The Orthodox Church has four main fasting periods. They are: the Nativity Fast (Advent) before Christmas, Great Lent before Pascha, the Dormition (Falling Asleep) of the Mother of God fast before the feast of the Dormition on August 15th and the Apostle’s Fast from the Monday after All Saints Sunday (this year June 8th) until the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul on June 29th. This fast can be longer or shorter depending on when Pascha falls. Tradition tells us that the apostles undertook this fast in order to prepare themselves to go out and preach the Gospel after Christ’s Ascension into heaven and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Some people criticize the Church’s fasts, saying they are ‘man-made’ rules but this is not the case. In the second chapter of Saint Mark’s Gospel, when the Pharisees criticize our Lord’s apostles for not fasting, Jesus says “…. “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” (Mk 2:19-20)
In other words, fasting is not appropriate when Jesus is with his apostles, but that is when our Lord returns to Heaven his disciples (including all of us) will fast. But why does Jesus want us to fast? Because it gives us spiritual strength.
Once when the apostles asked our Lord why they had not been able to cast a demon out of a young boy and heal him, Jesus said: “… this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Mt 17:21) So fasting is important and for all of us. But we must be very careful not to fast only from certain foods and think that we are virtuous because of this. Even if we fast strictly, if our hearts are filled with judgement, lack of forgiveness, self-righteousness, grudges, etc. then our fasts are not pleasing to God. So in whatever way we fast, let our fasting come out of love for God and neighbor.
True fasting is putting away evil deeds. Forgive your neighbor his offences, forgive him his debts. “Do not fast in judgments and fights.” You may not eat meat, but you devour your brother. You may not drink wine, but you do not refrain from offence. You may wait till evening to take food, but you spend the day in places of judgment.
St. Basil the Great