The Orthodox Pages



27th February 2014
























































































































































At our last meeting two weeks ago I mentioned that the Church had entered into the period of the Triodion, the service book that will accompany us through Great Lent until the last service on Holy and Great Saturday night just before the Resurrection service. The Triodion begins four Sundays before the onset of Lent with themes that will help us to prepare for that spiritual journey that will lead us to that great feast of Pascha. These four Sundays are a pre-Lenten preparation with teachings that will help us enter Great Lent in the right frame of mind so that we may reap the rewards of our struggles in the spiritual arena. The teachings for the first two Sundays were repentance and humility, which we saw at our last meeting with the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican and the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
The third Sunday, the Sunday that just passed, teaches us the importance of love with the Gospel reading of the Last Judgement. In the reading, Christ tells us what to expect at the Last Judgment. At that time he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the goats from the sheep, and some he will put to his right and others to his left. But the criterion with which he will judge us will not be whether we fasted, neither our prayers or how good a Christian we might appear to be, but our attitude towards our fellow men. Christ said that whatever help we offer even to the lowest man it is as though we offered that help to him, and whatever help we didn’t offer to someone who was in need it is as though we didn’t help him. In other words love is the criterion by which we shall be judged. If we cannot love our fellow men then in truth we don’t love Christ, because he has created each man in his own image and likeness. Christian love transcends above someone’s physical appearance, social standing, ethnic origin, intellectual capacity and reaches the soul, the unique personal root of a human being where the image of God is.
This is just a very quick summery of the reading, because to analyze it in full we would need all the time of the talk and we would not have time to cover this Sunday's reading. We would have had the time if we had a talk last Thursday, but as it was “Scorching Thursday”, most of us had family duties with the “Scorching Thursday” celebrations. In Greek “Scorching Thursday”, is known as “Τσικνοπέμπτη” and literally means the Thursday with the aroma of roasting or sizzling meat. According to the Church’s calendar it is the last weekday in which we eat meat and, whether or not people keep to the Church’s rules for fasting, in popular tradition, it is another excuse for a celebration. It is also the day for introducing the king of the carnival which of course doesn’t concern us. The whole week is known as “Meatfare Week” because it is the last week of eating meat and takes it name from the Sunday that just passed which is known as “Meatfare Sunday.” In fact Meatfare is not a correct translation of the Greek “Κυριακή της Αποκρεώ.” The verb “Αποκρεώ” means to stop eating meat so in English we should really call it “Meatstopping Sunday.”

Now as with all things in the Greek world this is another occasion for a family get together and celebration with the barbeques burning away and other meat dishes washed down with gallons of beer and wine. In popular language the day is also known as “η Πρώτη Σήκωσης” in other words “the First Lifting” which refers to the lifting of certain foods from the household larder. In this case it is the lifting of all meat products which have to be lifted from the larder and consumed before the start of “Cheesefare week” which began this Monday. As the name implies we don’t eat meat but cheese and dairy products, eggs and fish every day with the purpose of using up the surplus stored up in the fridge. In practice most people don’t observe Cheesefare Week and still eat meat until just before the fast begins.
The week comes to a climax with “Cheesefare Sunday” and another excuse for a family celebration. It is also known as “η Δεύτερη Σήκωσης” or the Second Lifting and again refers to lifting and consuming from the home all the non meat products that are not allowed to be eaten during the Lenten Fast. The main treat of the day which has come to be identified with Cheesefare Sunday are the “Bourekia”. These are pastries filled with the Cypriot soft cheese “Anari”, sugar and cinnamon. Similarly in the West there is Shrove Tuesday which in times when the West actually fasted they made pancakes and had the same purpose of using up the dairy products before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday.
Cheesefare Sunday is this coming Sunday and is the last of the Pre-Lenten Sundays. As with the previous Sundays the Gospel reading wants to prepare us and put us in the right frame of mind to enter Great Lent. The reading warns us of three main things we should do if we want our fast to be of spiritual benefit otherwise our fasting will just be in vain and possibly even harmful for our spiritual wellbeing.
