There are two types of fasting. One is called the Communion Fast and the other is called Ascetical
The Communion fast usually consists of a total abstention from all food and drink after midnight and until after partaking of Holy Communion. The Eucharist being the first food that passes our mouth before all other foods.
Ascetic fasting involves various rules according to what day it is and in which fast we are in.
Apart from Wednesdays and Fridays which are generally days of fasting, There are four major fasts in the Church year.
1) Lent which is 40 days plus Holy week. Before Lent begins we have Cheesefare week which is a form of preparation for Lent. During this week no meat is allowed, but we may eat eggs, cheese and all dairy products and fish. Then as we begin Lent on Clean (Green) Monday, we begin with a Total fast which means that nothing may enter the mouth. For those who have the strength to keep this very strict fast, they will only have two meals in the first five days, on Wednesday and Friday evening after the Liturgy of the Presanctified. In practice this rule is kept only by monks, but many people keep a total fast on the first day. If one hasn’t the strength to keep a total fast then in the evening they may have some tea or fruit juice. On other weekdays we keep to a Strict fast which signifies that we may eat only vegetables cooked with water and salt, and also such things as fruit, nuts, bread and honey. In practice, vegetable margarine and corn or other vegetable oils, not made from olives are permitted as are products made from fish eggs e.g. caviar and taramosalada. The rule is that we should only have only one meal a day and that in the evening. There is no restriction on the amount of food to be taken. On Saturdays and Sundays we are allowed Olive oil and wine. When oil and wine are allowed we may also eat octopus, calamari and shell-fish. On the feast of the Annunciation 25th March and on Palm Sunday we may eat Fish.
2) The Apostles fast which varies each year in the number of days according to when Easter falls. If Easter falls in early April the fast may last up to 4 weeks, but if Easter falls in May then the fast might be only 2 or 3 days and sometimes not even that. It begins 8 weeks after Easter on the Monday after the Feast of All Saints and ends on the 28th June, the eve of the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul. During this fast, Olive oil, wine and fish are permitted except on Wednesdays and Fridays.
3) The August fast is from the 1st to the 14th August. During this fast Olive oil and wine are permitted only on Saturdays and Sundays. On all other days we observe a Strict fast. On the 6th August, the feast of the Transfiguration Fish is permitted.
4) The Christmas fast which begins on 15th November and ends on Christmas eve. In general, during this fast, Olive oil, wine and fish are permitted except on Wednesdays and Fridays, but there are local customs that rule on what date we begin and end eating fish. In Cyprus for example, eating fish begins on 21st November, the feast of The Entry of the Mother of God and ends on 12th December, the Feast of St. Spyridon. In Greece the last day for fish is the 17th December. Other customs allow fish only on the Weekends up to the 12th or 17th while others allow fish from the onset of the fast until the last day except on Wednesdays and Fridays.
OTHER DAYS OF FASTING
1) 5th January - The eve of the Feast of Theophany
2) 29th August - The Feast of the beheading of St. John the Baptist.
3) 14th September - The Feast of the Universal Exaltation of the Cross
DAYS FREE FROM FASTING
Days free from fasting including Wednesdays and Fridays are allowed on the following dates:
1) From the 25th December until 4th January.
2) The first week of the Triodion - The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee until the Sunday of the Prodigal Son.
3) The third week of the Triodion - Cheesefare Week until Cheesefare Sunday. During this week we are allowed Dairy products every day except meat.
4) Bright week - From Easter Sunday until Thomas Sunday.
5) The week of the Holy Spirit - From Sunday of Pentecost until Sunday of All Saints.
Fasting in the Orthodox Church has two aspects: physical and spiritual. The first one implies abstinence from rich food, such as dairy products, eggs and all kinds of meat. Spiritual fasting consists in abstinence from evil thoughts, desires, and deeds. The main purpose of fasting is to gain mastery over oneself and to conquer the passions of the flesh. It is to liberate oneself from dependence on the things of this world in order to concentrate on the things of the Kingdom of God. True fasting therefore is not only the abstinence from food, but also from evil thoughts and all passion, for, as the Saviour says: “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man...” (Matt. 15:17-20) Thus exterior fasting, without the corresponding interior fasting is in vain.
There are many who cannot observe the fasts because of some bodily ailment or can only keep them in part. There are others again who would benefit physically from the fasts, but use an ailment as an excuse not to fast. If strict fasting harms our bodies then in truth we shouldn't keep to all the rules of fasting, but under a doctor's advise we can maybe cut out meat and some dairy products. This of course doesn't hinder us from observing the Spiritual fast. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, fasting implies not only abstinence from food, but from sins also. “The fast,” he insists, “should be kept not by the mouth alone, but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body: the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice.” It is useless to fast from food, protests St. Basil, and yet to indulge in cruel criticism and slander: “You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother.”
We should also keep in mind that fasting is not at all an act of religiousness because we what to appear to others as religious. It is not a “little suffering” which is somehow pleasing to God. It is not a punishment, which is to be sorrowfully endured in payment for sins. On the contrary, fasting for a Christian should be a joyful experience, because fasting is a self-discipline, which we voluntarily impose upon ourselves in order to become better persons and better Christians.
Also it is essential to always bear in mind what St Paul says, that: “we are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6: 14), and that “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor. 3: 6). “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” (Rom. 14: 17)