Fasting during the Great Lent

Fasting during the Great Lent

March 23, 2021

prayer book and candles

The Great Lent is the longest fasting season of the year for the Orthodox. We all know about the importance of prayer, almsgiving and fasting - the three pillars of Lent. But what are the rules of fasting and are there some things we should not do during this season? Read this article and find out.

The Orthodox rules of fasting

Rather than provide us with laws of fasting, the Orthodox Church provides us with guidelines or what could be called as rules. The Lenten fasting rules are very strict and are mostly followed by monastics. Laity usually keeps the first and the last week of the Great Lent super strictly. However, this depends on the person and their parish.

kolivo lean food

The rules of Lenten fast are written down in the liturgical book called the Typikon.

The Orthodox Church rules for fasting:

  • Weekdays: No meat or any animal products, like dairy. No fish (however, invertebrates - seafood with no backbone - are permitted), no wine, no olive oil.
  • Weekends: Same rules, but oil and wine are permitted.
  • There are two feasts that take place during Great Lent - Annunciation on March 25th (April 7th) and Palm Sunday (the last Sunday before Easter). On those feasts the rules are a bit different: fish, wine and oil are all permitted, regardless of the day of the week.
  • The Holy Week: monastics eat no meals at all from the Holy Thursday evening until Pascha. Holy Friday is the day of the strictest fast. On Holy Saturday, a little bit of fruit and wine is permitted for sustenance.

The fast is usually broken after the midnight Divine Liturgy on Pascha day.

What fasting is not

Now that we’ve talked about the rules of fasting, we must understand that there are some actions we should not do while trying to fast.

First of all, it is very important to note that fasting is a very personal action. We should not boast about it or even mention it at all. Here’s what the Gospel tells us:

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)

holy confession

Just like with giving alms, when we fast, we must do it in secret. We are not fasting to show others how good we are. We fast because we want to get closer to God by thinking more about Him, not the food.

Which brings us to another point: eating too much “permitted” foods during Lent. Are we really fasting if we eat a huge meal full of rice, seafood and vegetables and go to sleep afterwards, because we are so full? In this case, it would be better to eat a small piece of meat with nothing else on the side, than to feast on “permitted” foods like that.

The point of fasting is to think less about food and more about God; be “hungry” for God and His Word. Feeling slightly physically hungry helps us to get into that headspace. During Lent, our life must become more simple, so the meals we eat must be simple as well. When we fast it is good to cut back on entertainment and take on good things. The point is to try to concentrate on what’s more important - God and the people around us.

The third point is that fasting alone doesn’t save us or do us any good. Fasting is not a diet; rather, it is a spiritual exercise that we do to open our hearts to God. If we fast but always appear irritated and angry because of it - we are not fasting at all. Fasting always goes together with prayer and giving alms - this is something to always remember.

priests of st elisabeth convent

What Lent should be like

The spiritual father of Saint Elisabeth Convent - father Andrey Lemeshonok offered a wonderful and inspiring sermon after the Monday morning service on the first day of Lent this year. Here are some words from that sermon which may motivate us to keep going with Lent the right way:

  • “It’s important how we start the Lent, how we harness our sinful bodies, minds and feelings. It’s about directing it to Christ and absorbing all the spiritual treasures that we have in the Orthodox Church, especially in our Lenten services.”
  • “Lent is always a battle. Our minds are infected with sin, our hearts are restless, and we have to treat it, spiritualize it.”
  • “We are living in this world’s rhythm of rush and vanity which don’t let us focus on what’s truly important. The Holy Fathers say ‘Hurry slowly’. Even if we’re in a rush we must not fuss, we must hurry slowly.”
  • “We have to be attentive. We have to get into the rhythm of Lent to really take in the gift of prayer and Lenten service.”
  • “Lent is such a unique time to lay aside all earthly cares and be left alone with God.”

PS - The sisters of Saint Elisabeth Convent believe that prayer can make a difference. If you or your loved ones need prayer support, you can reach out and send us your prayer request by following this link. The Sisters will pray for you during the whole Lenten season.

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Michael Stucki

Thank you for these kind words.
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