THINGS OLD AND NEW
By Ruth Powers
It seems that the secular world has recently discovered a practice that his been part of religious disciplines for millennia. Magazine articles, health and wellness blogs and social media feeds are full of material touting the latest diet and health trend — periodic or intermittent fasting. While modern proponents focus on the benefits of fasting for everything from weight loss to energy levels, followers of several religious traditions have known of its spiritual benefits for much, much longer.
The roots of fasting in our tradition go far back into the Hebrew Scriptures, where fasting was an important part of Jewish religious observance. It was practiced for a wide variety of reasons.
One purpose of a fast was to purify oneself in preparation for an important spiritual event. Moses fasted for 40 days while preparing the tablets of the Law (Exodus 34:28) to present to the Hebrew people. Elijah fasted for 40 days as he travelled through the desert to Mount Horeb to meet God after he fled from Jezebel’s threats on his life (1 Kings 9:8).
Fasting was also seen as a way to avert calamity or punishment by eliciting God’s compassion. Individuals like David fasted in hopes of saving his child from death (1 Samuel 12: 22-23), and Ahab’s punishment was mitigated because he fasted and humbled himself (1 Kings 21:27-29). Sometimes the whole community fasted in times of war (Jeremiah 36:3), natural disaster (Joel 1:14), or foreign oppression (Nehemiah 9:1). These cases imply that fasting is basically an act of penance: a ritual expression of remorse, submission, or supplication.
Although community fasts may have been proclaimed as needed before the Babylonian Exile, there is evidence from post-exilic writings like Zechariah that regular fast days did not enter the calendar until after the return to Israel. Fasting as a pious act of self-discipline seems to have developed later, possibly in the Maccabean period.
Fasting as preparation, penance, and pious practice also appears in the New Testament. Anna the Prophetess fasts in supplication for the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2:37). Jesus fasts for forty days in the desert in preparation for the beginning of his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-11), and he warns his disciples not to fast for pious show “as the hypocrites do” (Matthew 6:16-18).
The practice of regular fasting continued into the early Christian church. The Didache, written sometime between 70 and 140 A.D. speaks of fasting twice a week (on Wednesday and Friday as being an important part of Christian discipline, and many of the early Church Fathers also spoke of the importance of regular fasting.
Perhaps the most well-known fast in Christianity is the Lenten fast. In the ancient church originally it was the catechumens, those preparing for Baptism at Easter, who participated in a fast. It is thought that this fast was originally for the six days before Easter (which became Holy Week) but was lengthened to a period of 40 days to commemorate the forty days Jesus spend in the desert praying and fasting. It became a common practice for other members of the community to participate in the fast as well, but this was apparently not a universal practice.
The Council of Nicea in 325 spoke of a church-wide 40-day fast in preparation for Easter, but how this was observed still varied from place to place until Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) regularized it. Fasting would begin 46 days before Easter with a ceremony of Ash. Sundays were not to be counted in the 40-day observance since they remained a day of celebration of the Resurrection. The fast was strict, with only one meal a day after 3 p.m. with no meat, fish or dairy.
We continue the practice of fasting today for many reasons. The forty day fast is meant to direct our thoughts toward the coming celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection at Easter and so prepare for it. It is an expression of sorrow and repentance for our sins as we remember that it was for our sins that Christ died.
Finally, it is a form of self-discipline where we give up something good (food) in order to turn our minds to a greater good – union with God. The obligation to fast today applies only to those under 60 years of age on only 2 days: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. However, the common practice of “giving up” something pleasurable is also a form of fasting, and becomes more meaningful when it is consciously connected to the purposes of preparation, penance and spiritual discipline.
(Ruth Powers is the Program Coordinator for St. Mary Basilica Parish in Natchez.)