Let's then hear the reading:
“The Lord said: if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6: 14-21)
Based on this Gospel reading, this Sunday is also known as “Forgiveness Sunday”. And it also lends its name to the special Vespers service held in the evening called the Vespers of Forgiveness. This is in fact the very first service of Great Lent and at the end of the Service, the faithful come one by one to the Priest, kiss the Cross and his hand and exchange a mutual forgiveness. Having done this the faithful also asks forgiveness of one another. Thus we begin Lent by asking forgiveness from everyone and not only from those who we know have wronged us, because many times we upset our fellow men without realizing.
But coming back to the Gospel reading, the first of the three warnings is for us to have the humility to forgive others for the wrongs they have done against us whether big and serious or small and trivial. Christ says that forgiveness for our own sins is achieved through our brother. He reveals to us the shortest route by which we can receive forgiveness from God. If we show charity and love for the wrongs of our brother we receive an audience before God when we pray and ask him to forgive our own sins. We could even tell him that as we have forgiven the wrongs of our brethren then forgive ours also. In fact this is what we pray every time we say the Lord’s Prayer: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us”. The fathers of the Church say that when our heart is bright with the light of reconciliation with our brethren, it receives the grace of the good things we pray for. This rule to forgive to be forgiven is probably one of the most difficult to put into practice because it is opposed by our fallen human nature which is governed by egocentricity, a self pride, a hardness of heart, the remembrance of evils and resentfulness, and a feeling of wanting justice and revenge, that is why forgiving is not an easy thing to do.
But these passions can be put to death with love, charity, compassion and the Cross of humility and then forgiveness will follow. Thus, by the Cross we pass over from the death of the passions to life and to the resurrection of love and partake of the Cross of the Lord. There where once ruled enmity, resentfulness and hatred now reigns love and brotherhood. The forgiveness of our brother also helps us in the work of prayer and especially the prayer of the heart which is intensified during this period as are also the increased services of the Church. A clear mind imitates the holy angels in the work of glorifying God; it sees the hidden mysteries in Holy Scripture. When we think on the evil that our brother has done us, our mind cannot rise to God, but continually remains fixed on those thoughts. That is why Christ advises us that before we bring our offering to the temple to be first reconciled with our brother.
The second warning in Sunday’s Gospel reading has to do with how we fast. Christ warns us that when we fast to not be “as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast.” Now because the man of sin, that is, fallen man, failed in that which he was called by God to be, in other words, because he failed to be the image and glory of God, he pursues glory from men as did the vainglorious Pharisees who fasted in front of the people so that they could receive praise and glory. This is vainglory, an empty glory, because it doesn’t join us with God: it is not a result of our relationship with him. Fasting with the intent of showing others how good a Christian we are is actually a diabolical trap, because it increases our pride, it seeks for human praises and becomes unprofitable and even harmful. Fasting is not an act of religiousness because we want to appear to others as religious. If our fast has the element of pride with the feeling that we want to be rewarded for our effort with praises from others, then we shouldn’t expect any reward from God: it is a false fast and we might just as well not fast at all. To avoid this diabolical trap it is essential to bear the Cross of humility, to observe an unseen fast, a fast that is kept in secret that only God can see. Only then is fasting pleasing to God.
The third warning is against our attachment to earthly and corruptible treasures. To be satisfied with what we have and to avoid trusting in material things that from one day to the next might be lost. The warning is for us to show that we are not only flesh, but also spiritual and to avoid a love for money and other material treasures that have nothing to do with eternal life. We should seek for the “Bread of Life” not only to live, but to live in God. Man departed from God and rejected the true treasure which is God and his Grace, and turned his attention to worldly treasures to take the place of the void he felt inside. But these worldly treasures don’t last forever and neither can we take them with us when we die. Thus the Lord tells us not only to not collect such treasures but also not to love them, because they take over our heart and enslave us. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” If we become slaves to such treasures we become alienated and strangers to the Cross of our Lord. For this reason, the Fathers advise us not to have such possessions, but to divide them among the poor and to achieve as much as possible a lack of possessions. In this way we will become servants of Christ and not slaves to gold. By giving to those in need it is like depositing our wealth in the heavenly bank where it will be kept in safety and be given back to us with interest. Thus, we will have treasure in heaven.
