Question: Okay, so remind me again; why do we fast from Olive Oil during Lent?

Answer: With Orthodox Lent beginning March 10, this is a timely question. The short answer to your question: olive oil and wine are treated similarly on the church calendar, though not totally equal. Wine is used for Holy Communion, so it is allowed more frequently. The initial restriction on olive oil and wine is because they were stored in pouches made of animal skins. During fast periods, we are to give the servile animals a rest from their labor so that they may honor God. Therefore we don’t eat anything from animals with blood (flesh meats and dairy products), or made from animals (the wine and oil skins).

Today, wine and oil are not stored in animal hide, so that aspect of the restriction is now delegated to tradition. However, the secondary aspect of both wine and oil call for their restrictions during the Great Fast. Wine “gladdens the heart”, and too much wine can cause inebriation. Oil is high in fat, and thus can satiate or fill your belly, leading to sluggishness and satisfaction. In The Lenten Triodion, we read;

The primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God. If practiced seriously, the Lenten abstinence from food - particularly in the opening days - involves a considerable measure of real hunger, and also a feeling of tiredness and physical exhaustion. The purpose of this is to lead us in turn to a sense of inward brokenness and contrition; to bring us, that is, to the point where we appreciate the full force of Christ’s statement, ‘Without Me you an do nothing’ (John 15:5).

During Lent there is frequently a limitation on the number of meals eaten each day, but when a meal is permitted there is no restriction on the amount of food allowed. The Fathers simply state, as a guiding principle, that we should never eat to satiety (until we are full) but always rise from the table feeling that we could have taken more and that we are now ready for prayer.

If it is important not to overlook the physical requirements of fasting, it is even more important not to overlook its inward significance. Fasting is not a mere matter of diet. It is moral as well as physical. True fasting is to be converted in heart and will; it is to return to God, to come home like the Prodigal to our Father’s house... The fast should not be kept by mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body... 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.’

So much for the ‘short’ answer. There is much more... Some years ago I put together some additional answers to questions about fasting. The article is not the full and complete response but merely some additional guidelines to consider. It is reprinted in full in this issue of The Vineyard.

Kali Sarakosti! Have a good Lent...