Levels of fasting explained
Every Orthodox Christian is invited to become a good soldier of Jesus Christ. In order to be a good soldier, one must know how to fight according to the rules which Christ established through his Church. As Paul the Apostle said: “Likewise, a competitor does not receive the crown unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Timothy, verse 5). Our fasting is one of the ways we fight the war against the dark forces and the dark side of ourselves. If we want to engage in this battle it is important to know what Christ allows through his Church or does not during certain fasting periods. The goal of today’s blog is to explain the levels of fasting and then to give some very general directives on dietary restrictions in all 4 great fasting periods in the Orthodox Church.
1. No food, no liquid
In the early Church, fasting periods were way shorter than they are nowadays. Although the periods of fasting lasted 7 days or less, every believer was required not to eat or drink anything during those days. This type of fasting is now done mostly in monasteries during the first three days of Great Lent. People who live in the world, if they can, they can also perform this way of fasting during the first three days of Great Lent.
2. Fasting without oil (dry eating)
This way of fasting is nowadays the strictest fasting in the Orthodox Church. This fasting implies that we do not use oil in our food or during preparation of food. This is why this fasting is known in the Serbian Church as “Fasting on water” or “Dry eating” because there is no oil in food. Alcohol is not allowed when fasting without oil.
3. Food with oil
Fasting with oil is what most lay-people do, especially those who work hard. This fasting allows us to eat or prepare food with oil. This way of fasting is considered to be the golden middle for all those who cannot fast stricter but do not want to break the fast. When we fast with oil, alcohol is allowed.
4. Oil and fish
When fasting starts, many people assume that they can just switch from red meat to fish. Fish is only allowed on certain days during fasting periods. Also, eating fish is considered to break the fast in way because fish, although it is not red meat, it is still meat. This is why when we are fasting, eating fish is only allowed when Church blesses fish for big feasts in order for them to be celebrated with festivity.
5. Dairy/eggs and fish
At this point we are not talking about fasting anymore but about dietary restrictions because when we are eating dairy by definition we are not fasting. In all previous levels of fasting, as you noticed, dairy is not allowed. Dairy and fish is considered to be only a monastic tradition because monastics do not eat red meat, therefore they will only eat dairy or fish on certain days for big feasts. Other than that, monastics follow very strict fast and mostly combine fasting explained under numbers 2 and 3 which also include eating food during certain times of the day. The only exception to this is Cheese Week, the week before Great Lent when the church prescribes to fast only from meat. This is used as a way to ease us into what should be the strictest fasting period of the year.
6. Meat and dairy/eggs
Meat and dairy is what breaks the fast for lay-people. What is allowed on this day? I will just say, recall Serbian Easter.
Big fasting periods of the Church and what is allowed
1. Great Lent (Fast before Pascha)
During this fasting period, fasting without oil is recommended Monday through Friday. However, for people living in the world this may be too much, so fasting without oil is often only done on Wednesdays and Fridays. Oil is allowed on Weekends. Fish is not allowed during this fasting period except on two days Palm Sunday and Annunciation. Patriarch Pavle forbade communion on Easter to anyone who eats fish during Lent outside of these two days blessed by the Church. Also, on Holy Saturday, although it is a strict fasting day, wine is allowed.
2. Nativity Fast
During this fast we are allowed to use oil and eat fish every day except Wednesday and Friday. Some people chose to avoid fish in the last few weeks of the fast.
3. Sts. Peter and Paul Fast
This fast we are allowed to use oil in our food on all days but Wednesday and Friday. Fish is permitted on weekends.
4. Dormition Fast
This is the second strictest fast after Great Lent in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Fish is allowed only on Transfiguration during this fast. On other days oil is only permitted on weekends. However, for people in the world, oil is allowed with encouragement from the Church that the faithful fast without oil on Wednesdays and Fridays if possible.
It is important to note that the rules given here do not apply to everyone equally. If people are sick or traveling or have any other issues with keeping the fast properly, it is important to consult with spiritual father to get the blessing for a particular situation. In the same way the fasting is the blessing of the Church, to fast less strict is a blessing of the Church given to us by our spiritual father. If, for health reasons you have to fast less strictly, ask for a blessing and consult with spiritual father.
Please also note that in order to take communion every time it is offered, it is required that we fast Wednesdays and Fridays and every fasting period prescribed by the Church to the best of our ability with occasional confession. If we cannot fast properly, before we approach the chalice, we should talk to our spiritual father and make him aware of the situation and ask for his further instructions.