In my last post, I mentioned that Orthodox enter Lent with Forgiveness Vespers, not on Ash Wednesday. In this post, I thought I’d mention another way in which Orthodox Christianity differs from the various forms of Western Christianity.
Most Christians no longer have a real fast during Lent. Roman Catholics, of course, are to restrict their meat to fish on Friday but that’s relatively light and most Protestants do not fast at all during Lent (though some will voluntarily not eat a Snickers bar or something). Orthodox Christians, however, are actually expected to fast. True, each Orthodox Christian has to apply the fasting goals as best as he/she is able and one is not always in a position to keep to the fast strictly, but the goal is still there.
So, what is the fast to be like? Well, here’s what I wrote in our newsletter for March:
We are now entering Lent, beginning with Forgiveness Vespers on the afternoon of February 27th. Please remember that all coffee hour foods should be Lenten. That means no meat (excepting shellfish), no dairy products (such as milk, butter, sour cream, etc.), and no eggs. During the week, we should abstain from all of these to the best of our ability, as well as olive oil and wine. Olive oil and wine are not to be fasted from on Saturdays and Sundays, however, as Saturdays and Sundays are not technically counted as ‘Lenten days’ in the fullest sense, even though they fall during Lent.
Please keep in mind the larger spiritual points of fasting. This is not done to “earn credit” with God nor to cross something off a list. Fasting is to be joined with prayer in order to prepare one for spiritual warfare. There is always spiritual warfare in our lives, even if simply on the level of struggling with our own temptations and doubts. Fasting also enables one to strive to save money on food so as to have more for the poor. It is true that in our context, it is not always easy to find cheap vegetables and rice, but if one shops carefully, one actually can save money. Fasting also allows one to clean one’s body. Eating more whole grains, vegetables, and nuts is physically helpful. Fasting also helps us reestablish a feeling of thankfulness toward God. All foods have been created and established by God. The fullness we feel on Pascha and Bright Week should cultivate a feeling of thankfulness in us. To the degree this is done, it should cultivate thanksgiving toward God for the best gift of all, our salvation.