Fasting in the Orthodox Church

Bishop Maxim shared with me a blog entitled “Notes From the Council” [here]which, unfortunately, (for the purpose of me sharing the posts here) is mainly in Serbian. It is authored by His Grace (from what I gather). I wish more was in English but the following is a post I can share here regarding fasting:

The way we fast nowadays (when we only eat certain types of food and avoid others) has annulled all other kinds of fasting, which are found in the tradition of fasting and which demonstrate the creative nature of Christian fasting (for example, in our tradition we find: 1. complete abstinence from eating, 2. fasting until mid-afternoon, 3. eating less in order to save money for charity, or 4. abstaining not from food, but from favorite activities, etc.). What mattered was the reason for fasting, not the duration, which was directly dependent on that reason. Also, the real meaning of fasting lied not in the type of food, but on abstinence. But unfortunately, very often, delicious and luxurious dishes are welcomed by our Church as fasting food, provided they do not contain prohibited ingredients. In that way the Church enables rich Christians to be good Christians, who can fast for months using different types of very expensive food; while poor Christians become bad Christians because sometimes they take some cheese or eggs, if they cannot afford to eat Lenten foods for more than six months every year, or only two or three types of food that they can afford.

Another quandary for our Church’s actual understanding of fasting are vegetarians and vegans. What shall the Church do with vast number of vegetarians and vegans who do not eat meat anyway? According to Church rules concerning fasting, such people already fast all the time. So, our current understanding of fasting deprives them of the possibility to be, from time to time, engaged in the common enterprise of the Church, because the Church already sees them as fasting from particular foods all the time.

Also, fasting as we now understand it, with the fasting periods on which the Church insists (which is more than half a year),on the one hand, is not really possible for many categories of Christians (for example: the old and the sick), who, on the other hand, being Christians, want to fulfill the commandments of their Church. As such we create an inner conflict in these people without reason.

Furthermore, our Typikon is not in accordance with our fasting regulations. Let me take only one example: the Feast of Transfiguration of the Savior (6 August). One important aspect of the meaning of this feast is that it represents a sign of the final resurrection of all. But the way we practice fasting on that day (only fish is allowed, but not meat, cheese or eggs) contradicts not only the meaning of the feast, but also the principle that the feasts of Christ cannot be “subordinated” to other feasts. As you know, it was the Byzantine emperor Leo VI the Wise (886–912) who abolished the festal character of the Transfiguration feast, banned meat, which was formerly allowed on this feast, and joined its five fasting days with the Dormition Fast. Yet we know that even after one century some continued to celebrate the Transfiguration properly, as a non-fasting day. Why wouldn’t we do this today?

Moreover, it is of special importance that, as late as in the 12th century, the Byzantine canonist Theodor Balsamon insisted that only the fasts of Wednesday, Friday, and the Great Lent were the obligatory ones, established by the Holy Canons, whereas all the others were not obligatory. Therefore, the history of our Church shows that multiplying and extending the fasting periods has never been a unanimous and unquestionable practice. Long fasting equally as “long prayers” are not necessarily a token of piety; they may well be reason enough for condemnation (suffice it to compare Christ’s words in the Gospel of Mark 12:40; and Luke 20:47).

Thank you for your attention.

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