Our salvation is a case of changing our life from a life of passions to a new way of life and existence of the Church. This change or transformation is accompanied with internal suffering, a cross, which is a Passover from death to life and resurrection.
So from Monday we enter into the period of Great Lent. It is the most beautiful, the most touching and contrite period in the ecclesiastical year and we can say that it is the heart of the liturgical and devotional life of our Church. It comprises of a spiritual arena, an arena of virtues, as it is called in many hymns, where the faithful “fight the good fight of faith.” (1 Tim. 6:12) It is a time that we welcome, a time for repentance: where we cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.
The purpose of this holy period is our preparation to celebrate Pascha. What we seek, what we request, is to be found worthy to venerate the Holy Passions and Resurrection of our Lord. And this we achieve with the spiritual battle we undertake to fight. At all times the Christian is obliged to "fight the good fight of faith" (1 Tim. 6:12) and follow faithfully the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But Great Lent presupposes a greater struggle and a more organized attempt in this spiritual warfare.
One of the weapons with which we arm ourselves to do battle successfully in this battle is fasting. St. Basil calls fasting the “weapon against the army of demons” and the “medicine that takes away sin”. But it is not enough just to abstain from certain foods for our fasting to be worthy of praise. We need to keep a fast that is pleasing to God. True fasting is the departure from everything evil and inappropriate: 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.”
To fast properly, we need to understand what fasting is; where did it originate from, why do we fast, what benefits are there from fasting, is it a commandment and are we obliged to fast?
Fasting is as old as the human race. Fasting was practiced by pagan religions, Judaism and Christianity, and it was generally considered an important element of religious life. In the ancient religions of the East fasting meant a complete abstention from food for a certain period of time – usually one or two days. In fact the Greek word for fasting = Νηστεία means a total fast where nothing passes the mouth. I said it is as old as the human race because the very first commandment God gave to Adam was a type of Fast. God told Adam that he could eat freely of every tree of the garden, but not of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In other words, God instituted fasting in Paradise and from what we read in Genesis, it is clear that fasting existed even before the “original sin” of Adam and Eve, and that it was not ordered as a cure for their sin. The fasting in Paradise consisted of abstaining of a certain food — namely of “the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which was created by God as well as all the other trees in Paradise. God’s commandment to Adam and Eve not to eat of the particular fruit was issued as a means for them to advance in the discipline of self-control and for spiritual growth. This then is the main purpose of fasting; to help us learn discipline, to help us gain control over those things that we often allow to control us. In our culture, food dominates the lives of most people. In the west especially there are entire TV networks devoted to food. We have eating disorders, diets galore, weight loss pills, liposuction treatments, stomach stapling; all sorts of things that proceed out of the fact that we often allow food to control us. We fast to discipline ourselves, to reverse this process and to gain control of those things that we have allowed to get out of control.
Thus it is important to have a correct understanding of what fasting is. It is not what most people consider to be the purpose of fasting. It is not an act of religiousness because we want 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 because as already said God instituted fasting in Paradise before the original sin. And because God instituted fasting, it is a commandment that we are obliged to keep, but we must be careful not to understand this as keeping to the letter of the law. St Paul tells us 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)
In other words we do not keep the fast like the Pharisees who obeyed the law out of a religious duty. We keep it by free choice because we want to be closer to God and the only way to do this is to discipline and cleanse ourselves of the passions that form a barrier cutting us off from God. If we keep the fast like the Pharisees, as an act of religiousness or out of fear because it is the law of the Church, then this will do us more harm than good. Fasting is a commandment, but it will not benefit us if we feel it is a burden imposed upon us. God created us with free will. Adam made bad use of his free will and through disobedience to this simple commandment broke the living union of love with God and lost paradise. Adam’s fall was his free will; that is, he held in scorn the heavenly obligations of prayer and fasting by eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Through our free will we voluntarily impose upon ourselves a discipline of fasting by being obedient to the rules of the Church regarding the use of spiritual and material goods in the hope that we may return to the life in Paradise, a life of communion with God. Fasting therefore, is a means of salvation, this salvation being a life we live in accordance with the Divine will, in communion with God.
