Western Orthodox Observance
In any discussion of fasting within the universal Church, one must be aware that until very recent times uniformity of practice has never prevailed in east or west. Perhaps more than any other aspect of church observance – with the possible exception of local calendars of saints – fasting observances have varied considerably from place to place, diocese to diocese, rite to rite, country to country. What has always been maintained, however, is the importance of the principle of fasting at certain times and seasons. Only in Protestantism, modern Roman Catholicism, and even in some modernist Orthodox jurisdictions, have the discipline and wisdom of fasting been abandoned or lost.
The discipline of fasting and abstinence set forth here reflects that of the western-rite Orthodox monastic community of Christ the Saviour, as received originally into the Russian Orthodox Church, later into the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, and now (as of May 2007) in the united Russian Orthodox Church.
Fasting and abstinence should always be reverently and prayerfully observed and should never become the occasion for any kind of Pharisaical judgments or of self-righteous comparisons with those who may be less observant. Indeed, as our Lord has told us, our fasting and abstinence should be observed in such a way that no one will think to compliment it or comment on it. Our observance must be permeated with charity and humility, done out of love for God and sorrow for our sins, and should never be a source of contention or pride.
Fasting, as distinguished from abstinence, refers to the amount of food eaten and to the time of day at which meals are taken. Its essential principle is that on a fast day, only one full meal may be eaten, and this should be eaten later in the day after 3:00 PM, i.e., after the canonical hour of None. Unless the fast day is also a day of abstinence, no particular restriction is made in regard to the quantity or nature of the food or drink, moderation always being a reliable guide. For those working who may require more, traditionally a light, meatless collation may be taken at any other time of day (even before 3:00 PM if necessary), its quantity amounting to less than half of what would constitute the main meal of the day. Apart from this, no food should be eaten on a fast day.
Water does not break the fast.
Fasting is absolutely forbidden on all Sundays, Solemnities and Greater Feasts. Additionally, only abstinence may be observed on Saturdays in fasting seasons.
Throughout the year, except in Lent when Mondays are also observed, Wednesdays and Fridays are days of fast and abstinence, unless a Solemnity or Greater Feast should occur on one of these days. In the fast-free seasons after Christmas and between Easter and Pentecost, fasting is not observed, but abstinence is still observed on Wednesdays and Fridays. Thus, all Wednesdays and Fridays of the year, unless they are also Solemnities or Greater Feasts, and outside of fast-free times, are also days of fasting.
Because Solemnities and Greater Feasts always begin with First Vespers the evening before the feast, any fast must conclude before the feast begins, i.e., before Vespers. Thus, fasts conclude after the office of None (3:00 PM) each day, so that no fasting occurs on a solemn feast day.
Abstinence, as distinguished from fasting, consists of refraining entirely from eating meat or poultry and gravies, soups or sauces made from meat or poultry. On days of abstinence, fish and dairy products are always permitted. Alcoholic beverages are prohibited, but wine and beer, where customary, are allowed.
Abstinence applies to any and all food taken on a particular day.
Unlike fasting, which by its nature ends when one eats, abstinence generally lasts from midnight to midnight. But on Saturdays, or on the eve of Solemnities or Greater Feasts, the abstinence ends with Vespers. Thus on a normal Saturday in Lent, while it is not a day of fast, thus permitting meals earlier in the day, these meals must be meatless at least until the evening meal is taken. Thus evening meals on Lenten Saturdays ought not to be eaten until after Vespers when liturgically the Sunday has already begun. For those who do not attend Vespers, the Sunday observance may be considered as beginning at 5:00 PM.
Lent and Advent
The Lenten observance begins on the morning of Ash Wednesday.
In Lent, all days except Saturdays and Sundays (or Solemnities and Greater Feasts) are days of fast on which one main meal may be taken after 3:00 PM, and, if needed, one other small meatless collation.
Additionally in Lent, apart from Solemnities and Greater Feasts, all Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are days of abstinence, on which no meat or poultry may be eaten.
Only on the Ember Saturday during the first week of Lent, as a special observance, is fasting added to the usual Saturday Lenten abstinence, ending, as usual, after None.
During the Sacred Triduum of Holy Week – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday – the Lenten observance continues as usual; but on Thursday and Friday, no food is taken until after the celebration of the afternoon or evening Liturgy of each day. On Holy Saturday, because no Liturgy will be celebrated until the night service of the Great Vigil, a single meatless meal may be eaten before noontime. The Lenten fast ends with the Great Vigil and Mass of Easter. The Advent observance begins on the Monday following the First Sunday of Advent, which is always the Sunday occurring nearest to the feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle (30 November). Its observance is identical to that of Lent, except that for the first two weeks of Advent, Mondays are days of fast only, without abstinence. In the third and fourth weeks of Advent, Monday abstinence is added to the observance. The Advent Ember Saturday is observed as in Lent, with fasting and abstinence observed until after None. The Advent observance ends with the beginning of First Vespers on the eve of the Nativity.
Ember Days and Rogation Days
The Ember Days are of ancient origin and occur four times a year at the changes of the seasons, on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the following weeks: the first full week of Lent after the first Sunday of Lent; the week following the octave of Pentecost; after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (14 September); after the feast of Saint Lucy (13 December). Ember Days are observed with fast and abstinence. Traditionally, almsgiving also should mark these times.
The Rogation Days, which are the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Thursday, are observed with abstinence only, as these occur within the fast-free season of Eastertide. These days are dedicated to prayer for those being ordained to Holy Orders.
Fasting is observed on the Vigils (i.e., the day preceding) of certain major feasts, ending before First Vespers. These vigils are observed for the following: all feasts of Apostles and Evangelists, Christmas (24 December), St. John Baptist (23 June), St. Lawrence (9 August), Assumption (14 August), All Saints (31 October). If these Vigils fall on a Sunday, the observance, unless impeded by a Solemnity or Feast, is moved back to Saturday and is observed with abstinence (fasting not being observed on Saturdays apart from Embertides).
Vigils of Apostles that occur during Eastertide are observed with abstinence instead of fasting. Thus no meat may be eaten until after First Vespers on these days.
Fasting is not observed throughout the season from Christmas through Epiphany and its Octave, or from Easter to the end of the Pentecost Octave. Abstinence, however, is observed as usual on Wednesdays and Fridays during these seasons unless a Solemnity or Greater Feast should occur.
The Communion Fast
For those receiving Holy Communion, no food or drink is permitted from the preceding midnight until after Mass. In those instances where, for pastoral reason, Mass may be celebrated in the evening, those wishing to receive Holy Communion must fast from noontime at least, if they are unable to fast entirely from the preceding midnight. The only exceptions to this are Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, when all are obliged to fast until after the evening Liturgies whether receiving Holy Communion or not.
Special fasts may be observed on the occasions of Baptism, Confirmation, Ordinations and similar circumstances as ordered by the Bishop or Abbot. Private fasts observed for personal reasons may be permitted so long as they do not violate the regular fasts as set forth here. In such cases, the person should always act under the guidance and with the blessing of his confessor or spiritual father. Similarly, anyone who may require an exemption from any prescribed fast or abstinence may ask a confessor for such permission. Exemption may be legitimately presumed for those who are physically weak, sick, very old, very young, or in any reasonable necessity. Children should be gradually educated and trained in fasting and can be taught abstinence from an early age.