The Lenten Fasting Rubrics of the Orthodox Church

(from the Lenten Triodion pg 35)

As practiced since at least the Council of Nicaea in 325, these are the rules for everyone, the target.  When one falls short of the target and misses the mark ( amartia,  the Greek word for sin)  no matter how well justified,  it should be confessed.  Confession is not a time to name the justifications for missing the mark, but to simply acknowledge in what ways we have fallen short.   It is certainly not a time to list our spiritual accomplishments.   Humility tells us, no matter how hard we try; we cannot be perfect in this.  We all make the sign of the cross and do what we can do – our efforts in synergy with God’s grace.

The holy fathers knew that it was God’s holy will that all Christians be of one mind agreeing in all things.  Therefore, they established a rule of fasting that was to a norm and standard for all.   This rule guided the Christians in their fasting while at the same time it united the faithful to one another through obedience to a commonly received discipline.  Adherence to a common rule and discipline helped the faithful to avoid the pitfalls of going off on their own in pride. One need only use his imagination to see what chaos would exist in our community life if the Church had not given us the common rule.  One might be fasting from everything but vegetables, while another might make himself a rule to fast from meat alone, and yet another eat only whole grain. And would there not be great chaos and confusion when the faithful gathered for a common meal (which is a necessity in order to grow a community) only to discover that in reality they did not have a life in common.   So the fathers gave us a common rule so that we might be united one with another in our efforts.



Before Lent

During the week between the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee and the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, there is a general dispensation from all fasting.  Meat and animal products may be eaten even on Wednesday and Friday.

In the following week, often termed the ‘Week of Carnival”, the usual fast [no animal products or olive oil] is kept on Wednesday and Friday.  Otherwise there is no special fasting.

In the Week before Lent, meat is forbidden, but eggs, cheese and other dairy products [and even fish] may be eaten on all days, including Wednesday and Friday.


During Lent

On weekdays (Monday through Friday) during the seven weeks of Lent, there are restrictions both on the number of meals taken, and on the types of food permitted;

On weekdays of the First Week [Clean Week], fasting is particularly severe. According to the strict observance, in the course of the five initial days of Lent, only two meals are eaten, one on Wednesday and the other on Friday, in both cases after the Liturgy of the Presanctified.

On the other three days [ Mon, Tue, Thur], those who have the strength are encouraged to keep an absolute fast; those for whom this proves impracticable [not capable of being carried out] may eat on Tuesday and Thursday (but not, if at all possible, on Monday);  and in that case eating in the evening after the hour of Vespers (~3 pm) when it is permissible to take bread and water, or perhaps tea or fruit juice, but not a cooked meal. It should be added at once that in common practice these rules are commonly relaxed.

At the meals (on Wednesday and Friday) xerophagy is prescribed. Literally this means ‘dry eating’.  Strictly interpreted, it signifies that we may eat only vegetables cooked with water and salt [or grilled without oil, or raw which is particularly healthful] and also such things as fruit, nuts, pickles, bread and honey.  In practice, octopus and shell-fish [but not fish with backbones] are also allowed on days of xerophagy; likewise vegetable margarine and corn, peanut, grapeseed or other vegetable oil, not made from olives.

But the following categories of food are definitely excluded on weekdays in Lent:

Meat; Animal products (cheese, milk, butter, eggs, lard, drippings; Fish (i.e. fish with backbones); Oil (i.e. olive oil) and Wine (i.e. all alcoholic drinks)

On weekdays in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th weeks, one meal a day is permitted, to be taken in the afternoon after [ the hour of ] Vespers [ ~ 3pm ], and at this one meal, xerophagy is to be observed   [ see above ]


Holy Week

  • On the first three days there is one meal each day, with xerophagy; but some try to keep a complete fast on these days,  or else they eat, as on the opening days of the first week [ see a) above ]
  • Holy Thursday – one meal is eaten, with wine and oil ( i.e. olive oil )
  • Great Friday – those who have the strength follow the practice of the early church and keep an absolute fast.  Those who are unable to do this may eat bread, with a little water, fruit juice or tea, but not until sunset, or at any rate not until the veneration of the Epitaphion at Vespers
  • Holy Saturday – there is in principle no meal, since according to the ancient practice after the end of the Liturgy of Saint Basil [ the latest liturgy of the year] the faithful remained in Church for the reading of the Acts of the Apostles, and for their sustenance were given a little bread and dried fruit, with a cup of wine.   If, as usually happens now, they return home for a meal, they may use wine,  but not oil;  for on this one Saturday, alone among the Saturdays of the year, olive oil is not permitted.


