Feasting & Fasting

Orthodox Christianity is so deeply concerned about time, that the Church has created entire books dedicated to time. Indeed, every Orthodox is aware of the sequence of the Church's liturgical books. In the spring there is the Lenten Triodion and the Pentecostarion, while the rest of the year is given over to the calendar of remembrances of the saints the Menaion, and to the marking of the weeks through the eight-week chanting cycle of the Octoechos which are further punctuated by Twelve Great Feasts of God in the Festal Menaion. Of course, on a weekly basis there is Sunday, always a feast day as it is dedicated to the Resurrection, while Wednesdays and Fridays are almost invariably fasting days, in remembrance of the Betrayal and Crucifixion of Christ. Even within a day, there are the two great services: Vespers, the magnification of God in the dark, and Matins, the dedication of the works of light, the marking of the hours, first, third, sixth (at which Christ was Crucified), and Ninth (at which he died), and finally, Compline, the daily preparation for one's own death. Finally, there are small efforts based on personal activity, such as keeping the Pre-Communion fasts.

The Orthodox awareness of time is more than some flat history lesson or a cataloging based on calendars and clocks, on seasons and the pregnancy of daily living, as with all the rest of what it means to make an Orthodox living that incorporates both Holy Tradition and the diverse customs of Orthodox peoples, Orthodox time has moods. The spiritual moods of Orthodoxy are always sober, serious-minded, and directed toward the experience of hope in Christ and to joy in God. Nevertheless without variety, sober optimism would give over to stale hard-heartedness and caustic routine. Hence its variations not only in celebrations through the disciplines of feasting and fasting. The degree to which the Church's system of feasting and fasting is balanced is apparent from the nearly equal number of days celebrated as feasts as commemorated with fasting, with only a slight edge toward fasting. 

Fasting is a foundational principle of Christian spirituality. Not only is the first commandment given by God in creation to fast, darkness and light, waters, and dry land were to keep their place, whilst Adam and Eve were not to touch of the fruit of the trees in the middle of the Garden (Gen. 1:4,7; 2:16-17), but the Master assured those who questioned, that in the day when He is no longer with them, His disciples will fast to put on the new skin of salvation (Lk 5: 35-39). However, as with the commandment in the Garden, which was given to Adam before having a companion, fasting is never idiosyncratic. Orthodox feasting and fasting is communal, governed by the Church's memory system, the Liturgical Calendar of Feasts, with the intention of preparation- the rules of the fast proportional to the coming feast. While the Church's rules for fasting are for the entire community, they are the same for both laity, priests, and monastic. However, as a practical matter, personal application of the rules should be consistent with individual well-being, and includes a blessing from one's spiritual father.  

As feasts are victory celebrations, the community and the individual obtain a share in that victory by engaging in spiritual warfare predicated on the feast. St. John Chrysostom explains:

[D]o not be frightened when you hear that fasting is a dreadful commander, because she is not terrible to us, but rather to the nature of demons... fasting expels the hostile foes of our salvation... and is so terrible to the enemies of our life, we must cherish and embrace her, not in dread of her. We must be afraid of drunkenness and gluttony, not of fasting. For she [drunkenness and gluttony] binds our hands behind our backs and surrenders us as slaves and captives to the tyranny of the passions, which resemble a most dangerous mistress. Fasting, however, who finds us slaves and prisoners, loosens the bonds, and delivers us from the tyranny; she restores us to our former freedom. Since, however, He combats even our enemies, delivers us from tyranny, and restores us to our former freedom, what other greater proof do you seek of His love toward our race? ("On Fasting and the Prophet Jonah, Daniel, and the Three Youths, Delivered on the Threshold of the Holy Fast '' in St John Chrysostom On Repentance and Almsgiving, Catholic University Press).  

Hence, the practice of fasting within the Orthodox practice is understood broadly, neither specifically with respect to food nor narrowly as an act of contrition or supererogation, as limited understanding leads to pride, whereas the struggle to achieve purity of mind and freedom from corruption, nullifying the poison of evil with the grace of participation in God, through Christ. As explained in two sayings of Abba Poemen, one of the greatest of the Desert Fathers: 

"It is written: 'As the hart desires the springs of water, so longs my soul for you, O Lord.'   Because the harts in the wilderness consume many snakes and the poison of them burns them, they long to come to the waters. They drink and are cooled from the poison of the snakes.  Likewise, are the monks living in the desert burned by the poison of the wicked demons and they long to come to the springs or water on Saturday and Sunday, to the Body and Blood of our Lord, that is in order to be cleansed from the bitterness of the evil one.
Abba Joseph asked Abba Poemen: "How ought one to fast?” and Abba Poemen said: “I would like the person who eats every day to stop a little short of eating his fill." Abba Joseph said to him: "Did you not fast every second day when you were young, abba?" "Indeed, for three and four days and even a whole week," the elder said, "but the elders, being capable themselves, tested all these things and concluded that it was good to eat each day, but in small quantities. And they handed the 'royal road' down to us because it is light." ("Abba Poemen, numbers 30-31, "Give Me a Word: Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press). 

