March 01, 1997

Russian Fasting Traditions

What exactly does it mean for an Orthodox believer to fast? The physical aspect of fasting is that one must abstain from using animal food products – butter, cheese, milk, sour cream, and even fish (unless specifically allowed). On fast days, the Orthodox are only supposed to eat dried or fresh fruit, bread and vegetables.

But, most importantly, Orthodox believers must spiritually observe the fast and think pure thoughts: chase away lust, envy, greed and open their minds to mercy, self-abnegation and other virtues. For, as Archpriest Father Alexander Shmemann wrote: “fasting as a physical abstention from food is completely pointless without the... spiritual part. ...Without a corresponding spiritual effort, without strengthening oneself by God’s reality, without realizing one’s complete dependence on God, a physical fasting would amount to suicide. We fast for God’s sake. We must feel His presence in our body... His temple. Therefore, we must respect religiously our body, our food and our way of life.”

The Russian Orthodox calendar contains four significant fasts, the longest of which is Lent (Veliky Post), lasting for 7 weeks. Lent precedes Easter, the major Orthodox feat. Easter has no fixed date, but depends on the first new moon of the vernal equinox, as well as a 35-day time limit within which it is celebrated – between April 4 and May 8. This year it falls on April 27. Thus, the dates of Lent vary as well: in 1997 it begins on March 10.

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