It is commonly asserted in articles, sermons, and even cookbooks that the fasting traditions of the Orthodox Church are set forth in the Sacred and Divine Canons. In the way that this is generally intended it is not quite so. Certainly the sacred canons do indeed mention fasting, but just as certainly not in the detail usually set forth and attributed to them. This has allowed for some diversity in local tradition and development through the ages and into modern times, even though those asserting the authority of the canons are also usually asserting a monolithic, single tradition.
The importance of Fasting to the spiritual life of the Church can hardly be overstated. In this all local traditions are unanimous, not only throughout the geographic world, but also throughout history. The holy Fathers of the Studion Monastery in Constantinople wrote in the Triodion, the hymn book for the Byzantine rite during Great Lent:
“When we choose to observe the Fast, we always profit from it. For the devils dare not attack us when we fast, and the guardian angels that protect our life stand at our side with greater eagerness when we are cleansed by fasting.”
St. Leo the Great writes:
“What can be more powerful than a fast? By its observance we draw near to God, and withstanding the devil, we conquer our alluring sins. For Fasting has ever been the nourishment of virtue. From abstinence indeed proceed pure thoughts, prudent wishes, more healthful counsels: and through voluntary afflictions, the flesh dies to its concupiscences, and the spirit is renewed in virtue.”
One could multiply quotations from many, many Church Fathers such as Isidore of Seville, Isaac of Syria, Benedict of Nursia, Gregory the Great, Seraphim of Sarov and Herman of Alaska; from the Gospel, to the Apostolic teachings, to modern day Spirit filled elders, and find certain and complete agreement that Fasting is fundamental to Christian life and experience. Even though this is an Orthodox treatment of the subject, I am going to allow myself this one quote from the separated West if only to show how solidly pervasive this assurance has been throughout all Christendom.
The Roman Pope Benedict XIV published the following in 1741. He speaks specifically of Great Lent, but his observations can surely be understood more broadly.
“The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the Cross of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness; for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be detrimental to God’s Glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity and of private woe.”
It appears that from the beginning there was no distinction between Fasting and Abstinence. On those days when one fasts, no food at all was taken before sundown. This practice seems certainly to have been inherited from the Jewish observances of the first century. The Day of Atonement was kept as a fast day by biblical commandment. Mondays and Thursdays were also kept each week as fasting days. The Christian community moved the fasting days to Wednesday and Friday each week to differentiate from the Jewish community; and Holy Saturday as a preparation for Pascha. The Fast of Holy Saturday was soon lengthened to include all of Holy Week. Eventually (4th cent?), the pre-baptismal fast for the catechumens and the receiving community influenced the establishment of the Great Lenten Fast. Canon 69 of the 85 Canons of the 12 Holy Apostles gives the Fast of Great Lent and Wednesday and Friday of each week canonical force. It was reinforced by the 6th Ecumenical Council and the local Council of Laodicea. This, then, is the beginning of the Fasting tradition in the Church, and also the extent of the Canonical references to the fasting times as well. All other references to the fasting times in the Byzantine tradition are found in the writings of various Bishops, are oblique rather than direct, and lack any detail or precision. In the West, however, there are various local synods which treat of the Fasting tradition, as well as references by individuals.
On these days of fasting, the Christian community partook of food only at sundown, and then, only bread and water. This is called in Greek “xerography” or “dry eating” probably since in some places the bread was stale or dried to preserve it. Very soon other vegetable dishes and fruit were added to the measure of bread and were still considered xerography. This seems to be the standard both East and West nearly to the present day.
By the 9th century, the one meal a day was generally taken in late afternoon, before Vespers, even as early as 3:00 PM. In the West, from the 9th century through the 13th, we see regular references to breaking the fast at the 9th hour, or 3:00 PM. The Holy Rule of St. Benedict makes provision for the daily meal to be taken at 12:00 Noon when the monks are working or the weather is unusually hot. At the end of the 13th century in the West, the idea became current that the one meal a day could be taken at noon, followed in the evening by a light snack. This shows up as early as the 9th century in France, but did not immediately become widespread. The East does not seem to have officially made any statements regarding such a practice.