For Christians to grow spiritually we must deny our own will and live in accordance with God's will. Our Lord Jesus Christ calls all of us to salvation through self-denial, he said: "If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me." (Matt. 16:24) Christ calls us to follow and imitate his life which was a life of self denial even unto death. What does Christ mean when he says "If any man will come after me"? He means if we want to partake of his Resurrection and be with him in Paradise we must do want he did. Christ began his mission on earth by fasting for forty days. By this he showed us that discipline in self denial is the first step we must take if we wish to follow him. Through his action he showed us that fasting is important for spiritual growth and if he fasted then it is also our Christian duty to also fast. In fact Christ takes it for granted that we fast. In the Gospel reading that we heard for this coming Sunday Christ said: "Moreover when you “fast”, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance". He said "when you fast" and not "If you fast" thus indicating that Christ assumes that we fast.
But in an indirect way he also commanded us to fast. When the Pharisees asked Jesus why his disciples didn’t fast. Jesus replied: “Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.” (Matt. 9:15)
Here Christ is saying that he has come on earth as a bridegroom and his bride is the Church and just like any wedding there is joy and celebration and the mourning character of fasting is not appropriate during these celebrations, but when the wedding feast is over, when he will leave the earth, then the Church his bride will grief and mourn and then she will fast. The Acts of the Apostles tells us of many occasions when the apostles fasted and Paul tells us that at certain times we must give ourselves to fasting and prayer. (1 Cor. 7:5)
Today, the practice and idea of fasting is largely ignored. Some people say that God’s people need not fast since we are saved by grace and not by works, and that fasting can easily become hypocritical, done merely for show and for the condemnation of others. Many others generally dismiss fasting as something old-fashioned, simple and naïve. “This is the twenty-first century; those rules were made for the past and simpler days.” Nonetheless, in spite of the present practice of most people, we must take the practice of fasting seriously. We all need to develop the habit of saying no to our carnal passions and desires. What we need is self-discipline and self-control. These are acquired only through regular spiritual exercise — namely through fasting.
It is rather amazing that most Protestant Churches who dismiss tradition and claim they live only by the Bible, disobey the very teaching of Christ and the Apostles concerning fasting. Where in the bible does it say that modern Christians are exempt from this holy practice? If we believe in Christ we are not free to choose what teachings we prefer and to reject the teachings that place restrictions on our own free will? Either we are Christians or we are not. One cannot reject a certain Apostolic Tradition as the Protestants do, because as they claim it is not in the Bible, but on the other hand to reject and blatantly disobey a teaching given by Christ himself which is very clearly in the Bible.
In times past, the Roman Catholic Church use to fast like the Orthodox Church, but even they have rejected this commandment and have reduced it to something nominal and symbolic by just giving up chocolate or something similar for the period of Lent. They give Lent a sacrificial character by giving up something they really love. But this only shows that they have lost the meaning of fasting, because it is not to give up things or to do something sacrificial.
Unless one is controlled by chocolate, giving it up is not fasting; it is simply just giving up chocolate or it is done with the idea that we fast in order to suffer. But we do not fast in order to suffer. We fast in order to get a grip on our lives and to regain control of those things that have gotten out of control.
Fasting is not just an exercise of giving up certain foods: if done properly it can bring about a spiritual change in us and if at the end of the fast we feel the same, then we can be sure that our fast was not conducted correctly. There is a right and a wrong way of fasting and only if done correctly can it bring forth the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
True fasting can be our entrance and participation in that experience of Christ Himself by which He liberates us from the total dependence on food, matter, and the world. By no means is our liberation a full one. Living still in the fallen world, we still depend on food. But just as our death—through which we still must pass—has become by virtue of Christ’s Death a passage into life, the food we eat and the life it sustains can be life in God and for God. Part of our food has already become “food of immortality’—the Body and Blood of Christ Himself. But even the daily bread we receive from God can be in this life and in this world that which strengthens our communion with God, rather than that, which separates us from God. It is only fasting that can perform that transformation, giving us the living proof that our dependence on food and matter is not total, not absolute, but that united to prayer and God's grace, it can itself be spiritual.
Fasting helps us to place a boundary to our own egotistic desires, it is a voluntary self denial with the intention of disciplining ourselves to live according to what is truly necessary and not according to worldly pleasures. In this sense it is a real fight because we are doing battle not only with the devil, but with our passions which can be stronger than any temptation he can hurl at us to bring us down.
