason why the monks followed a diet of bread and vegetables was, as mentioned above, that this was the common poor man's fare in the ancient world. When it came to the care of the body the monks believed in the simplest food and drink and often did not even bathe.
Because of their abstention from meat all the time the monasteries in their various typika or directories recognized different foods as permitted or not permitted on fasting days. During Lent and other fast periods they generally observed "dry eating" without the use of olive oil (a staple of kitchens in the ancient world) or wine. On some days oil was permitted. On feast days all foods including fish were permitted. In areas where meat was scarce and fish was more commonly eaten a differentiation was made between fish and shellfish when it came to fast days.
The rules of fasting that are current in the Church generally reflect the monastic practices that developed in the Middle Ages from the variety of customs that the historian Socrates mentions. After the time of Iconoclasm in the 8th century these monastic practices became very popular even among clergy and faithful who were not in monasteries. The role of the monasteries in the victory over the iconoclasts was not forgotten. Monastic services supplanted the "cathedral rite" services and eventually caused them to disappear. The monastic rules of fasting were widely accepted in the piety of the Church although there has been great leeway in their interpretation. The words of Socrates bear repeating here: to the end that each might perform what is good not by constraint or necessity.
Although the fasting practices themselves may have varied with time and place and from person to person in the history of the Church the fact remains that fasting has always been seen as an important part of Orthodox Christian Life.
However, the Tradition of the Church has always seen fasting as only a tool to combat the passions and to open the door to the renewal of the Holy Spirit: beyond this higher purpose it has no value.
One day St. Epiphanios sent someone to Abba Hilarion with this request, "Come and let us see each other before we depart the body." When he came they rejoiced in each other's company. During their meal they were brought a fowl; Epiphanios took it and gave it to Hilarion. Then the old man said to him, "Since I took the habit I have not eaten meat that has been killed." The bishop answered, "Since I took the habit I have not allowed anyone to go to sleep with a complaint against me and I have not gone to rest with a complaint against anyone." Hilarion replied, "Forgive me, your way of life is higher than mine."
Already in the time of the Prophet Isaiah fasting in and of itself was seen as useless and even a selfish act unless it extended outside of the body to our neighbor:
"Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am. Isaiah 58:6-9
St. John Chrysostom, in a text that has become classic in the Orthodox Church, has stated the necessity for "fasting with the spirit" most eloquently and his words remain just as true today as when they were spoken over sixteen hundred years ago:.
The value of fasting consists not only in avoiding certain foods, but in giving up of sinful practices. The person who limits his fast only to abstaining from meat is the one who especially lowers the value of it.
Do you fast? Prove it by doing good works. If you see someone in need, take pity on them. If you see a friend being honored, don't get jealous of him or her. For a true fast, you cannot fast only with your mouth. You must fast with your eyes, your ears, your feet, your hands, and all parts of your body.
You fast with your hands by keeping them pure from doing greedy things. You fast with your feet by not going to see forbidden shows or plays. You fast with your eyes by not letting them look upon impure pictures. Because if this is forbidden or unlawful, it mars your fast and threatens the safety of your soul. But if you look at things which are lawful and safe you increase your fast, for what you see with your eyes influences your conduct. It would be very stupid to eliminate or give up meat and other foods because of the fast but feed with your eyes upon other things which are forbidden.
You don't eat meat, you say? But you allow yourself to listen to lewd things. You must fast with your ears, too. Another way of fasting with your ears is not to listen to those who speak evil or untrue things about others. "Thou shalt not receive an idle report. " This is especially true of rumors, gossip, untruths which are spoken to harm another.
Besides fasting with your mouth by not eating certain foods, your mouth should also fast from foul language or telling lies about others. For what good is it if you don't eat meat or poultry, and yet you bite and devour your fellow man?
Homily III:8 On the Statutes
Some Modern Observations
Every year since the time of Metropolitan Orestes of Blessed Memory, the Hierarchs of our Diocese have issued fasting regulations for Great Lent. Although recommending the "sterner practices of time-honored tradition" they also set forth a "minimal" standard as well for people to observe and still be keeping some sort of Lent. Our bishops have often been criticized for this but they have acted with wisdom. The Fathers tell us that a light rule that is observed is better than a heavy one that is soon broken and discarded. If the naked truth be told many, if not most, Orthodox Christian faithful simply have ceased to observe any Lenten fasting, save for "Clean Monday" and Good Friday and regard the Lent as something that concerns the clergy only. Their pastors naively continue to issue rules on such subjects as days when oil may be used or shellfish may be eaten but the faithful simply ignore them. In the context of the pressure of modern American life, where the home is no longer the place where most meals are taken, our Hierarchs have offered these rules as a guide.
In modern America, a considerable amount of Lenten effort also goes to finding tasty "Lenten recipes" and even "Lenten cookbooks" which are of gourmet status or duplicate meat dishes using textured soy protein. This way we can say, "we are keeping the Fast!" To this the Fathers might say, "Do not let the cure for passions become a passion!"
The emphasis on "Lenten foods" should be simplicity and plainness and not extravagance. The more effort that goes into Lenten food creativity and preparation is the more its value is reduced. As the Apostle Paul tells us:
For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Very Rev. Protopresbyter Lawrence Barriger