In the last essay, we considered the biblical practice of fasting and some early Christian teaching on fasting as well. In this essay, we will look at the calendar to see where fasting fits into regular Christian practice, then touch on some specific teaching about fasting that may help you to recover fasting as a vital part of your own (and your church community’s) regular practice of discipleship.
01. Fasting through the Year
Fasting is both a regular and spontaneous practice in the church’s history. From the first century, Christians have fasted regularly, abstaining from some or all food on a weekly or seasonal basis. But they have also recognized the spontaneous uses of fasting, declaring a fast as individuals or communities for specific purposes.
The weekly fasts. The fasts that made their way into Christian practice first were adaptations of Jewish practice. The earliest Christians were Jewish Christians, and they continued to pray and fast with their brethren in the synagogue and the Temple because they understood that the Christian way fulfilled the law.
Some observant Jews chose to fast twice a week, on Monday and Thursday, which we know from Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and tax collector (Lk. 18). The Pharisee congratulates himself because, among other things, he “fast[s] twice a week” (v. 12).
As conflict arose between Jewish and Gentile Christians, their practices began to diverge. The Didache, which may have been written as early as the first century, assumes that Christians will fast twice a week. However, it instructs readers to fast on Wednesday and Friday rather than on Monday and Thursday, to differentiate from the “hypocrites.”
Some scholars also see Wednesday and Friday fasting as a challenge to Roman pagan culture. Wednesday was dedicated to Mercury; Friday, to Venus. By fasting on those days, then, Christians could offer prayers for their neighbors and city.
Though the Didache does not attach particular significance to the days themselves, Christians came to see their weekly fasts as both commemoration of and participation in Jesus’ passion. Judas traditionally betrayed Jesus on Wednesday, and the Lord was crucified on Friday.
As early as the 3rd century, Christians also fasted before receiving Communion, or the Eucharist. The church father Tertullian says the bread of the Eucharist is what Christians “taste before (taking) any food?” Catholic teaching prescribed fasting from the previous midnight until 1953, and current teaching suggests at least a one-hour fast before Communion. Orthodox Christians continue to encourage the post-midnight fast.
It’s worth noting that the pre-Communion fast is one of the few absolute fasts. Calls for an absolute fast are rare and always brief. The other regular fasts often include xerophagy, or dry eating. “Strictly interpreted, [xerophagy] signifies that we may eat only vegetables cooked with water and salt, and also such things as fruit, nuts, bread and honey. In practice, octopus and shell-fish are also allowed on days of xerophagy; likewise vegetable margarine and corn or other vegetable oil, not made from olives.”The Lenten Triodion, trans. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos (Ware) (Faber & Faber, London, 1978), 35. In other words, the fasting rules encourage what might be called “eating with care.” Given the challenges of living in the contemporary world, which “makes it less likely that people will perceive the mystery of food or receive as a precious gift and sign of God’s sustaining care”Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 3. that allows only bread, water, vegetables include some abstinence, but might also be called mindful eating. The same is true of the seasonal fasts we’ll consider next.
The seasonal fasts. Protestant and Catholic Christians alike participate in one or more of the following periods of abstinence. Orthodox tend to observe all four (sometimes called “canonical” fasts) in some fashion.
- The widest Christian participation is in Lent, the forty-day period of abstinence before Easter. (Orthodox call it Great Lent to differentiate from the Nativity Fast.) It begins on Ash Wednesday in most Western churches (February 22 in 2023).The nature of the Lenten fast varies in Protestant churches and may not include abstinence from food at all. Most regard the practice as a means of resisting sin, and Protestants often choose to abstain from something that challenges their faithfulness.The Orthodox observe the strictest fast during this period, though it is not absolute.Though fasting should be approached in community and in consultation with one’s spiritual director, you can read a helpful overview of the Fasting Rule of the Orthodox churches at http://www.abbamoses.com/fasting.html. Their fasting (or “care-full” eating) begins with a meat fast that begins on Meatfare Monday, after the Sunday of the Prodigal Son (February 12 in 2023). It continues with a week of Cheesefare, and then Lent begins on Clean Monday (February 27 in 2023).
- The Nativity Fast. Sometimes called St. Philip’s Fast or Small Lent, this forty-day fast begins on November 15 and ends at the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas). Western churches observe the season of Advent during this time, but it is generally observed without fasting.
- The Apostles Fast. On the second Monday after Pentecost, following the Sunday of All Saints (June 12 in 2023), the Apostles Fast begins. It continues until the Feast of Paul and Peter on June 29. Because it is based on the movable date of Easter, the length of the Apostles Fast can vary from one week to six.
- The Dormition Fast. Orthodox observe a strict fast during the two weeks before the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (August 15).
