Friday is the most important day to fast. In Orthodox practice, this includes most Fridays throughout the year (except for the fast free periods such as Paschaltide, the week after Pentecost, 11 days after Christmas, and Publican and Pharisee week, and Cheese week, which is completely fast-free for monks, and no xerophagy for laity even on Fridays). The next most important day to fast is Wednesdays. As St. Isaac says in his 51st homily, if you cannot fast all the day, then at least fast "until evening" (by which he means afternoon, or until after 3pm, when eventide approaches).
Fasting (to always be accompanied by prayer and acts of kindness) is an act of repentance, and repentance (turning to God and away from selfishness and sinful indulgence) is an integral part of Christian life. In order to avoid addictions we should be abstaining from certain things through much of the year. Thus, we have feasts where we indulge, and fasts where we refrain from indulgence.
Drunkenness and Gluttony
Part of the purpose of having days and periods of fasting is to exercise the Spiritual fruit and virtue of Moderation and Temperance, and to avoid the sins of drunkenness and gluttony. Moderate consumption of alcohol is allowed on many days throughout the year, but more than that is drunkenness which is wrong and unhealthy both spiritually and physically, and worse yet, if this is not a one time occurrance but becomes frequent. Likewise, eating or drinking (non-alcoholic beverages such as soda, caffeine, etc.) to fullness on non-fast days is one thing, but to overeat or overdrink, especially if repeatedly, is gluttony.
Wine and Oil? Both wine and oil for many centuries were stored in "wineskins" (as we read in the Bible). It is for this reason that wine and oil on Saturdays and Sundays in Lent was considered to be a partial breaking of the fast to honor the day, since the "meat" leached in to the two liquids. Of course, today, we don't store either wine or oil that way, so the relation of these two things to the fast is different. However, wine also has the quality of alcohol, which certainly we see just for this reason was abstained from on certain days, and thus should still be restricted on all the non-wine days.
Seasons of Repentance (Fasts):
The Great Fast (Great Lent) and Holy Week. The Great Fast is also called the 40 day fast, and includes those days leading up to Holy Week. The purpose of Great Lent and Holy Week are different. Holy Week is dedicated strictly to the Lord. Great Lent is the time reserved for us to make a full examination of conscience and repent of our sins, and go to make a full confession before God. Some people like to wait to go to confession until Holy Week, but this is not right. The "big" confession should always take place during Great Lent. If, for some reason, we find a need to go during Holy Week, it should only be AFTER we have done a full confession some time during Great Lent.
The Fast in Preparation for Nativity (generally 40 days, but goes strictest 4 days before Nativity). This is known as a "lesser" fast as it is less strict, except for the 4 days before Nativity itself.
The Dormition Fast (two weeks)
The Apostles' Fast (varies)
Orthodox Christians should do their best to fast on most Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year, with the exception of festal (fast-free) periods, such as after Nativity, after Pascha, after Pentecost, etc.
The strictest observance would have a 24 hour period where one abstains from wine/alcohol, as well as meat, eggs, cheese, and even fish.
Less strict observances would be:
1. Fast from all these things until at least 3pm (the biblical 9th hour of the day) on Wednesdays and Fridays (St. Isaac said that if you cannot fast the whole day, then fast until at least the afternoon).
2. Fast from meat and alcohol for 24 hours on Wednesdays and Fridays
3. Fast from meat until 3pm on Fridays (while Christ hung on the cross) and until at least noon on Wednesdays (so that you fast at least over half a day in some sense).
The Christian family should at least try to eat one fasting meal together during the week (except for fast-free weeks). Christ did not say "if you fast" but rather "when you fast".
While the most common practice today is to fast from midnight to midnight, an equally ancient practice is to do so from evening to evening (in some ancient monasteries it was from 3pm to 3pm, or from 6pm/sundown to 6pm/sundown).
