Fasting in Eastern Orthodoxy

By Fr Jonathan Tobias

For most Christians, Lent is already in full swing. Ash Wednesday was on February 17.

Lent is a time of preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection, which is the central most important feast for all Christians. The time before that celebration is a subdued period of quiet seriousness, of self-reflection, of generosity.

It is also a time of Fasting.

The ways and habits of fasting differ from one Christian tradition to another. Some fast from meat on Fridays. Others try to eat more simply.

The Orthodox Church will begin Lent on the evening of March 14. This is because the Orthodox celebration of Easter is on May 2, almost a whole month after April 4, when most everyone else celebrates the Resurrection of Christ.

The date isn’t the only difference. The observance of the fast itself is different as well. Generally, it is a lot more rigorous.

Ideally speaking, Orthodox Christians will refrain not only from meat for the entire duration from March 14 until Easter Sunday on May 2. They will also refrain from dairy products as well.

To be sure, this rigor is relaxed for various practical reasons. Many people (especially children) are not expected to go without dairy. And others are simply not able to go without meat for the entire period.

And this brings up an important point: true, authentic Orthodoxy is not, and really can not be, legalistic about fasting in Lent. If an Orthodox Christian can do the entire fast, great. If they try their best, great. 

What is frowned upon is if fasting is done for the wrong reasons. Orthodox Christians are simply not allowed to make a great big show of fasting, to act like a martyr or to appeal for sympathy or admiration. 

Neither are Orthodox Christians permitted to fast for self-punishment, to inflict punishment. They are not even allowed to think locker room mottoes like “No Pain No Gain.”

The only reason for fasting is to draw close to God. The only reason is to grow in spiritual acuity, to pray more fervently, to become more sensitive to the needs of others.

Even though the Orthodox fast in Lent is difficult at first, it generally becomes sweeter, more lightened, by the time Palm Sunday arrives. Holy Week itself is a season of great spiritual intimacy, beauty, and profound truth. 

The Orthodox fast in Lent (which is more accurately called “the Great Fast”) is a season of illumination, of sweet reason, of coming to one’s senses and opening one’s eyes to the real needs of people and creation.

The Great Fast is, after all, forty days of hearing the call to “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.”