The aim of bodily fasting is the enslavement of the flesh; fasting bridles the lust of the stomach and of that below the stomach, meaning the removal of the passions. When we overcome the stomach then the healing process begins to suppress and then remove the deadly passions.
In fasting the flesh and the spirit struggle one against the other. True bodily fasting leads to the triumph of the spirit over the body, and gives a man power over the stomach, it subdues the flesh and permits it not to commit fornication and uncleanness. The fathers say that abstinence is the mother of cleanliness, the giver of health and is good for rich and poor, sick and healthy, alike. It strengthens the seeker after godliness in spiritual battles and proves to be a formidable weapon against evil spirits. As the Lord Himself said, concerning the casting-out of certain demons: "This kind never cometh out except by prayer and fasting". (Matt. 17:21)
Fasting, however, is not to be done out of pride or self-will; It must be observed in the praise of God and must be in accordance with the canons of the Church, since it consists in the complete renunciation of self-will and of the desires. At the same time, we must realize that for fallen man to attain perfection, even intensive fasting is insufficient, if in his soul he does not abstain from those things, which further sin. Fasting 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.
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 means to put away all evil, to control the tongue, to forbear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury. Only if we renounce these things is our fasting true and acceptable to God.
Prayer and fasting should in their turn be accompanied by almsgiving, by love for others expressed in practical form, by works of compassion and forgiveness. Fasting must be undertaken willingly and not by compulsion. God doesn't need our fasting. We don't fast as a kind of personal punishment for our sins. We cannot pay God back for sins but we can only confess them to Him to receive forgiveness.
Fasting with a willing spirit and not just with an attitude of fulfilling a religious obligation means that we keep the purpose of fasting always before us, which is to develop self control and to remember God and His Kingdom. Fasting then is a powerful tool which can help us to rid ourselves of the bad elements in us. It purifies not only the body but also the soul and helps to lift the veil of darkness from our eyes to see the things that are really important for our salvation. This is why it is used as a preparation before Holy Communion, because when undertaken properly, fasting fills our hearts and minds with the task before us. It concentrates our spiritual energies and makes them more effective by constantly reminding us that our life depends entirely with God. This is why it is also used as a preparation before the Great Feasts such as the oncoming Feast of Easter. In this case it is not to prepare us for Holy Communion on Easter night because we can have Communion many times during the Great fast. It is to prepare us to enter and experience the Feast with spiritual eyes and to participate fully in the joy of the Resurrection.
Before we break up for Great Lent I want to say something about the way many people fast. Many observe only the first week of the fast and Holy Week leaving out the weeks in between. But as Christians we are obliged to do our best to be obedient to the rules of the Church. The benefit of fasting is not in the foods that we eat but in our self denial and obedience to the will of God. Many people believe it is a sin to eat meat and dairy products during the fast, but we must understand that food in general is not a sin. Whatever God has created is good and if a sin is involved in eating meat it is not because of the food itself, but because of the disobedience to the Church’s rule for fasting. Another misconception is that we can eat as much as we like of the fasting foods. Proper fasting should involve a reduction in the food that we take and less mealtimes. We should not leave the table with floated stomachs. Being a little hungry during the day should constantly remind us that we do not live by bread alone but that our life depends on God and the fact that the Lord alone can give us “food that lasts for eternal life”(John 6:27).
As already said the purpose of fasting is to help us gain control over those things that we often allow to control us, thus we must beware lest our fasting does the opposite and begins to control us. If we spend countless hours reading the ingredient label of every item that we buy to make sure no egg or milk extracts were used, then we can become just as controlled by our fasting and, in the process, miss the whole point of fasting in the first place. Another danger is the "substitution syndrome" where people try to substitute milk with non dairy milk, cheese with a rubbery look alike which definitely doesn't taste like real cheese and meat with tofu burgers and many other things it can be made into. I haven't seen it in Cyprus but in health shops in America they sell tofu turkey which is shaped to look like a real turkey and is even supposed to taste like the real thing. While the “substitution syndrome” can make fasting a little more exciting, we must be careful not to let it take control because then our fasting simply focuses on following the “letter of the law” while ignoring the “spirit on which the law is based. Lenten cookbooks have thousands of delicious looking recipes to tempt our palette and while a gourmet meal does no harm for a special occasion we must not forget that the basic rule in fasting is simplicity of eating.