In the 9th century, also, in Germany and Northern Europe, not including France, we see the introduction of milk and dairy foods during Great Lent. This is quite a new thing, especially in an undivided Christendom. Canon 56 of the 6th Ecumenical Council (AD 692) specifies that besides eating only once a day during Great Lent, we, “The Church of God throughout the inhabited earth should follow one rule and keep the fast perfectly, and as they abstain from everything
which is killed, so also should they from eggs and cheese, which are the fruit and produce of those animals from which we abstain.” This is the only Canonical reference to what may not be eaten during Great Lent. It is extraordinary that Northern Europe should be afforded such an exemption from the universally received norm. It seems to coincide with the Evangelization and Christianization of these areas, more precisely with the time of Ss. Cyril and Methodius.
Outside of Wednesdays and Fridays during the year and the Great Fast, which are absolutely universal, the various local Churches have received or developed other periods and days of fasting. In the West, the Fasts of the Four Seasons (Quatuor Temporum) are considered of Apostolic origin in the writings of St. Leo of Rome and St. Isidore of Seville. Originally observed on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the Third week of Advent in December, the first week of March, The second week of June, and after the 14th of September. The Roman Pope Gregory VII in the latter half of the 11th century changed the March observance to the first week of Lent, and the June observance to the week following Pentecost. The Fathers understood these fasts to sanctify the four seasons of the year. It had been an ancient custom in the West to schedule almost all ordinations on the Saturdays of these fasts, and most especially in December.
Also in the West we see the appearance of the Rogation Days, or Lesser Litanies. These were instituted at first in Vienne in France by the Bishop St. Mamertus (c. 475 AD) in order to beseech God to lighten the sufferings of the people who had just been conquered by the Burgundians and were also experiencing a host of calamities. The fasting was to accompany processions and prayers during the three days preceding the Ascension of the Lord. They became an important institution in all of France, spreading throughout Europe and adopted by Rome around the year 800 AD. In France and Europe these were days of fasting and abstinence, but in Rome were days of abstinence only. They are specifically mentioned in the American Prayer Book of 1892 of the Protestant Episcopal Church as “Days of Fasting on which the Church requires such a measure of abstinence as is more especially suited to extraordinary acts and exercises of devotion” along with Great Lent, the Ember days, and Fridays. It is extraordinary indeed to realize that as late as the turn of the 20th century, Protestants in America were still observing seasons and days of fasting and abstinence, so deeply had these observances penetrated the souls and culture of the people.
In the East and West together there developed the Fast of the Nativity, or Advent. In the West, the first references to this period begin around 480 with St. Perpetuus of Tours decreeing fasting on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from St. Martin (Nov. 11) until Christmas. The council of Mâcon in 582 also specified the same. It became known as St. Martin’s Lent, and by 753 had extended to Italy, covering all of Europe. In the 9th century, Pope Nicholas in a letter to the newly converting Bulgarians only mentioned 4 weeks of Advent. In the 11th and 12th century the fast was reduced to only abstinence in many places, however in Rome and France the 4 weeks were still observed with fasting on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. In the East, Patriarch Anastasios the Sinaite, Patriarch of Antioch twice in the late 6th century mentions the 40 day Nativity Fast, as does St. Nicephorus, Patriarch of Constantinople in the early 9th century, and other writers through the 11th century. This same St. Nicephorus, in his mention of the Nativity fast states that monks engaged in work may eat twice a day, after the 6th and 9th hour (12:00 noon and 3:00), while monks “sitting in a monastery” need eat only once a day in the evening during this fast. It is a well established custom in the East, although the details vary from place to place, of allowing fish, wine, and oil at the meals during all or part of this period.
