What is Fasting?

Practiced in many religions, including Christianity, fasting is an act which is most accurately defined as an abstention from meat, drink and all natural food for a determined period. So it is defined by the Church of England, in the 16th homily, on the authority of the Council of Chalcedon and of the primitive church generally.

In a looser sense the word is employed to denote abstinence from certain kinds of food merely; and this meaning, which in ordinary usage is probably the more prevalent, seems also to be at least tolerated by the Church of England when it speaks of “fast or abstinence days,” as if fasting and abstinence were synonymous.

Jesus himself did not inculcate asceticism in His teaching, and the absence of that distinctive element from His practice was sometimes a subject of hostile remark (Matt. xi. 19). We read, indeed, that on one occasion He fasted forty days and forty nights; but the expression, which is an obscure one, possibly means nothing more than that He endured the privations ordinarily involved in a stay in the wilderness.

Fasting in Christianity

While there is no reason to doubt that Christ observed the one great national fast prescribed in the written law of Moses, we have express notice that neither He nor His disciples were in the habit of observing the other fasts which custom and tradition had established. See Mark ii. 18, where the correct reading appears to be — “The disciples of John, and the Pharisees, were fasting” (some customary fast).

He never formally forbade fasting, but neither did He ever enjoin it. He assumed that, in certain circumstances of sorrow and need, the fasting instinct would sometimes be felt by the community and the individual; what He was chiefly concerned about was to warn His followers against the mistaken aims which His contemporaries were so apt to contemplate in their fasting (Matt. vi. 16-18).

In one passage, indeed, He has been understood as practically commanding resort to the practice in certain circumstances. It ought to be noted, however, that Matt, xvii. 21 is probably spurious; and that in Mark ix. 29 the words “and fasting” are omitted by Westcott and Hort as well as by Tischendorf on the evidence of the Cod. Sinaiticus (first hand) and Cod. Vaticanus. The reference to “the fast” in Acts xxvii. 9 has generally been held to indicate that the apostles continued to observe the yearly Jewish fast.

But this inference is by no means a necessary one. According to Acts xiii. 2, 3, xiv. 23, they conjoined fasting with prayer at ordinations, and doubtless also on some other solemn occasions; but at the same time the liberty of the Christian “in respect of an holiday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath” was strongly insisted on, by one of them at least, who declared that meat whether taken or abstained from commendeth not to God (Col. ii. 16-23; 1 Cor. viii. 8; Rom. xiv. 14-22; 1 Tim. iv. 3-5).

The fastings to which the apostle Paul alludes in 2 Cor. vi. 5, xi. 27, were rather of the nature of inevitable hardships cheerfully endured in the discharge of his sacred calling. The words which appear to encourage fasting in 1 Cor. vii. 5 are absent from all the oldest manuscripts and are now omitted by all critics; and on the whole the precept and practice of the New Testament, while recognizing the propriety of occasional and extraordinary fasts, seem to be decidedly hostile to the imposition of any of a stated, obligatory and general kind.

The usage of the Christian church during the earlier centuries was in this, as in so many other matters, influenced by traditional Jewish feeling, and by the force of old habit, quite as much as by any direct apostolic authority or supposed divine command. Habitual temperance was of course in all cases regarded as an absolute duty; and “the bridegroom” being absent, the present life was regarded as being in a sense one continual “fast.” Fasting in the stricter sense was not unknown; but it is certain that it did not at first occupy nearly so prominent a place in Christian ritual as that to which it afterwards attained.

There are early traces of the customary observance of the Wednesday and Friday fasts — the dies stationum (Clem. Alex. Strom, vii. 877), and also of a “quadragesimal” fast before Easter. But the very passage which proves the early origin of “quadragesima,” conclusively shows how uncertain it was in its character, and how unlike the Catholic “Lent.” Irenaeus, quoted by Eusebius (v. 24), informs us with reference to the customary yearly celebration of the mystery of the resurrection of our Lord, that disputes prevailed not only with respect to the day, but also with respect to the manner of fasting in connexion with it. “For some think that they ought to fast only one day, some two, some more days; some compute their day as consisting of forty hours night and day; and this diversity existing among those that observe it is not a matter that has just sprung up in our times, but long ago among those before us.”

