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When Are We to Fast: Midnight-to-Midnight, or Vespers-to-Vespers?

I have been confused about the fasting regulations; I understand them with regard to what we can or cannot eat on certain days, but when does the day begin? I am a simple soul and was simply keeping the day from the time I got up till I went to bed, then someone said that in the Orthodox Church the day begins at Vespers and so we should keep the fasts from evening (say 6 p.m) to evening. What is right? —S.B.,Whitchurch, Avon.

ESSENTIALLY what you are doing is right, the day is calculated from midnight to midnight with regard to the fasting prescriptions. However, the Vespers-to-Vespers idea seems to be one that is being floated in various circles. I read one church magazine where this method was being promoted so that one's social life need not suffer too much. The writer suggested, quite correctly, that one cannot have a " night out" on Saturday because of preparing for Holy Communion on Sunday and because of the Vigil. Friday night, another "traditional" night out, is spoiled by the fact that it is a fastday, and so the solution was to fast from Vespers (which presumably one hasn't attended) on Thursday until the Vespers that one won't attend of Friday (because you are getting ready for your night out), and this way you can nicely dovetail your social life into your Orthodox observance without too much trouble. The fatal flaw in this calculation is that we are not supposed to dovetail our church-life into our social life so that it causes the least upset—we are called upon by the Church to set Jerusalem (our spiritual life) above all other, as at the head of our joy (see Ps. 136:8). In acting thus, we are making the same mistake with regard to our time, as we so often do with regard to our possessions, when we give alms of the residue that remains over (if any) when we have spent all we need to or, even worse, all we want to, rather than giving our alms as a matter of first import. It is not a saving course.

Another reason for following the evening-evening fasting regime is much more high-brow. Having learned, as converts do, that the liturgical day in Orthodoxy begins at Vespers. We think that we will be more correct in doing it this way. This way has nothing of the carnal self-interest of the reasoning outlined above! When we come into Orthodoxy, we learn that there is a right and a wrong way with regard to almost everything that touches upon church-life. We also notice, very quickly, that some of those already in the Church, are doing things the "wrong" way. We see icons that are not painted in the traditional style, we hear polyphonic singing in church choirs, we see people kneeling on Sundays, taking the Holy Mysteries infrequently, and a host of other things, and so we set about to correct these things. But here is where we so often stumble.

"Ye which are spiritual, restore such a one in the spirit of meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted," writes the Apostle Paul with regard to correcting others. We should note that he speaks of those "overtaken in a fault," not that we should minutely examine the supposed errors of others to find some fault in them to correct. He addresses his admonition to those who are "spiritual" which might be read either as a specific injunction to those with pastoral care of others (the clergy) or those who have already made some spiritual progress and are spiritually mature—either way most of us are not included! Also we note the Apostle says "restore such a one," not judge him, or condemn him, or lord it over him. And he adds "in a spirit of meekness" and "considering thyself," and "lest thou also be tempted"—most of which things we usually neglect in our desire to correct someone else, or even the whole body of the believers, rather than ourselves.

So our method of "correcting" is often ill-conceived and badly executed, but indeed we also have to be sure that we are correcting something which is a "fault." And with that thought let us return to your specific query regarding fastdays.

The general usage of the Orthodox Christians is to keep the day with regard to the fasting prescriptions from midnight to midnight. Now, is this right, or is it something, as it at first appears, like the sentimental icons or the harmonized singing, which is a departure from the Church's true tradition, and which then we should perhaps set about correcting, if only with regard to our own spiritual lives? The answer is that it is not a fault. It is the proper usage. And so the old adage (one that in many spheres the present "government" might have profitably taken on board fifteen years ago!), "don't mend it if it isn't broken," applies here.

How do we recognize what is and what is not a fault? Or know when to leave things well alone? Well, first we must study the teaching of the Church, as best we can. We must try to find out why certain things are done the way they are, whether they truly express the Church's mind or are accretions, distortions or perversions of her teaching and practice. And as with everything we should humbly seek spiritual counsel in doing this and not simply follow the dictates of our own particular mindset at the time.

Generally in the first instance, it is good, humbly but not mindlessly, to accept the tradition as it is handed on to us. This is after all of the essence of tradition. It places us in the position of sons to the older generation within the Church and we are thus able to inherit a blessing from them. As we grow we are perhaps able through reading to discern some of the "wrongs" or "faults" and in our own lives to eliminate them, but we should not be too ready to set about "correcting" the Church which we have joined.

So with regard to your question, the midnight-to-midnight practice is the tradition as we have received it—that fact alone should be enough to sustain us for the while. When we hear doubts raised against the practice, then we have to look more deeply. We have already seen the carnally self-interested motive for trying to change the practice—it was clean contrary to Scripture. What now when someone raises the objection that the practice is at fault? How can we demonstrate for ourselves they are mistaken?

We must bear in mind that in Orthodoxy our fasting discipline is both an ascetical practice and is linked to our Eucharistic life. If we look at the matter in these two ways we can see that the current general practice does not need our "correction."

Among the ascetic fathers it was the practice on weekdays not to eat until the ninth hour of the day, three o'clock in the afternoon. This practice is still kept during the Great Lent in some monasteries and indeed among many lay people. A liturgical "reminder" of this is the fact that, during the Great Fast, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is served; it is a Vespers service and during it the Holy Mysteries are imparted to the Faithful, who are therefore completely abstaining from food. They eat on that day therefore after Vespers*. A further hint is that in some, admittedly rather clumsy, translations of the services, Compline is referred to as the After-Supper Service. This sounds odd and rather humorous, but it is an exact translation of the Greek and Slavonic words for the service and does indicate to us that the meal of that day properly comes after Vespers and before Compline. The only other possible interpretation of this practice, the idea that we are doing this so as to begin the day with a good meal, would be something completely surprising to the ascetic fathers!

If we remember the Eucharistic significance of the fast; then we know that in preparation for receiving the Holy Mysteries, we fast from all foods and all drink from midnight before the Liturgy (whether it be a morning or evening one), during which we partake of the Mysteries. The Eucharistic fast begins at midnight. Of course usually it ends in the morning, because the Divine Liturgy is properly celebrated at the third hour of the day (9 a.m.), but it is permitted that it be served at any time between dawn and midday. However, some Liturgies, the Presanctified and those on the eves of certain festivals or on Great Thursday, are appointed to be celebrated with Vespers—the fast (complete abstinence) is then broken after Vespers, and so what we eat for that day is eaten after Vespers—it is not a meal that pertains to the following day for, if that were the case, we would have had a meal before the Eucharist itself on that (second) day. Our Eucharistic fasting discipline is not something totally eccentric and wholly disconnected to the fasting regime which runs throughout the year. Indeed the latter in part is a preparation for the reception of the Eucharist, and so the two disciplines are concurrent. Were one to keep the Vespers-to-Vespers day for fasting, one would find that one's weekly fasting discipline would be out of kilter with one's Eucharistic fasting discipline.

One practical thought is that on those days when we have more than one meal—the vast majority of days for most of us I expect!—if we keep to the faddish idea of fasting Vespers-to-Vespers there would in fact never be a day when we abstained from meat, or dairy products or whatever, because one of the meals would fan into another "day" and would be subject to a different discipline.

Also, you would probably find if you are anything like me,—and I do not expect you to be that bad, but you probably share some of the same inclinations,—that you would soon be "having Vespers" later on days before fasts and earlier on fastdays themselves. So that you will probably end up having Vespers on Tuesday and Thursday evenings as late as midnight, but on Wednesdays and Fridays as early as noon! As you are probably only having a grapefruit juice and a slither of carrot for breakfast every day (because you are slimming) you will have then conveniently abolished the fasts from your life!

In short what you have been doing is proper, sober, commonsensical, and Orthodox—keep to it.

* The fasting rules for the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts vary, even among the more strict Spiritual Fathers. In my experience, the normative rule is not to eat or drink anything six hours prior to communing in the evening. A light, Lenten meal around noon is thus usually permissible for those who cannot fast the entire day. (It goes without saying that fasting the entire day is more beneficial, for those who have the strength.) But one should always discuss this with his or her Spiritual Father or Priest. —Webmaster

From the "Points of Correspondence" section of The Shepherd, Vol. XV, No.4 (Jan 95), 16-20.