Fasting and Vigils in the Life of the Church

The liturgical books of the Byzantine Rite say very little about fasting; in fact, they are more likely to say when food is to be eaten rather than when it is not. But the self-discipline that comes from fasting, and the watchfulness that comes from keeping vigil, are important Christian virtues, and so both fasting and vigils are an important aspect of Byzantine liturgy.

The Eucharistic Fast

In the early Church, the Eucharist was sometimes celebrated in the context of a meal, and there was little sense that Holy Communion should be separated entirely from ordinary food. But over time, a sense of the enormity of receiving the Body and Blood of Christ (and the fear that some might receive it unworthily to their own harm) led to a sense that one should pray, purify oneself, and fast before Holy Communion. To this day, in some Orthodox churches, confession, absolution, and one or more days of fasting are required for each reception of the Body and Blood of Christ.

The Byzantine Catholic liturgikon for the Divine Liturgy opens with the following:

The priest who intends to recelebrate the divine mystery should be reconciled, first of all, with everyone and have no animosity toward anyone. To the best of his ability, he must keep his mind free from evil thoughts. He must abstain from food and drink in accordance with ecclesiasical legislation until his liturgical function...

Here the spiritual requirements are followed by bodily ones: the priest is expected to fast from food and water, generally from the night before. The particular law for our church states that those receiving Holy Communion must fast from food and drink for at least one hour (water and medication are permitted), but the faithful are encouraged to fast more strictly, in accordance with tradition.

Why fast before Holy Communion? In order to show that we recognize the great value of the Gifts we will receive. This is not a punishment or a penance (both of which are excluded on Sundays), but a positive recognition of the great mystery and importance of the Eucharist.

Penitential Fasting and Abstinence

To fast is to go without eating for a period of time; to abstain means to omit certain foods, generally ones we would otherwise prefer. Both kinds of self-discipline are practiced during the Church's penitential seasons:

During the Great Fast, it is traditional to fast until evening on weekdays, and to abstain from meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, and foods cooked with oil, as well as from alcohol and sexual relations. Although there is no fasting on Saturdays and Sundays, the faithful abstain as usual on those days; so meat and dairy products are not eaten from the first day of the Great Fast until Pascha. (Certain days, such as Palm Sunday and the feast of the Annunciation, allow fish and other relaxations of abstinence.) The other fasting periods are somewhat less strict, with each having its own rules.

(Why do we abstain from these particular things? In doing so, we are imitating the life of paradise, before the fall of Adam and Eve, who refused to abstain appropriately. We make due with simpler things, and discipline ourselves to our needs rather than our desires.)

In practice, the Church only requires that the faithful abstain from meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products on the first day of the Great Fast and on Great and Holy Friday, and fast from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays during the Great Fast and on Fridays through the year. Guidelines are posted annually for each eparchy; and as with fasting, the faithful are encouraged to keep the tradition more fully if they are able.

Penitential fasting and abstinence are different in kind from the Eucharistic fast: they are more rigorous, and can be perceived as a real though temporary hardship. When undertaken in the proper spirit, they can instill self-discipline, perseverance, and a recognition of how dependent we are on God's gifts, and how easily we become disagreeable when we don't immediately get our way. But like the Eucharist fast, each of the fasting seasons is aimed toward a feast-day which "completes" and ends the fast.

Certain individual days are also days of fast and abstinence:

If the vigils of Christmas or Theophany fall on Saturday or Sunday, the fasting and abstinence is done on the previous Friday, since we normally do not fast on Saturday or Sunday.

There are also four "fast-free" periods, called compact weeks, during which fasting and abstinence are forbidden:

Although the details are complicated (and subject to dispensation by pastors when necessary), these days and times of penance all serve to remind us of God's benefits, what we owe to him in return, and how to properly discipline ourselves so that we can endure adversity and appreciate abundance.

The Midnight Office

From very early times, it was customary for Christians to remain awake late into the night in prayer, or to rise in the middle of the night to pray. The nighttime was seen as a time of temptation, or of possible danger; it was also symbolic of the spiritual darkness that could prevent us from preparing to meet Christ wherever and whenever we might encounter him. The example of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) was frequently invoked, as well as our Lord's words: "Stay awake! You cannot know the day your Lord is coming" (Matthew 24:42).

In the Byzantine tradition, an order of liturgical prayer called the Midnight Office entered monastic usage to fill this need, and was sometimes prayed by lay people as well.

Feast-day Vigils

Another kind of vigil was popular in the capital city of Constantinople, the city that gave birth to the Byzantine Rite: on the evenings before the feast days of important saints, the faithful would gather in church to chant psalms and sing hymns in honor of the saint, in preparation for the feast-day Divine Liturgy in the morning. This sort of service was called pannychis, meaning "all night", even though it generally lasted only a few hours.

In monasteries, too, it became customary to hold vigils on these days, adding the procession and prayers of the Litija to the celebration of Vespers, and singing psalms throughout the night. On feast days that were also preceded by fasting, such as Christmas, the services were sometimes arranged to adjust the amount of fasting to the nature of the feast.

Later, in the tradition of the monastery of Saint Sabbas of Jerusalem which was later adopted throughout the Byzantine Rite, an all-night vigil was sometimes apppointed, consisting of Vespers (or Compline), Litija, and Matins – a service that could take four to five hours if not abbreviated.

All of these vigils, though, have the same basic purpose: they mark and symbolize the importance of a feast, prepare us to look forward to it, and allow us more time to keep and honor it. Like penitential vigils, they emphasize the virtue of watchfulness (nepsis, or spiritual alertness).

The funeral vigil

One more vigil is still in use, and common to the Christian East and West: the funeral vigil, or "wake", in which the family and friends of a deceased Christian keep watch over his or her body on the night before the funeral is celebrated. In the Byzantine Slav tradition, the Psalter and accompanying prayerers are read or chanted.