On no Sundays or Saturdays (except Great and Holy Saturday) do we fast into the afternoon, but always break fast in morning after Liturgy, Liturgy always concludes in the morning on these days (which is why they are called non-fast days, with reference to the fact that we do not abstain from food altogether into the afternoon, but break fast in the morning, but on mornings where there is Communion, having Communion be the first thing we eat).
Guidelines for Great Lent
Let us strive to do the following during the period of Great Lent and Holy Week:
- Pray more, spend more quality time with family interacting, praying together, talking about the faith, readings books or listening to more things on faith (such as on the bottom of the home page of the www.orthodoxchristianed.org).
- Prepare for and go to confession at least once during Great Lent or Holy Week. For preparation see examination of conscience on our website www.holyorthodox.org.
- Practical Approach to Fasting during Lent and Holy Week. Many want to fast, but cannot do the strictest levels of fasting for various reasons. Do not “just give up” and do nothing! The following is a plan so that you can still fast with some continuity throughout Lent and Holy Week: a. Give up at least one type of meat (beef, bacon, ham, sausage, etc.) throughout the whole period, and all meat on Fridays. If you are able to go a little stricter, give up a whole meat group (Beef, Pork, etc., are good examples, or even all mammal meat, since mammals are closest to humans), and all meat on Fridays. b. At least one type of food from “dairy” group (cheese, chocolate, ice cream, eggs or egg yolks, etc.). Try to pick one that you may find indulgent or may have an addictive drive toward. On Fridays fast from eggs and cheese at least until evening (until after Presanctified certainly). c. Hard liquor throughout all of Lent, and all other alcohol Monday-Friday. A small amount of wine/beer is allowed on Saturday (except Holy Saturday) and Sunday (except for those addicted to alcohol, who should abstain from all alcohol anyway). d. On Fridays say this prayer: “Lord, who on this day suffered on the cross that all human beings might be drawn to You, accept my fast, and increase in me virtue and love for your commandments, and teach me how to love. Amen.”
- During Holy Week, try to fast as strictly as possible, but especially from Thursday evening after supper until Saturday night.
- Abstain completely from some habit or pastime that has you in its grip or is not spiritually profitable (video games, some form of social media, etc.), and instead do things to help your neighborhood, projects that you have let sit around the house, look to help out a church, etc.
- Go to Church more often, be engaged in the prayers at Liturgy, praying from the heart, realizing we are working together with God offering the sacrificial Liturgy for the life of the world.
- For Presanctified Liturgy, to Commune, fast from all meat, eat no full meals during the day (only collations or mini-meals), and abstain from all food for at least 4 hours prior to Communion (Communion usually comes about 50 minutes into the Presanctified Liturgy). Try to delay eating in the morning beyond the usual time. If Presanctified Liturgy starts at say 7pm, communion would be about 7:50pm. Count back at least 4 hours from that (start abstaining from food around 3:50pm). Obviously if a person gets sick or has some sort of health requirement where they need to eat, they should do so, and may still commune.
Exceptions to particular fasting rules: Orthodox Christians must always fast in ways that are not a detriment to one’s health (to do things that harm the body goes contrary to the faith). Particular fasting disciplines are relaxed, when necessary, when one is travelling or ill. Also, when receiving the hospitality of others (if someone invites you to dinner, for example, go and receive with thanksgiving what is set before you). For those who live in households where not everyone is Orthodox, for example, modifications will need to be made for everyone to be able to eat as a family. If you have not already, consult the priest and maybe make a good fasting plan that works for you. For those who have special health needs, for example diabetes, modifications need made to fasting rules. In such a case, fasting from all foods that are unhealthy may be your form of fast. Likewise, those who take medications that require a certain pattern of eating should do so as needed. In general, the words of St. Isaac of Syria are pertinent for exceptions, where he states: “If you cannot fast for two days in a row completely, at least fast until evening. And if you cannot fast until evening, then at least keep yourself from eating too much.” (Homily 51).