As such, fasting for a feast is a work of conversion of the heart to limpidity, or stillness, in the presence of God, comparable with almsgiving, which is a work of conversion to righteousness of heart. As such, fasting seeks to resolve in understanding the feast just as almsgiving seeks to unleash and express the energies of God as love, and together both enable prayer- fasting by laying aside the distractions of passions, almsgiving by seeking to satisfy the needs of others rather than the self.

St. Isaac the Syrian describes the paths of righteousness and stillness in their proper relationship, discerning the balance within Orthodox spirituality that are the starting points for a lay person and for a monastic: 

[T]he fulfilling of the duty of love with respect to providing for physical well-being is the work of men in the world or even monks... who do not dwell in stillness or who combine stillness with brotherly concord...
He who possesses nothing upon the earth, who earns nothing for himself among material things, who in his mind clings to nothing visible, nor endeavors to acquire...he is like a bird in his way of life. Such a man is not obliged to give alms...Indeed, how could he give to another that of which he has been liberated? anything the man...who is distracted with matters of this life, who works with his own hands and receives from others, should give alms. To neglect this is manifest opposition to the Lord's commandment. If a man draws near to God in hidden ways, neither knowing how to serve God in spirit, nor concerned to manifest actions that are within his power, on what does he place his hope to gain life? Such a man is foolish. 
[I]f you live in the world, practice virtuous disciplines suitable to a layman; if you are a monk, distinguish yourself in the works wherein monks excel...These are the works of monks: freedom from worldly things, bodily toil in prayer, and unceasing recollection of God in the heart. Judge for yourself whether without these things the worldly virtues will suffice you. ("Homily 21," Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, Holy Transfiguration Monastery). 

However, the end of all Christians is the same: to feast, ultimately, as participation in the Feast of Feasts, Pascha, or Resurrection of Our Lord.  

The Church calendar neither begins nor ends with Pascha or its shifting cycle of the feasts and fasts (Great Lent, Entry into Jerusalem, Ascension, and Pentecost) nor with the Incarnation and Nativity with its fixed cycle of feasts and fasts (Annunciation, Transfiguration, Advent, Nativity, Circumcision, and Theophany, and the profound Exultation of the Holy Cross). Instead, the Twelve Great Feasts opens and closes with celebrations of the Theotokos, the Ever-Virgin Mother of God and her Falling Asleep (Dormition) with its own two-week fast, embracing the additional feasts of her Entry into the Temple and the Meeting of Our Lord.  

The point is clear, salvation is proper and possible only through the God-Man. However, the dimension of time is an attribute of the God-Bearer, she who contained the uncontainable One, keeping silently the knowledge of God with Us in her heart. It is in that silence-keeping fasting and struggling of the Theokotos that is emblematic of the Orthodox spirituality of feasting and fasting. In her Dormition the aspiration of all creation to restoration to God is realized, in words from the Ninth Ode of the Canons of the Dormition, an epitome of theology and Holy Tradition:

In thee, O Virgin without spot, the bonds of nature are overcome:
childbirth remains virgin and death betrothed to life. 
O Theotokos, Virgin after bearing child and alive after death,
do thou ever save thine inheritance.
The angelic powers were amazed 
looking on Zion, upon their own Master,
His hands bearing the soul of a women:
as befitted a Son, He said to her
who without spot had borne Him:
Come, honored among women,
be glorified together with thy Son and God.
Standing round thy body that had held God,
the choir of apostles looked upon it with awe and saluted it,
with clear voice saying:
As thou departest to the heavenly mansions unto thy Son,
do thou ever save thine inheritance.
Let ever mortal born on earth,
carrying his torch, 
in spirit leap for joy;
let the order of angelic powers celebrate,
honor the holy feast of the Mother of God,
let them cry:
Hail, all-blessed Theotokos, pure and ever-Virgin.

Orthodox engage in spiritual warfare through fasting, both collectively and personally, to attain a purity enabling theosis. As expressed in the most penitential of all Orthodox hymnography, the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, dedicated to another Mary, the notorious prostitute and penitent, St. Mary of Egypt:

Come, wretched soul, with your flesh, confess to the Creator of all. In future refrain from your former brutishness and offer to God tears of repentance.
Having rivaled the first-Created Adam by my transgressions, I realize that I am stripped naked of God and of the everlasting kingdom and bliss through my sins.
Alas wretched soul! Why are you like the first Eve? You have been wickedly looked and been bitterly wounded, and you have touched the tree and rashly tasted the forbidden food.
The place of bodily Eve has been taken for me by the Eve of my mind in the shape of a passionate thought in the flesh, showing me sweet things, yet ever making me taste and swallow bitter things.
Adam was rightly exiled from Eden for not keeping Thy one commandment, O Savior. But what shall I suffer who am always rejecting Thy living words?
My soul, my soul arise! Why are you still sleeping? The end is drawing near, you will be confounded. Awake, then, and be watchful, that Christ our God may spare you, Who is everywhere present and fills all things. 
(Ode 1 and the Kontakion of the Canon, chanted, First Week of Great Lent, and again on Thursday, Great Lent, week five).