Patriarch Anastasios of Antioch (6th cent) also mentions in his letter a fast from Pentecost until
Dormition (The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin). He counts this period to be about equal to the Nativity Fast and Great Lent. In fact it can be considerably longer when Easter is early. An 11th century council in Constantinople, answering a selection of questions, stated that the Fast of August used to be earlier, but was afterward shifted. St. Nicephorus of Constantinople (9th cent) mentions the Fast of the Holy Apostles (from the week after Pentecost until the feast of the Holy Apostles, June 29), which confirms that by his time in Constantinople, the Summer Fast had been split in two and the month of July excerpted from it. Theodore Balsamon, Patriarch of Constantinople (12th cent) and expert on Eastern Canon Law, wrote a good deal on the August fast, and could find no certain origin of the present custom. St. Nicephorus states that like the Nativity fast, during the Apostles’ fast, monks that work may eat twice a day. Accordingly, the prevailing custom in the East allows fish, wine, and oil during this fast as well.
We see that the development of fasting periods following that of Great Lent was very much a regional phenomenon. The Ecumenical councils chose not to deal with any of it except for Wednesdays, Fridays, and Great Lent. These alone were considered of universal precept. That others existed and may develop seems implicit in the Greek use of “The Great Fast” as opposed to others. In the West, a number of fasting vigils also appeared immediately preceding important Feast days such as Christmas and many of the Great Feasts, and those of each of the 12 Apostles and certain great Saints. In the non-Byzantine East, that is among the Armenians and Syrians, other and different fasts were received or were developed. The Armenians observe 10 separate weeks of fasting other than Great Lent, each of 5 or 6 days. The Syrians also observe a good collection of weeks of prayer and fasting. They, like the Armenians, strictly observe the “Ninevah Fast” which falls twenty days before Great Lent.
It is important to note the one major divergence between the Byzantine East and the West. Canon 66 of the Holy Apostles forbids fasting on any Saturday except Holy Saturday. It appears that the Western Church probably only received 50 of these canons as authoritative, and then only from time to time. In the East, the Council in Trullo, (692) affirmed the Apostolic canons, as well as the canonical writings of several holy Fathers. This council, summoned by Emperor Justinian II, was intended to be a continuation of the 6th Ecumenical council which had not made any canons. It was 11 years later, however, and the West was not, in fact, present by representation at it. When the results were sent to Pope Sergius, he refused to sign them, calling them invalid and saying that they contained novel errors. In the 9th century, Pope John VIII accepted all those canons which did not contradict the true faith, good morals, and the decrees of Rome. Thus Canon 55 of Trullo which re-affirms 66 of the Holy Apostles was also never really accepted by the Church of Rome. Not because they were specifically against the fasting tradition which Rome had received from the Holy Apostles themselves, but because neither collection of canons was received at all. This apparently did not harm relations between the two Churches, however, being mentioned only whenever other problems caused bitter polemical statements to be made.
These traditions and customs remained fairly stable in both Churches through perhaps the mid-19th century. Dom Prosper Guéranger, writing in the mid 19th century, remarks that the Roman Church had recently promulgated a new code with the following provisions: All the week days of Lent, the Ember Days and some vigils are days of fasting, but meat is allowed at the full meal except on Wednesdays and Fridays and the Ember Days in Lent. This is the greatest application of the fairly novel idea that fasting be specifically separated from abstinence in the West. It seems that this is the form followed by the first parishes and diocese accepted into the Orthodox Church from the West
in the late 19th century and the early 20th. It appears that there was no mention of the fasting customs East or West when the Holy Synod of Moscow in 1870 and 1904 accepted the liturgical life of the Western rite. In 1904, it should surely have received some notice, since the 1892 Prayer Book specifically lists fasting and abstinence days following the received Western tradition, including: Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, the 40 days of Lent, the Ember days, the Rogation days, and all Fridays.