The rule of xerophagy is relaxed on the following days:

  1. Saturdays and Sundays of Lent (except Holy Sat) 2 main meals may be taken in the usual way, around mid-day and in the evening, with wine and olive oil; but meat, animal products and fish are not allowed
  2. Feast of the Annunciation and Palm Sunday – fish is permitted as well as wine and olive oil. No fish if Annunciation falls on 1st four days of Holy Week.  No fish or olive oil  (only wine) if on Great Friday or Holy Sat

Wine and Oil are permitted on Feb 24, Mar 9, Mar 24, Mar 26, and Wed /Thur of the 5th Week for the Great Canon ( Mon/Tues this year ]


On Lenten Fasting – Fr. Mark Gilstrap

It has always been held that these rules of fasting should be relaxed in the case of anyone elderly or in poor health, or pregnant or nursing women.

In present day practice even those in good health fail to attain the full strictness of the fast.  [Sadly] Not many today even attempt to keep a total fast on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday of the 1st Week, or on the first three days of Holy Week.   On weekdays – except during the First Week and Holy Week – it is now common to eat two cooked meals instead of one for workers and students.  Many other leniencies have crept in and the de facto rules at modernist churches now barely resemble the actual practice Christians have followed for nearly 2 millennia.   “St Seraphim of Sarov pointedly said, ‘One who does not observe the fasts is not a Christian, no matter what he considers or call himself…’” (St Metropolitan Philaret)

Personal factors need to be taken into account, of course, but weakness and inability may explain, but do not overturn the rules (the target, the standard to which we attempt to accomplish as much as is possible for us).     It is not possible to list all exceptions that might be necessary for any particular individual.  Each of us is unique, but each also has a propensity to not struggle with ourselves.    It is better to know what the standard is,  and then confess when you fall short,  even if it seems to be most obvious why an exception be made (again, do not justify yourself in Confession).   Today, someone may justify breaking the fast in order to “keep up their strength.”   Tomorrow, any struggle at all might seem too much.   So, do not pamper and accommodate, make excuses, or justify yourself.   Simply be honest with yourself and do what you can.    Every time you struggle with yourself, it gets easier and becomes more enriching.

The rules on fasting need to be taken seriously, but they are not to be a legalistic strangle hold that applies to everyone equally.  Make sincere efforts to fulfill all that you can.  It is for your own benefit.   Confess when you fall short, but, again, do not be prideful and think that you should be perfect.   Admit your imperfection, confess, be absolved, and again do your best.

And your best is to prepare for Communion as frequently as is possible.  Do not disregard prayer or fasting, and also expect to be prepared to receive.   Be reasonable.  You must keep the fast in the days prior to communion.  Casually approaching the Body and Blood of Christ is spiritually dangerous.   Spiritually, take advantage of the strictness of the fasting rules in Lent, in order to prepare more readily, and to commune more frequently.

“We hear people claiming that fasting is harmful to health.  But strict fasting is not demanded of ill people, who fast only according to their strength.  Most importantly, one should remember that only those people who themselves do not fast; speak about the “harm to the health” of fasting.  But those who observe fasting will never say this, for they know, through personal experience that not only is fasting not harmful, but it is positively beneficial to bodily health. “  (St Metropolitan Philaret)

A real Christian fast gives believers a great moral satisfaction.  The great teacher of asceticism, Bishop Theophan the Recluse says of fasting: “fasting appears gloomy until one steps into its arena,  but begin and you will see what a light it brings after darkness, what freedom after bonds, what release after a burdensome life…”

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