Occasional fasts. The church calendar also contains several other fast days. Catholics and some Protestants fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Significant Orthodox fasting days include the Eve of Theophany/Epiphany (January 5), the Beheading of St. John the Baptist (August 29), and the Elevation of the Cross (September 14).
In addition, a Christian may fast on any day for reasons of discipleship or sanctification. “According to the need of the times,” writes the reformer John Calvin, “[pastors] should exhort the people either to fasting or to solemn supplications, or to other acts of humility, repentance, and faith.”John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.12.14.
Why set aside specific days for fasting, rather than relying on the direction of one’s heart or the seasons of one’s life? The short answer is, nothing precludes fasting as a more individualized practice. There may be times that call for humility and repentance.
But the “appointed” fasts invite Christians into the communal practice of fasting—that is, fasting together, at the same time. This togetherness can be a powerful antidote to the hyperindividualized approach to fasting that predominates the Western and Protestant mindset, where fasting may be seen merely as helpful, or as a way to hack your prayer life.
02. Fasting Together, Separately
Communal fasting also encourages Christians to keep fasting in its proper place, in short, to fast with virtue.
- We should fast with faith. Our faith should be rightly directed toward God, the source of our spiritual and physical food. Like Jesus, we should look to be filled with “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4).While fasting does not justify us before God, we should see it as a tool of faith, a way of practicing self-denial. It is, St. Didachos of Photiki wrote, “simply a tool for training those who desire self-restraint.”It is also a way of embodying two key spiritual realities—our utter dependence upon God and the danger our natural leanings and desires pose to holiness. True fasting is, as Basil of Caesarea writes, “the estrangement from evil, temperance of tongue, abstinence from anger, separation from desires, slander, falsehood and perjury.”
- We should fast in and with love. Fasting tempts us to see ourselves as more holy than those who don’t fast, as the Pharisee looked down on the tax collector. Fasting with love precludes that if we remember that love is not only the greatest virtue (1 Cor. 13); it is also greater than any of our disciplines. Love, in other words, ought to govern our practice of fasting.The life of St. Marcian of Cyrrhus provides a vivid illustration of this recognition. When an older monk visited him, Marcian invited the brother to join him at the table. The older man refused because of his fasting rule. “On my account change your custom today,” Marcian said, “for my body is weak.”After a little more cajoling, the man agreed. Then Marcian said, “My dear friend, we both share the same existence and embrace the same way of life, we prefer work to rest, fasting to nourishment, and it is only in the evening that we eat, but we know that love is a much more precious possession than fasting. For the one is the work of divine law, the other of our own power. And it is proper to consider the divine law much more precious than our own.”
- We should fast with hope. After all, fasting is not a rejection of food, but a deferral of some food for specific purposes. We should also believe that God is using the tool of fasting to mold us in the image of his Son.
- We should fast with joy. As Jesus taught, though fasting may accompany repentance and sorrow for sin, we should maintain our fast with joy. “Do not look gloomy,” he says in Matthew 6. “Anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.” In a real sense, this is an invitation to fasting as joy—joy that we can “suffer” for Christ (cf. Acts 5:41).
And though we might be tempted to see fasting as an occasion for “dour and pedantic legalism,” we should resist. Fasting should be taken “seriously,” says the Lenten Triodion, but we ought to remember that ‘the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Rom. 14:17).”The Lenten Triodion, 37.
03. The Promise of the Invitation
The invitation to fast comes to every Christian. But food, as Dallas Willard writes, occupies a “pervasive place” in our culture, making fasting seem all the more daunting.The Spirit of the Disciplines (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), 167. But it also means that fasting’s effects may be scattered through us just as widely, like a sower broadcasting his seed.
The harvest of righteousness, then, promises to be just as pervasive. These spiritual results of this physical practice should command our prayerful attention. In fasting, as with other disciplines, we “place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.”Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, rev. ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), 7. We ought to pray that as such transformation will come, that God will give us eyes to see it, and that our community and the world will enjoy its fruit.
04. Suggestions for Practice
- As you reflect on the place of fasting in your own practice, prayerfully consider joining the historic church in fasting on Wednesday or Friday. Take small steps—abstaining from a single food, or missing a single meal—praying often to reorient yourself to God’s purposes in your life.
- One component of fasting is “care-full eating.” Write down your meals for a week, not as a nutritional or dietary exercise, but as a means of paying attention to God’s grace and provision.
- Consider the following quote from Norman Wirzba: “If we … are to move into more grateful and worshipful ways of being, we are clearly going to need to slow down our living and become more attentive to the evidences of grace that surround us.” In what ways could fasting play a role in “slowing down your living”?