During this time, in the East, the received tradition was also undergoing some popular modification. While the Canonical and Patristic tradition is unanimous in insisting on only one meal on fasting days, more and more, the people were adding meals while maintaining the abstinence. This is almost the opposite of what was occurring in the West. At the beginning of the 20th century, probably most Orthodox would not eat anything until after noon on fasting days. (Perhaps that notice by St. Nikephoros about monks at work has been broadened to include even Great Lent and Wednesdays and Fridays.) One still, occasionally meets people from overseas who follow this custom, but it is increasingly rare. Those who consider themselves observant, and who “keep” the fasts occupy themselves mostly with the details of the abstinence rather than the fasting. There are those who “read the ingredients” printed on packages to make sure that they are “Lenten”, and those who deride them for such rigor, but who themselves try to observe the custom of abstinence. Most of the faithful seem never to have heard or read anywhere that it is the received custom of the Church to fast, not just abstain.
So within our own Archdiocese we have these two interesting opposite developments. There are those who eat only once on fasting days during Lent, but who sometimes eat meat during their one meal. There are those who abstain completely from meat during all of Lent, but eat 3 meals a day. Some fast on the very days that others are “fast-free.” Both consider themselves to be observant. Both are faithfully observing the tradition as they have received it. Both consider themselves to be sacrificing and mortifying themselves somewhat. Both could easily be scandalized at the other’s obvious disregard for observance. Is it spiritually profitable to debate which half of a devotional practice is more traditional or more “correct”? One is reminded of St. Paul’s admonition which is read by the Byzantines on Meat Fare Sunday (Sexagesima): “Ye brethren: Meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.” Or of Isaiah in the Lesson read on the Friday after Ash Wednesday in the Western tradition: “Behold ye fast for strife and debate.” Surely we must fast. It is commanded by Christ Himself who said “When ye fast” not “If ye fast”. It is commended by almost every Church Father, Doctor, and Spiritual writer. It is commanded by the canons, and is a foundational part of the received Tradition of the Church. Every discussion on how we fast, however, and even when we fast, must be situated in a context of mutual love, respect, and Christian charity.
Another consideration is the role of humility, obedience, and community feeling. When I was in seminary, the authorities determined how we would keep the fasts. We were told outright and clearly that we were to follow the rule of the community, not develop rules of our own. Maybe there were those who wished to keep a more rigorous fast (actually abstinence), and those who had never attempted anything so rigorous before. We were told to encourage each other and support each other. We were told absolutely not to singularize ourselves in any way, as this would draw upon us and leave us open to the attacks of the evil ones. To consider ourselves above or beyond the community as a whole would be an expression of pride, arrogance, or vainglory; and there are no sins more heinous or more dangerous than these. There were members of our community whose Church followed the Western Paschalia; their Lent one year was ahead of ours by over a month. We prepared and served two separate sets of meals both during their Lent and during our own. How difficult for them during their Holy Week. How difficult for us during our Holy Week. Our support and love for each other made it an extraordinary experience of Christ’s presence in our community. We were taught explicitly and implicitly that a Christian does not and can not exist alone, but only in community. We are saved not as individuals, but as a community; and we must work out our salvation in the context of our community.
Our Archdiocese is our community. We have faithful of two ancient and important Orthodox Christian Traditions. We can live, serve, and worship as one while respecting and encouraging each other across our Traditions. We should be careful, each year, each fasting period, to ask the advice of our spiritual father about how we may observe this fast. Such a discussion must take into account the context of our own Archdiocese on this continent at this time. It should also take into account our own situation: parish community, regional diocese, rite, family situation, health, and age. On those occasions at which we fellowship together, we must agree on how our hospitality and love will take expression. Sometimes an individual or small group from one Tradition may want to follow the Tradition of a larger host group. Sometimes in larger or more formal gatherings both Traditions may be accommodated. Sometimes when two communities come together frequently enough, even though one may be small, both Traditions need to be accommodated so that one does not lose its identity.
If we love one another nothing will be a problem. If we do not love one another nothing is of any value.
I Cor. 13.
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