It was not pretended that the apostles had legislated on the matter, but the general and natural feeling that the anniversaries of the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ ought to be celebrated by Christians took expression in a variety of ways according to the differing tastes of individuals. No other stated fasts, besides those already mentioned, can be adduced from the time before Irenaeus; but there was also a tendency — not unnatural in itself, and already sanctioned by Jewish practice — to fast by way of preparation for any season of peculiar privilege.

Thus, according to Justin Martyr (Apol. ii. 93), catechumens were accustomed to fast before baptism, and the church fasted with them. To the same feeling the quadragesimal fast which (as already stated) preceded the joyful feast of the resurrection, is to be, in part at least, attributed. As early as the time of Tertullian it was also usual for communicants to prepare themselves by fasting for receiving the eucharist.

But that Christian fasts had not yet attained to the exaggerated importance which they afterwards assumed is strikingly shown in the well-known Shepherd of Hermas (lib. iii. sim. v.), where it is declared that “with merely outward fasting nothing is done for true virtue”; the believer is exhorted chiefly to abstain from evil and seek to cleanse himself from feelings of covetousness, and impurity, and revenge: “on the day that thou fastest content thyself with bread, vegetables and water, and thank God for these.

But reckon up on this day what thy meal would otherwise have cost thee, and give the amount that it comes to to some poor widow or orphan, or to the poor.” The right of bishops to ordain special fasts, “ex aliqua sollicitudinis ecclesiasticae causa” (Tertullian), was also recognized.

Fasting in the Church

According to an expression preserved by Eusebius (H.E. v. 18), Montanus was the first to give laws (to the church) on fasting. Such language, though rhetorical in form, is substantially correct.

The treatise of Tertullian, — Concerning Fasting: against the Carnal, — written as it was under Montanistic influence, is doubly interesting, first as showing how free the practice of the church down to that time had been, and then as foreshadowing the burdensome legislation which was destined to succeed. In that treatise (c. 15) he approves indeed of the church practice of not fasting on Saturdays and Sundays (as elsewhere, De corona, c. 3, he had expressed his concurrence in the other practice of observing the entire period between Easter and Pentecost as a season of joy); but otherwise he evinces great dissatisfaction with the indifference of the church as to the number, duration and severity of her fasts.

The church thus came to be more and more involved in discussions as to the number of days to be observed, especially in “Lent,” as fast days, as to the hour at which a fast ought to terminate (whether at the 3rd or at the 9th hour), as to the rigour with which each fast ought to be observed (whether by abstinence from flesh merely, abstinentia, or by abstinence from lacticinia, xerophagia, or by literal jejunium), and as to the penalties by which the laws of fasting ought to be enforced. Almost a century, however, elapsed between the composition of the treatise of Tertullian (cir. 212) and the first recorded instances of ecclesiastical legislation on the subject.

These, while far from indicating that the church had attained unanimity on the points at issue, show progress in the direction of the later practice of Catholicism. About the year 306 the synod of Illiberis in its 26th canon decided in favour of the observance of the Saturday fast. The council of Ancyra in 314, on the other hand, found it necessary to legislate in a somewhat different direction, — by its 14th canon enjoining its priests and clerks at least to taste meat at the love feasts.

The synod of Laodicea framed several rules with regard to the observance of “Lent,” such as that “during Lent the bread shall not be offered except on Saturday and Sunday ” (can. 49), that “the fast shall not be relaxed on the Thursday of the last week of Lent, thus dishonouring the whole season; but the fast shall be kept throughout the whole period” (can. 50), that “during the fast no feasts of the martyrs shall be celebrated” (can. 51), and that “no wedding or birthday feasts shall be celebrated during Lent” (can. 52).

The synod of Hippo (393 A.D.) enacted that the sacrament of the altar should always be taken fasting, except on the Thursday before Easter. Protests in favour of freedom were occasionally raised, not always in a very wise manner, or on very wise grounds, by various individuals such as Eustathius of Sebaste (c. 350), Aerius of Pontus (c. 375), and Jovinian, a Roman monk (c. 388).

Of the Eustathians, for example (whose connexion with Eustathius can hardly be doubted), the complaint was made that “they fast on Sundays, but eat on the fast-days of the church.” They were condemned by the synod of Gangra in Paphlagonia in the following canons: — Can. 19, “If any one fast on Sunday, let him be anathema.”

Can. 20, “If any one do not keep the fasts universally commanded and observed by the whole church, let him be anathema.” Jovinian was very moderate. He “did not allow himself to be hurried on by an inconsiderate zeal to condemn fasting, the life of celibacy, monachism, considered purely in themselves. . . . He merely sought to show that men were wrong in recommending so highly and indiscriminately the life of celibacy and fasting, though he was ready to admit that both under certain circumstances might be good and useful” (Neander).

He was nevertheless condemned (390) both by Pope Siricius at a synod in Rome, and by Ambrose at another in Milan. The views of Aerius, according to the representations of his bitter opponent Epiphanius (Haer. 75, “Adv. Aerium”), seem on this head at least, though unpopular, to have been characterized by great wisdom and sobriety. He did not condemn fasting altogether, but thought that it ought to be resorted to in the spirit of gospel freedom according as each occasion should arise. He found fault with the church for having substituted for Christian liberty a yoke of Jewish bondage.

Towards the beginning of the 5th century we find Socrates (439) enumerating (H.E. v. 22) a long catalogue of the different fasting practices of the church. The Romans fasted three weeks continuously before Easter (Saturdays and Sundays excepted). In Illyria, Achaia and Alexandria the quadragesimal fast lasted six weeks. Others (the Constantinopolitans) began their fasts seven weeks before Easter, but fasted only on alternate weeks, five days at a time. Corresponding differences as to the manner of abstinence occurred.

Some abstained from all living creatures; others ate fish; others fish and fowl. Some abstained from eggs and fruit; some confined themselves to bread; some would not take even that. Some fasted till three in the afternoon, and then took whatever they pleased. “Other nations,” adds the historian, “observe other customs in their fasts, and that for various reasons. And since no one can show any written rule about this, it is plain the apostles left this matter free to every one's liberty and choice, that no one should be compelled to do a good thing out of necessity and fear.”

When Leo the Great became pope in 440, a period of more rigid uniformity began. The imperial authority of Valentinian helped to bring the whole West at least into submission to the see of Rome; and ecclesiastical enactments had, more than formerly, the support of the civil power. Though the introduction of the four Ember seasons was not entirely due to him, as has sometimes been asserted, it is certain that their widespread observance was due to his influence, and to that of his successors, especially of Gregory the Great.

The tendency to increased rigour may be discerned in the 2nd canon of the synod of Orleans (541), which declares that every Christian is bound to observe the fast of Lent, and, in case of failure to do so, is to be punished according to the laws of the church by his spiritual superior; in the 9th canon of the synod of Toledo (653), which declares the eating of flesh during Lent to be a mortal sin; in Charlemagne's law for the newly conquered Saxony, which attaches the penalty of death to wanton disregard of the holy season.

Baronius mentions that in the 11th century those who ate flesh during Lent were liable to have their teeth knocked out. But it ought to be remembered that this severity of the law early began to be tempered by the power to grant dispensations. The so-called Butter Towers (Tours de beurre) of Rouen, 1485-1507, Bourges and other cities, are said to have been built with money raised by sale of dispensations to eat lacticinia on fast days.

It is probable that the apparent severity of the medieval Latin Church on this subject was largely due to the real strictness of the Greek Church, which, under the patriarch Photius in 864, had taken what was virtually a new departure in its fasting praxis. The rigour of the fasts of the modern Greek Church is well known; and it can on the whole be traced back to that comparatively early date.

Of the nine fundamental laws of that church (ἐννέα παραγγέλματα τῆς ἐκκλησίας) two are concerned with fasting. Besides fasts of an occasional and extraordinary nature, the following are recognized as of stated and universal obligation: —

  • (1) The Wednesday and Friday fasts throughout the year (with the exception of the period between Christmas and Epiphany, the Easter week, the week after Whitsunday, the third week after Epiphany)
  • (2) The great yearly fasts, viz. that of Lent, lasting 48 days, from the Monday of Sexagesima to Easter eve; that of Advent, 39 days, from November 15 to Christmas eve; that of the Theotokos (νηστεία τῆς Θεοτόκου), from August 1 to August 15; that of the Holy Apostles, lasting a variable number of days from the Monday after Trinity
  • (3) The minor yearly fasts before Epiphany, before Whitsunday, before the feasts of the transfiguration, the invention of the cross, the beheading of John the Baptist. During even the least rigid of these the use of flesh and lacticinia is strictly forbidden; fish, oil and wine are occasionally conceded, but not before two o'clock in the afternoon.

The practice of the Coptic church is almost identical with this. A week before the Great Fast (Lent) , a fast of three days is observed in commemoration of that of the Ninevites, mentioned in the book of Jonah. Some of the Copts are said to observe it by total abstinence during the whole period. The Great Fast continues fifty-five days; nothing is eaten except bread and vegetables, and that only in the afternoon, when church prayers are over. The Fast of the Nativity lasts for twenty-eight days before Christmas; that of the Apostles for a variable number of days from the Feast of the Ascension; and that of the Virgin for fifteen days before the Assumption.

All Wednesdays and Fridays are also fast days except those that occur in the period between Easter and Whitsunday. The Armenians are equally strict; but (adds Rycaut) “the times seem so confused and without rule that they can scarce be recounted, unless by those who live amongst them, and strictly observe them, it being the chief care of the priest, whose learning principally consists in knowing the appointed times of fasting and feasting, the which they never omit on Sundays to publish unto the people.”

At the council of Trent no more than a passing allusion was made to the subject of fasting. The faithful were simply enjoined to submit themselves to church authority on the subject; and the clergy were exhorted to urge their flocks to the observance of frequent jejunia, as conducive to the mortification of the flesh, and as assuredly securing the divine favour. R. F. R. Bellarmine (De jejunio) distinguishes jejunium spirituale (abstinentia a vitiis), jejunium morale (parsimonia et temperantia cibi et potus), jejunium naturale (abstinentia ab omni prorsus cibo et potu, quacunque ratione sumpto), and jejunium ecclesiasticum.

The last he defines simply as an abstinence from food in conformity with the rule of the church. It may be either voluntary or compulsory; and compulsory either because of a vow or because of a command. But the definition given by Alexander Halensis, which is much fuller, still retains its authority: — “Jejunium est abstinentia a cibo et potu secundum formam ecclesiae, intuitu satisfaciendi pro peccato et acquirendi vitam aeternam.” It was to this last clause that the Reformers most seriously objected.

They did not deny that fasting might be a good thing, nor did they maintain that the church or the authority might not ordain fasts, though they deprecated the imposition of needless burdens on the conscience. What they protested against was the theory of the opus operatum et meritorium as applied to fasting.

As matter of fact, the Reformed churches in no case gave up the custom of observing fast days, though by some churches the number of such days was greatly reduced. In many parts of Germany the seasons of Lent and Advent are still marked by the use of emblems of mourning in the churches, by the frequency of certain phrases (Kyrie eleison, Agnus Dei) and the absence of others (Hallelujah, Gloria in excelsis) in the liturgical services, by abstinence from some of the usual social festivities, and by the non-celebration of marriages.

And occasional fasts are more or less familiar. The Church of England has retained a considerable list of fasts; though Hooker (E.P. v. 72) had to contend with some who, while approving of fastings undertaken “of men's own free and voluntary accord as their particular devotion doth move them thereunto,” yet “yearly or weekly fasts such as ours in the Church of England they allow no further than as the temporal state of the land doth require the same for the maintenance of seafaring men and preservation of cattle; because the decay of the one and the waste of the other could not well be prevented but by a politic order appointing some such usual change of diet as ours is.”

In the practice of modern Roman Catholicism the following are recognized as fasting days, that is to say, days on which one meal only, and that not of flesh, may be taken in the course of twenty-four hours: — The forty days of Lent (Sundays excepted), all the Ember days, the Wednesdays and Fridays in Advent, and the vigils of certain feasts, namely, those of Whitsuntide, of St Peter and St Paul, of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, of All Saints and of Christmas day. Source

Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge" (in the public domain), "Tithing" with minor edits.