Fasting for Great Lent

Fasting is the abstinence from eating and drinking from midnight till noon with the possibility of drinking water and consuming medication only.

Abstinence restricts us from eating meat and or dairy products. It is advisable that sick people and pregnant women should refrain from fasting.

The guidelines released by His Beatitude and Eminence Mar Bechara Boutros Cardinal Rai, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East are as follows:

• Fasting from midnight to midday on all weekdays: no food or drink is to be consumed, with the exception of water;

• Abstaining from consuming meat or dairy on the Fridays of Lent;

• Abstaining from meat throughout the first and last week of Lent (Holy Week);

• We do not fast or abstain on Saturdays and Sundays, with the exception of Easter Saturday, where fasting and abstinence are to be observed;

• In 2017, the following feast days fall within the Lenten Season: St John Maroun (2 March), The Forty Martyrs (9 March), St Joseph (19 March), St Rafqa (23 March), The Annunciation (25 March). We do not fast or abstain on these feast days.

It is important to note that food and water are always permitted when needed to take medicines or in case of illness or old age. A person who cannot fast or abstain may choose another form of penance.

These are “obligations”. However, that legalistic position does not give a complete and fruitful answer and more importantly it diverts from what it is we are trying to achieve from fasting. In fasting we need to consider why we are doing something, and doing it simply to fulfill an obligation is not the most fruitful approach.

In a hymn on fasting attributed to St Ephrem he states:

  1. In the midst of the Fast the Scriptures have gathered together

and become merchants,

having in their possession a veritable treasure store of


With that holy Voice as the key

they are opened up before those who will listen.

Blessed is that King who has opened up His treasury to His


  1. Here are to be found garments for those invited to the

wedding feast;

here, too, are sackcloth and tears for all kinds of penitents;

here in their midst is one who sustains the athletes as well;

with every kind of riches are they filled.

Blessed is He who has prepared for everyone every kind of


  1. Open up then, my brethren and take from it with


for this treasure store is the common property of everyone,

and each person, as if he were treasurer, possesses his own


In ancient times each of the guests would be given wedding garments before the wedding.

The wedding feast is our opportunity to accept Christ the Groom’s wedding invitation where he opens up his treasury to us. We are invited to hear his word, to partake of the divine sacrifice and to experience his forgiveness and mercy.

The key to fasting is that each of us needs to discern what we need to gain the treasure. We need to examine what obstacles are getting in our way to get to Christ. We need to be prepared to distance ourselves from sin and compensate for those we have committed. Fasting is not meant to be a momentarily change, if it done correctly it will permanently transform us.  It gives us the opportunity to prepare ourselves and refocus on the things that matter leading up to the feast.

The tradition of fasting originated from very early times. In the Old Testament we hear from Daniel.

I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks. Daniel 10:3

Moses also fasted and here there is a parallel with Christ:

So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. Exodus 34:28 

Jesus fasted:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. Matthew 4:1-2

Regarding fasting Jesus tells us:

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:16-17

Fasting is not profitable unless it is accompanied obedience to Gods word. This is apparent in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus answers the question:

Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast? Matthew 9:14

We are told that St Charbel would often only live on small amounts of herbs. Fasting, abstinence, prayer and meditation have been an important part of our Maronite tradition.  Fasting always comes before a great feast. It allows us to prepare ourselves spiritually for the feast.

Our Eastern Fathers have written extensively on the importance of fasting.

“Fasting is medicine.” St John Chrysostom declares in his beautiful homily on fasting.  He continues:

Fasting is the change of every part of our life, because the sacrifice of the fast is not the abstinence but the distancing from sins. Therefore, whoever limits the fast to the deprivation of food, he is the one who, in reality, abhors and ridicules the fast. Are you fasting? Show me your fast with your works. Which works? If you see someone who is poor, show him mercy. If you see an enemy, reconcile with him. If you see a friend who is becoming successful, do not be jealous of him! If you see a beautiful woman on the street, pass her by.

In other words, not only should the mouth fast, but the eyes and the legs and the arms and all the other parts of the body should fast as well. Let the hands fast, remaining clean from stealing and greediness. Let the legs fast, avoiding roads which lead to sinful sights. Let the eyes fast by not fixing themselves on beautiful faces and by not observing the beauty of others. You are not eating meat, are you? You should not eat debauchery with your eyes as well. Let your hearing also fast. The fast of hearing is not to accept bad talk against others and sly defamations.

Let the mouth fast from disgraceful and abusive words, because, what gain is there when, on the one hand we avoid eating chicken and fish and, on the other, we chew-up and consume our brothers?

St John Chrysostom is not discouraging fasting from food, but he insists that fasting from food must be accompanied with fasting from sin.

Fasting from food of course is important. The desert fathers and mothers saw it as a way to temperance. It is a way to ‘declutter’. Fasting allows us to focus on prayer and the needs of the soul rather than the body. When we get hungry during the fast, it is an opportunity to refocus the mind on the purpose of the fast. Fasting makes more attune to the spiritual and to our purpose. It also helps us to depend on God more fully and to have compassion for the poor and the hungry. Fasting reminds us of the first sin of Adam and Eve, who ate from the forbidden tree. By fasting from food we can take the opportunity each time we are hungry to fast from sinning and doing evil.

Fasting is a discipline that teaches us to gain control, because so often the source of our sin is a loss of control. By gaining control of something so simple we can move to gain control of those things that really distancing us from God.

Fasting is a way to do penance for our sins and also to unite our small sacrifice with Christ’s very large sacrifice for us.

So in preparation for Lent you are encouraged to think about what it is that is blocking your way to Christ. It is your time to pick your medicine, remove the obstacles and encounter Christ this Lent.

In Christ

Theresa Simon

Click here for the full text of St John Chrysostom’s beautiful homily on fasting.

St John Chrysostom’s Homily on Fasting

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