[Note: This post is from previous years, and I have reposted it each season. I may make this the last time I do so, since it could tend to give the false impression and tend to focus attention on the external “sensationalist” (no other church in the West does this sort of mindset) details, and fail to put the focus on where it belongs: how the discipline of the body better enables the soul and mind to pray and to worship Christ and to love and to serve one’s neighbor in humility. In other words, it’s not about food and hunger.]
The traditional Orthodox Lenten fast is a rigorous one:
The Lenten Fast
Great Lent is the longest and strictest fasting season of the year.
Week before Lent (“Cheesefare Week”): Meat and other animal products are prohibited, but eggs and dairy products are permitted, even on Wednesday and Friday.
First Week of Lent: Only two full meals are eaten during the first five days, on Wednesday and Friday after the Presanctified Liturgy. Nothing is eaten from Monday morning until Wednesday evening, the longest time without food in the Church year. (Few laymen keep these rules in their fullness). For the Wednesday and Friday meals, as for all weekdays in Lent, meat and animal products, fish, dairy products, wine and oil are avoided. On Saturday of the first week, the usual rule for Lenten Saturdays begins (see below).
Weekdays in the Second through Sixth Weeks: The strict fasting rule is kept every day: avoidance of meat, meat products, fish, eggs, dairy, wine and oil.
Saturdays and Sundays in the Second through Sixth Weeks: Wine and oil are permitted; otherwise the strict fasting rule is kept.
Holy Week: The Thursday evening meal is ideally the last meal taken until Pascha. At this meal, wine and oil are permitted. The Fast of Great and Holy Friday is the strictest fast day of the year: even those who have not kept a strict Lenten fast are strongly urged not to eat on this day. After St. Basil’s Liturgy on Holy Saturday, a little wine and fruit may be taken for sustenance. The fast is sometimes broken on Saturday night after Resurrection Matins, or, at the latest, after the Divine Liturgy on Pascha.
Wine and oil are permitted on several feast days if they fall on a weekday during Lent. Consult your parish calendar. On Annunciation and Palm Sunday, fish is also permitted.
But such rules are always to be practiced under the guidance and counsel of one’s priest or spiritual father, and with an eye toward not damanging one’s health. In fact, the fast is not primarily about food:
The rules given here are of course only one part, the most external part, of a true fast, which will include increased prayer and other spiritual disciplines, and may include resolutions to set aside other aspects of our day-to-day life (such as caffeine or television), or to take up practices such as visiting the sick.
Obviously, many Orthodox do not keep the traditional rule. If you adopt it, beware of pride, and pay no attention to anyone’s fast but your own. As one monastic put it, we must “keep our eyes on our own plates.”
Do not substitute the notion of “deciding what to give up for Lent” for the rule that the Church has given us. First, keep the Church’s fasting rule as well as you are able, then decide on additional disciplines, in consultation with your priest.
We are always advised to fast according to our strength, and you may find from experience that you need to modify the fasting rule to fit your own strength and situation. But do not assume beforehand that the rule is too difficult for you. The Lord is our strength, and can uphold us in marvelous and unforseen ways.
Those who attempt to keep the Church’s traditional fast will find that, though the temptations to pride and legalism are real, the spiritual benefits are great. A return to more diligent fasting could play a large part in the spiritual renewal of our Orthodox churches.