The Eastern Orthodox Christian Tradition of Fasting

Friday, August 8, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 6:07 p.m. CDT, Friday, August 8, 2008

COLUMBIA - On Aug. 1, approximately 225 million Eastern Orthodox Christians were instructed to begin another season of fasting, the Dormition's Fast. A 15-day fast, it prepares adherents for the Feast of the Dormition, a celebration of the Theotokos or Ever-Virgin Mary, on Aug. 15.

Meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, wine and oil are excluded from the diet, with the exceptions of fish, wine and oil on certain days. There will be no eggs and bacon or milk on cereal for breakfast. No hamburgers or hot dogs for that last summer barbecue. All meals will be simpler with smaller portions, and adherents will walk away from the table slightly hungry.

It sounds difficult, but it is "observed in a positive spirit of spiritual rejoicing," says Father Emmanuel Hatzidakis, priest of St. Luke the Evangelist Greek Orthodox Church in Columbia.

To the Orthodox, the discipline of fasting is just as valuable and relevant today as in the days of antiquity. It is foremost to prepare the believer for Jesus Christ's second coming. In that, it is a time of spiritual growth and refocusing. It renews the health of the soul as one focuses on abstaining from sin and overcoming the passions. And it helps point to areas in a believer's life that aren't dependent on Christ and consistent with his teaching. Other benefits include the facilitation of prayer, increased physical health as toxins are cleansed from the body and identification with the poor.

Origin of the

practice of fasting

The Christian Church inherited its practice from the Jewish religion. But when Jesus came, it acquired new meaning and purpose. The Church changed the first century Jewish fast days from Monday and Thursday, in which Jews fasted for penitential reasons, to Wednesday and Friday as remembrance of Jesus' betrayal and his crucifixion. Fasting, then, was preparation for celebrating the Lord's Resurrection on Sunday.

This weekly celebration became a basic practice to remind and prepare the believer for Christ's second coming.

"The Church wants to prepare us properly, focusing on the event expected, helping us anticipate it with longing and eager anticipation," Hatzidakis said.

Because of this, fasting is an all-year affair. A believer fasts every Wednesday and Friday, unless a feast day takes precedence over the fast, and in accordance with the four fasting seasons: Great Lenten Fast, Nativity Fast, Dormition Fast and the Apostle's Fast, of which the length and severity of the fast depends on the season.

Hatzidakis quotes Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Church, who says, "The intention of the fast is not simply a denial, whether from foods or drinks, which in themselves, obviously, are not the substance of the fast. The purpose of the fast is positive; for it strives to save us from spiritual, as well as physical death and to guide us toward life."

Comparison of Christian religions on fasting

Religion: Catholic

When they Fast: Catholics fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meat on all Fridays in Lent. For many centuries, Catholics were forbidden to eat meat on all Fridays, but since the mid-1960s, abstaining from meat on Fridays outside of Lent has been a matter of local discretion.

How they fast: On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, two small meals and one regular meal are allowed; meat is forbidden. On Fridays in Lent, no meat is allowed. For the optional Friday fast, some people substitute a different penance or special prayer instead of fasting.

Why they fast: Teaches control of fleshly desires, penance for sins, and solidarity with the poor. The Lenten fast prepares the soul for a great feast by practicing austerity. The Good Friday fast commemorates the day Christ suffered.

Religion: Protestant (Evangelical) - Baptist, Assembly of God, Non-denominational

When they fast: At the discretion of individuals, churches, organizations, or communities.

How they fast: Although some people abstain from food or drink entirely, others drink only water or juice, eat only certain foods, skip certain meals or abstain from temptations, edible or not.

Why they fast: Evangelical fasts have become increasingly popular in recent years, with people fasting for spiritual nourishment, solidarity with impoverished people, a counterbalance to modern consumer culture or to petition God for special needs.

Religion: Protestant (Mainline) - Episcopalians, Methodist, Presbyterian

When they fast: Not a major part of the tradition, but fasts can be held at the discretion of communities, churches, other groups and individuals.

How they fast: Discretion of those fasting.

Why they fast: For spiritual improvement or to advance a political or social-justice agenda.


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