Of all the fasts in the Church's calendar, Great Lent is the strictest with restrictions not only in what we can eat but also on how many times we can eat. The first week is very difficult and should only be attempted by those who have the spiritual strength to observe it. It begins with a total fast on the Monday and Tuesday which means that nothing may enter the mouth for those first two days. The first meal is on Wednesday after the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. The Thursday is again a total fast day with the second meal of the week on Friday again after the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. 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. A lay custom makes a mockery of this rule which has everyone going out into the fields and having a party on Clean/Green Monday.

On other weekdays we keep to a Strict fast which signifies that we may eat only boiled vegetables and also such things as fruit, nuts, bread and honey. On these days olive oil and wine are not permitted. When the rules for fasting were established only olive oil was available for cooking. Many people are baffled why olives may be eaten but not the oil pressed from the olives. It is not an animal product like all the other foods prohibited so why is it forbidden during the weekdays of Lent? The answer is simply because fasting should consist of very basic and simple meals with the aim of weakening the body which in turn will weaken the passions that rule the body. Olive oil is rich in sustenance and strengthens the body and at the same time can be used in cooking to make better and tastier meals. Most people will prefer fried chips to a boiled potato. The rule says olive oil but now we have a variety of vegetable oils and margarines which some people insist should also not be used on the strict days. Granted you can have fried chips with vegetable oil but it is not as rich as olive oil and neither does it have the same health qualities. Those against the use of vegetable oil are usually monks or people influenced from the monastic way of life, but in general, ordinary people in the world will consume vegetable oil and margarine on the strict days. I class them as substitute foods similar to the fake cheese and tofu turkey.
Wine is not permitted because it is alcoholic and one needs a sober mind to fast and pray. The rule doesn't mention beer or whisky, but it goes without saying that all alcoholic drinks fall under the category of wine unless or course we categorize beer as a substitute for wine.
Another rule that baffles people is that the main rule for fasting is to not consume any animal products yet on these strict days of fasting we may eat products made from fish eggs e.g. caviar and taramosalada and also snails. Why these are allowed I have not been able to find out but it probably has to do with the absence of blood. This also would explain why on Saturdays and Sunday which are not considered as true fasting days, we are allowed Olive oil and wine, but also sea creatures that do not have red blood like octopus, calamari, all shellfish and crab and lobster if you can afford them.
I think most of the confusion concerning fasting has resulted from the many dispensations the church has made to fasting over the centuries and the various types of fasting. The Church listed foods in various categories according to how tasty and how difficult it was to be deprived of them, but also to what degree they consisted as abstinence. Fasting in its true sense is total fasting which as already mentioned is abstaining for everything, even water. The next level was called dry-eating which meant eating dry bread and water only. These forms of fasting were extremely difficult for most people so the Church added a new category – what we now call the strict fast or the no-oil fast. This fast allowed vegetables, pulses, fruit and nuts but any cooking had to be done without oil. On Saturdays and Sundays it was forbidden to fast because one was the Sabbath and the other the celebration of the Resurrection so a new category of oil and wine was added which with the added dispensation of octopus, calamari and shellfish one could have a feast without allowing blood animal meat which would have broken the chain of fasting. This form of fasting was also allowed on certain saint's days throughout the year when they fell on a Wednesday or Friday. But if this form of fasting was allowed for certain saint days we could not have the same for one of the Lord's or the Mother of God's feastdays so another category was established which added fish to the oil and wine category. Thus on the 25th March, the feast of the Annunciation, which falls during Great Lent and on Palm Sunday we can celebrate the days with fish dinners. The last category is the dairy category of Cheesefare Week, of which we are in now, but it is not really a fast, but rather a preparation for the fast and an ideal way of using up the surplus cheese and eggs stored up in the fridge.
In conclusion, the point of fasting is not only to avoid certain foods, but also to avoid the control we allow food to have over us by being obedient to the Church's rule for fasting. If we can’t discipline ourselves in terms of what goes into our mouths, we will hardly be in a position to discipline ourselves with regard to what comes out of our mouths.
So with that I wish you all good strength for Great Lent and as we say in Greek Kalo Stadio, meaning have a good fight in the spiritual arena.