Is Fasting Optional?
Some ‘Orthodox’ Christians say that fasting is optional, but there can be no genuine Orthodoxy without asceticism (lit. ‘training’) carried out in accordance with the traditions of the Church. St. Paul mentions this necessary discipline in his First Letter to the Corinthians: ‘I discipline my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified’ (1. Cor. 9:27).
Fasting is part of the ascetical life of the Church which we are called by Christ to live when He says: ‘If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me’ (Luke 9:23).
The Roman Catholic Church dropped compulsory fasting many decades ago and the Catholic development of a personal, optional approach to fasting could well have influenced some within Orthodoxy. It is certainly much easier to choose what to give up and when!
Most modern Protestants reject fasting because they believe that keeping the Gospel commandments is unnecessary because they are saved already. This form of Protestantism is often called ‘easy-believism’. Serious Protestants, on the other hand, reject fasting because they believe that the good works that they perform are indicators of their salvation, rather than being necessary for salvation.
The Orthodox Church rejects both the Protestant idea that works are not needed, and the Roman Catholic belief in created grace and earning merits by works. For us, fasting is part of our training in the spiritual life. The fasts ordained by the Church are not optional because asceticism is part of being Orthodox.
Anyone who opposes the idea of fasting cannot be Orthodox in belief. There are many examples of fasting in the Old Testament. Moses fasted when he received the tablets of stone (Deut. 9:9); John the Baptist was sustained in the wilderness by honey and wild shoots (Matt. 3:4). The example of the Prophetess Anna is mentioned in the Gospel of Saint Luke:
Now there was one, Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, and had lived with a husband seven years from her virginity; and this woman was a widow of about eighty-four years, who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fasting and prayer night and day (Luke 2: 36-37).
Optional fasting was heavily promoted in the 1990s by some modernist Orthodox dioceses in an effort to make Orthodoxy more attractive to Protestants. Today, fasting is an unknown concept to many New Calendar Greeks both in Greece and abroad. The Church of Antioch has even abolished all fasting from Pascha to Pentecost.
Dispensing with the fasting traditions of the Church using so-called ‘historical’ evidence sets a dangerous precedent. Tradition is not about rejecting the new in favour of the old. We value fasting because it is part of the living tradition of the Church as much as the Creed, the Lives of the Saints and Scripture.
We have already mentioned that Protestants object to fasting. These arguments are based on a faulty interpretation of Scripture. The following verses from the First Epistle of Saint Paul to Timothy are commonly referred to:
They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth? For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer (1. Tim. 4: 3-5).
In the above passage, the Apostle Paul is talking about certain heretics called Gnostics who regarded marriage and eating meat as intrinsically evil. Saint Ignatius of Antioch (first century) describes the teachings of one Gnostic leader: ‘Followers of Saturninus of Antioch believe marriage and generation are from Satan. Many of Saturninus’ disciples also abstain from eating meat and lead many astray because of their pretended self-control.’
The third century Manichaean sect promoted vegetarianism because they believed that avoiding meat eating could heighten spiritual powers and lead to union with God. We can see echoes of this today in various New Age influenced food fads and diets.
The Orthodox Church has never taught that marriage or eating meat is sinful. To avoid any association with the Gnostic and Manichaean heresies, Orthodox lay people cannot be vegetarians or vegans. Even monks and nuns are not vegetarians in the western sense because they don’t despise eating meat; they give up eating meat as part of their monastic struggle.
The first century Didache instructs Christians to fast on Wednesday and Friday. The fasting practiced by Orthodox Christians is therefore a very ancient practice indeed and one recommended by Christ:
And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour. Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out? And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting (Matt. 17:18-21).
Some Protestants refer to Matthew 9:14 when they promote the idea the fasting is not Scriptural: ‘Then came to him the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples fast not?’
However, this verse cannot be taken on its own without considering the next verse: ‘And Jesus said unto them, can the friends of the Bridegroom mourn, as long as the Bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the Bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast’ (Matt. 9:15).
The disciples did not obey the Jewish rules concerning fasting because Christ was still with them in the Body. After the Resurrection, as the Scriptural quote above makes clear, they fasted. That the Apostles continued their practice of prayer and fasting is made clear in Acts of the Apostles:
And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and to Antioch: Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith: and that through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God. And when they had ordained to them priests in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, in whom they believed (Acts 14:21-23).
Fasting can also mean a complete abstinence from food and drink. Some Protestants take as their example Christ’s time in the wilderness in which he ate nothing for forty days (Luke 4:1). In the Orthodox Church we fast like this before receiving the Mystical Bread of the Eucharist by abstaining from earthly bread by recalling the words of Christ: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone’ (Luke 4:4).
Some Protestants try to keep a complete forty day fast when the mood takes them, but this is unknown in Orthodoxy. We don’t fast when we like; we fast when the Church says and according to the tradition of the Orthodox Church.
Having said that, there are a number of local variations in fasting. For example, the Slavic Churches do not permit seafood on fast days, but the Greek Church does. Slavic Churches, on the other hand, permit fish more often on fast days outside Great Lent. In Greek monasteries, Monday is also kept as a fast day but most Russian monasteries do not keep this particular tradition.
There are also a number of different practices concerning food fasting before receiving Holy Communion. Some people keep a strict vegan fast for three days before, some people for the day before. In some parishes, there is no extra fasting for receiving Holy Communion, but all the appointed fast days of the week must have been kept strictly. In all these circumstances, we need to recall the words of Saint Paul: