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 upsetwe 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 matureeither 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
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 itthat 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 practiceit
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 Vespersthe fast
(complete abstinence) is then broken after Vespers, and so what we eat for that day is
eaten after Vespersit 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
One practical thought is that on those days when we have more than one mealthe
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
In short what you have been doing is proper, sober, commonsensical, and
Orthodoxkeep 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.