Strict Fasting Rules
The Rules of Fasting for the Great Fast
Neither in ancient nor in modern times has there ever been exact uniformity on the rules of fasting, but most Orthodox authorities agree on the following rules:
(1) During the week between the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee ands that of the Prodigal Son, there is a general dispensation from all fasting. Meat and Meat products may be eaten even on Wednesday and Friday.
(2) In the following week, often termed the week of 'Carnival' or ‘Meat-Fare (Farewell to Meat), the usual fast is kept on Wednesday and Friday. Otherwise there is no special fasting.
(3) In the week before the Fast, called Cheese-Fare (Farewell to cheese and dairy products), meat is forbidden, but eggs, cheese, and other dairy products may be eaten on all days, including on Wednesday and Friday. (Strictly speaking Orthodox Christians should abstain from all animal products on Wednesday and Friday throughout the year except on exempt days)
(4) On the weekdays (Monday to Friday inclusive) during the seven weeks of the fast, there are restrictions both on the number of meals taken daily and on the types of food permitted; but when a meal is allowed, there is no fixed limitation on the quantity of food to be eaten.
(a) On weekdays in the first week, fasting is particularly severe. According to the strict observance, in the course of the five initial days of the fast, only two meals are eaten, one on Wednesday and the other on Friday, in both cases after the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts (or vespers). On the other three days, those who have the strength are encouraged to keep an absolute fast; those for whom this proves impractical, may eat on Tuesday and Thursday (but not, if possible, on Monday), in the evening after Vespers, when they may take bread and water, or perhaps tea or fruit juice, but not a cooked meal. It should be added in practice, xerophagy (which means “dry eating”) is prescribed. Strictly interpreted it signifies that we may eat only vegetables cooked with water and salt, and also such things as fruits, nuts, bread, and honey. In practice, octopus and shell-fish are allowed on days of xerophagy; likewise vegetable margarine and corn or other vegetable oil, not made from olives. But the following categories of food are definitely excluded:
(i) meat; (ii) animal products (cheese, milk, butter, eggs, lard, drippings); (iii) fish (i.e. fish with back bones); (iv) oil (olive oil) and wine (i.e. all alcoholic drinks)
(b) On weekdays (Monday to Friday inclusive) in the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth weeks, one meal a day is permitted, to be taken in the afternoon following Vespers, and at this one meal, xerophagy is to be observed.
(c) Great & Holy Week. On the first three days there is one meal each day, with xerophagy; but some try to keep a complete fast on these days, or else they eat uncooked food as in the opening days of the first week.
On Holy Thursday one meal is eaten, with wine and oil (i.e. olive oil).
On Great Friday those who have the strength follow the practice of the early Church and keep a total fast. Those unable to do this may eat bread, with a little water, tea, or fruit juice, but not until sunset, or at any rate not until after the veneration of the Winding-Sheet (Epitaphion) at Vespers.
On Holy Saturday there is in principle no meal, since according to the ancient practice, after the end of the Liturgy of Saint Basil the faithful remain in church for the reading of the Acts of the Apostles, for their sustenance were given a little bread and dried fruit with a cup of wine. If, as usually happens now, they return home for a meal, they may use wine but not oil; for this is the one Saturday, alone among the Saturdays of the year, olive oil is not permitted.
The rule of xerophagy is relaxed on the following days:
(1) On Saturdays and Sundays during the Fast, with the exception of Holy Saturday, two main meals may be eaten in the usual way, around mid-day and in the evening, with wine and olive oil, but meat and animal products are not allowed.
(2) The Feast of the Annunciation (March 25) and Palm Sunday, fish is permitted as well as wine and oil, but meat and animal products are not allowed. If the feast of the annunciation falls on the first four days of Holy Week, wine and oil are permitted, but not fish. If it falls on Great Friday or Holy Saturday, wine is permitted, but not fish or oil.
(3) Wine and oil are permitted on the following days, if they fall on a weekday in the second, third, fourth, fifth, or sixth week: First and Second finding of the Head of Saint John the Baptist (February 24), the Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (March 9), the Forefeast of the Annunciation (March 24), the Assembly for the Archangel Gabriel (March 26).
(4) Wine and oil are allowed on the Wednesday and Thursday in the fifth week, because of the Vigil of the Great Canon. Wine is allowed and, according to the same authorities, oil as well on Friday in the same week, because of the vigil for the Akathistos Hymn.
It has always been held that these rules of fasting should be relaxed in the case of anyone elderly or in poor health. In present day practice, even those in good health, the full strictness of the fast is usually mitigated. Only a few Orthodox today attempt to keep a total fast on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday in the first week, or on the first three days of Holy Week. On weekdays - except, perhaps, during the first week or Holy Week - it is now common to eat two cooked meals daily instead of one. From the second until the sixth week, many Orthodox use wine, and perhaps oil also, on Tuesdays, and Thursdays, and less commonly on Mondays as well. Permission is often given to eat fish in these weeks. Personal factors need to be taken into account, as for example the situation of an isolated Orthodox living in the same household as non-Orthodox, or obliged to take meals in a factory or school canteen. In cases of uncertainty each should seek the advice of his or her spiritual father.
At all time it is essential to bear in mind that 'you are not under the law but under grace' (Romans 6:14), and that 'the letter kills, but the spirit gives life' (2 Corinthians 3:6) The rules of fasting, while they need to be taken seriously, are not to be interpreted with dour and pedantic legalism; 'for the kingdom of God is not food or drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit' (Romans 14:17).
Taken from “The Lenten Triodion” written by Bishop Kallistos Ware.