Orthodox Fasting

Question

Why do Orthodox Christians fast on Wednesdays and Fridays? Who decided that Orthodox fasting must include abstaining from animal products?
Wouldn’t it be more sacrificial for someone to give up foods that they really loved such as candy rather than meat which they may not care for that much anyhow? How picky are Orthodox Christians supposed to be in regards to checking the ingredients in certain dishes. For example, before eating a package of wheat crackers, should they read the ingredients to make sure no egg or milk extracts were used? Also, doesn’t it defeat the
purpose of fasting if products such as non-dairy milk or vegetable pepperoni or fake cheese are used in place of the real thing?


Answer

Thank you for your inquiry. I’ll respond to your question point by point.

YOU WRITE:

Why do Orthodox Christians fast on Wednesdays and Fridays?

RESPONSE:

Orthodox Christians fast on Wednesday in remembrance of the betrayal of Christ and on Fridays in remembrance of His crucifixion and death.

YOU WRITE:

Who decided that Orthodox fasting must include abstaining from animal products?

RESPONSE:

This form of fasting was passed on in the early Church from Jewish practice. In Matthew, Christ says, “When you fast do not be like the hypocrites,” which indicates that the Jews fasted—it also indicates that Christ assumes that one fasts, for He says “when you fast” not “if you fast.” Fasting is not something that only developed alongside Christianity; rather, it is a practice that had been followed by the Jews, and even Scripture mentions that Christ fasted.

YOU WRITE:

Wouldn’t it be more sacrificial for someone to give up foods that they really loved such as candy rather than meat which they may not care for that much anyhow?

RESPONSE:

The purpose of fasting is not to “give up” things, nor to do something “sacrificial.” The purpose of fasting is to learn discipline, to gain control of those things that are indeed within our control but that we so often allow to control us. In our culture especially, food dominates the lives of many people. We collect cookbooks. We have an entire TV network devoted to food [the “Food Channel”]. We have eating disorders, diets galore, weight loss pills, liposuction treatments, stomach stapling—all sorts of things that proceed out of the fact that we often allow food, which in an of itself cannot possible control us, to control us. We fast in order to gain control, to discipline ourselves, to gain control of those things that we have allowed to get out of control. Giving up candy—unless one is controlled by candy—is not fasting. It is giving up candy, or it is done with the idea that we fast in order to suffer. But we do not fast in order to suffer. We fast in order to get a grip on our lives and to regain control of those things that have gotten out of control. Further, as we sing during the first week of Great Lent, “while fasting from food, let us also fast from our passions.”

YOU WRITE:

How picky are Orthodox Christians supposed to be in regards to checking the ingredients in certain dishes. For example, before eating a package of wheat crackers, should they read the ingredients to make sure no egg or milk extracts were used?

RESPONSE:

Just as we would say that with anything in life “moderation is best,” so too we need to approach fasting with moderation. Fasting, as I have written, helps us to let go of the control food so often has on us. But if fasting itself starts to control us—if we spend countless hours reading every ingredient label and the like—then we can become just as controlled by our fasting and, in the process, miss the whole point of fasting in the first place. There is nothing essentially wrong with meat and dairy products, in and of themselves, but even the Jenny Craig folks will tell you that if you want to “lighten your physical load”, red meat and dairy products should be the first things to go, or at least to be eaten in moderation. Hence, an obsession with reading labels can be just as problematic as an obsession with food. There needs to be a balance, lest our fasting be of the sort that Christ Himself condemns—the fasting of the Pharisees.

YOU WRITE:

Also, doesn’t it defeat the purpose of fasting if products such as non-dairy milk or vegetable pepperoni or fake cheese are used in place of the real thing?

RESPONSE:

Indeed, being controlled by the “substitution syndrome” is just as bad as being controlled by the food one is striving to substitute. I have seen lenten cookbooks with a gazillion recipes for “Lenten lobster tail” [in our culture, a gourmet treat] which warn that “drawn margarine” should be used instead of “drawn butter,” since butter is a dairy product! Sorta misses the point. I would be the first to day, “Hey—I can’t wait until Friday so I can eat lobster tail instead of a Big Mac.”

Since I am especially fond of lobster, with or without drawn anything, butter, margarine, or otherwise, while I might eat the lobster with margarine and remain within the “law” of the fast, I precisely miss the “spirit” of fasting. One can become just as controlled by soy milk, tofu burgers, and drawn margarine as one can be controlled by whole milk, hamburgers, and drawn butter. I know a family which is not particularly fond of turkey but absolutely loves the “tofu turkey” readily available at heath food stores. They spend a great deal of time telling everyone how it looks like a turkey—the ones I’ve seen are shaped like a real turkey, complete with little paper booties on the ends of their little tofu legs—and tastes just like a turkey [hard to imagine, but then again I’m not too anxious to try tofu anything], and even smells just like a turkey. What I hear in these ramblings is, “Don’t eat turkey, but to be just as satisfied as you would be when you eat turkey, eat tofu turkey, ‘cause it tastes just like turkey but because it’s not meat, you’re still fasting while enjoying a traditional turkey dinner.” A little convoluted—and a sign of being controlled.

Perhaps it would be better to just eat the real thing and be done with it, because it takes more time to make tofu taste, look and smell like the genuine item than it would to simply eat turkey. This misses the whole point of fasting in the first place, and I dare say, one can become even more controlled by trying to make tofu taste like turkey than by simply eating turkey in the first place, which is a no-brainer. Hence, the “substitution syndrome” which focuses on following the “letter of the law” while ignoring the “spirit on which the law is based.” Common sense must be used at all time, and the often heard “try this dairy-free Lenten chocolate cake—it takes so much better than the non-Lenten version” is not fasting. At best, it is a way to observe the “law” while missing the very “spirit” of fasting in the first place. I even know people who eat the dairy-free Lenten chocolate cake when it is not a fast day or season simply because it tastes so much better than the regular version—which indeed misses the whole point. In conclusion, the point of fasting is not only to avoid certain foods, but also to avoid the control we allow food to have over us. If we can’t discipline ourselves in terms of what goes into our mouths, we will hardly be in a position to discipline ourselves with regard to what comes out of our mouths.