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Lenten Fasting

A spe­cial word must be said about fast­ing dur­ing lent. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, fast­ing is an essen­tial ele­ment of the Chris­t­ian Life. Christ fast­ed and taught men to fast. Blessed fast­ing is done in secret, with­out osten­ta­tion or accu­sa­tion of oth­ers (Mt 6:16; Rom 14). It has as its goal the purifi­ca­tion of our lives, the lib­er­a­tion of our souls and bod­ies from sin, the strength­en­ing of our human pow­ers of love for God and man, the enlight­en­ing of our entire being for com­mu­nion with the Blessed Trinity.

The Ortho­dox rules for lenten fast­ing are the monas­tic rules. No meat is allowed after Meat­fare Sun­day, and no eggs or dairy prod­ucts after Cheese­fare Sun­day. These rules exist not as a Phar­i­sa­ic “bur­den too hard to bear” (Lk 11:46), but as an ide­al to be striv­en for; not as an end in them­selves, but as a means to spir­i­tu­al per­fec­tion crowned in love. The lenten ser­vices them­selves con­tin­u­al­ly remind us of this.

Let us fast with a fast pleas­ing to the Lord. This is the true fast: the cast­ing off of evil, the bridling of the tongue, the cut­ting off of anger, the ces­sa­tion of lusts, evil talk­ing, lies and curs­ing. The stop­ping of these is the fast true and accept­able. (Mon­day Ves­pers of the First Week)

The lenten ser­vices also make the unde­ni­able point that we should not pride our­selves with exter­nal fast­ing since the dev­il also nev­er eats!

The ascetic fast of Great Lent con­tin­ues from Meat­fare Sun­day to East­er Sun­day, and is bro­ken only after the Paschal Divine Litur­gy. Know­ing the great effort to which they are called, Chris­tians should make every effort to fast as well as they can, in secret, so that God would see and bless their open­ly with a holy life. Each per­son most do his best in the light of the giv­en ideal.

In addi­tion to the ascetic fast­ing of the lenten sea­son, the Ortho­dox alone among Chris­tians also prac­tice what is known as eucharis­tic or litur­gi­cal fast­ing. This fast­ing does not refer to the nor­mal absti­nence in prepa­ra­tion for receiv­ing the holy eucharist; it means fast­ing from the holy eucharist itself.

Dur­ing the week days of Great Lent the reg­u­lar eucharis­tic Divine Litur­gy is not cel­e­brat­ed in Ortho­dox church­es since the Divine Litur­gy is always a paschal cel­e­bra­tion of com­mu­nion with the Risen Lord. Because the lenten sea­son is one of prepa­ra­tion for the Lord’s Res­ur­rec­tion through the remem­brance of sin and sep­a­ra­tion from God, the litur­gi­cal order of the Church elim­i­nates the eucharis­tic ser­vice on the week­days of lent. Instead the non-eucharis­tic ser­vices are extend­ed with addi­tion­al scrip­ture read­ings and hym­nol­o­gy of a lenten char­ac­ter. In order that the faith­ful would not be entire­ly deprived of Holy Com­mu­nion on the lenten days, how­ev­er, the Litur­gy of the Pre­sanc­ti­fied Gifts is cel­e­brat­ed on Wednes­day and Fri­day evenings.

Even dur­ing Great Lent, Sat­ur­day (the Sab­bath Day) and Sun­day (the Lord’s Day) remain eucharis­tic days, and the Divine Litur­gy is cel­e­brat­ed. On Sat­ur­days it is the nor­mal Litur­gy of St John Chrysos­tom, usu­al­ly with prayers for the dead. On Sun­days it is the longer Litur­gy of St Basil the Great.

The well-known teach­ing that Sat­ur­days and Sun­days are nev­er days of fast­ing in the Ortho­dox Church, an issue empha­sized cen­turies ago when con­tro­ver­sy arose with the Latin Church, refers only to this eucharis­tic-litur­gi­cal fast. Dur­ing Great Lent, even though the eucharis­tic fast is bro­ken on Sat­ur­days and Sun­days, the asceti­cal fast con­tin­ues through the week­ends since this fast­ing is an extend­ed effort made from Meat­fare Sun­day right to East­er itself.