Question 295:

How do Christians fast?  



Christianity drew its practice of fasting from various sources.  One of these was Jewish practice.  The Jews fasted on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) as a sign of repentance for sins committed during the previous year.  This gave Christians one element of fasting as a similar act of repentance.  In later Judaism, it became the practice to fast as a sign of mourning for the destruction of the Jewish Temples in 587BCE and 70CE.  This gave rise to the practice of seeing fasting as a sign of mourning, accompanied by the tearing of clothing.  Fasting was thus accompanied by wearing rough clothing and covering the body with ashes (often rendered as “wearing sack-cloth and ashes”) as a sign of repentance and thus fasting was seen as a way of expressing sorrow for sins committed and as a demonstration that one was ready to make a new start on the path of pious living.  These practices also entered into Christian usage.  Both Judaism and Christianity saw prayer, fasting and giving in charity as good works pleasing to God.  Two further Jewish elements were taken up by Christianity: fasting was seen as a way of intensifying intercessory prayer to God (2 Samuel 12:16, 1 Kings 21:27, Nehemiah 1:4-11) and seeking revelations from God (Daniel 9:3, 10:2-3).  Another source for Christian fasting was the practice of the Greeks amongst whom they lived, who used fasting as a way of seeking divine knowledge and of freeing the person from bodily needs, thus leading to closer union with God.  The Greeks also knew of the medical benefits of fasting, especially in the case of inflammatory ailments, from which Christians drew the practice of fasting for the sake of bodily as well as spiritual health.


In the time of Jesus, pious Jews fasted on two days each week, Mondays and Thursdays; this practice was observed in the life of John the Baptist (Mark 2:18).  Later, in the second century, when Christianity had separated from Judaism, the weekly fasts observed by Christians were changed to Wednesdays and Fridays; the latter day associated with the death of Jesus.  Later still, by around the year 400, Saturday was observed as a day of fasting in preparation for the principal day of communal worship, Sunday, in place of the earlier Wednesday fasts.


Jesus observed a lengthy fast in the desert in preparation for his ministry (Luke 4:2).  The biblical expression here of “forty days” is seen to indicate “a long time” rather than a precise numbering of days. This pattern was later taken up in the great communal fast of Lent.  Christianity thus came to know two types of fasting: first, the communal fasts that were publicly observed by the Christian community as a whole and second, individual fasts that were “between the believer and God” during which no outward sign of fasting was made following the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 6:16-18).  It was the teaching of Jesus that such fasts were to continue when he was no longer visibly amongst them (Mark 2:20).  This was observed in the Early Church by the community fasting to seek God’s guidance and blessing before commissioning missionaries (Acts 13:2) and local elders (Acts 14:23).  


Fasting can then be seen to have many roles in Christian life dating from this early period.  It was used also as a time of preparation for the commitment of baptism (Acts 9:9-19).  It was linked with prayer in preparation for exorcism (Matthew 17:19-21).  It was linked with spiritual battle against the devil and temptations in general (1 Thessalonians 5:6-8, 1 Peter 5:8), thus strengthening the spiritual life of believers.  Fasting was prescribed amongst Christians, especially for those seeking to control their passions and refrain from unlawful sexual activity and other sins.  It was seen to produce clarity of thought and spirit, which was essential for seeking mystical experiences.  However, it was not to be taken to excess when it would do serious damage to the body or become a source of pride, both of which would have been sinful.  Fasting was also seen as an act of solidarity with the poor and hungry, which gave rise to the idea of a “fast offering” of money being made to alleviate their suffering.


When the early Christian community began to establish a regular pattern of worship during the cycle of the year, the season of preparation for Easter (Lent) included a two or three day period of fasting.  The Council of Nicaea in 325 introduced a forty-day fast for those who were to be baptised at Easter and this gradually became the widespread custom for all Christians by around the 7th century.  The symbolism of “forty days” was taken up from Jesus’ time in the desert, and earlier from the experiences of Moses and Elijah.  The early practice was for total abstention from food during the day with only one meal to be taken in the evening and this was not to contain any meat, fish, eggs or dairy produce.  This style of observance is still to be found amongst many Eastern Orthodox Christians and some Pentecostal groups.  The Western Church gradually relaxed the observance by shortening the fasting day to finish at 1500 or even 1200 by the 9th century.  Similarly the nature of the fast was changed to a restricted diet (one main meal and two snacks during the day) with abstinence from meat being confined to Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion of Jesus.  The practice in the Roman Catholic Church today reflects this, with these two days only being “days of fasting and abstinence” with the spirit of fasting during Lent being preserved by acts of self-denial, additional acts of compassion to others, almsgiving and a general renewal of the spiritual life.


The Anglican Book of Common Prayer, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, laid down a practice of fasting during Lent and certain other times of the year, including every Friday except Christmas Day (if it fell on a Friday).  This was initially widely observed but decreased in practice in the 18th century only to be revived again in the 19th.  No precise rules about how the fast was to be observed were laid down.  The Reformers in general saw the value of fasting as a discipline but opposed the idea of statutory fasts and any idea of obtaining merit by fasting.  The Eastern Orthodox Churches in general, have maintained a stronger tradition of fasting to the present day, not only communally during Lent and in the season leading up to Christmas (Advent) but also at other seasons and, in some Churches; regularly weekly fasts throughout the year are observed.


Whilst there has never been an obligatory period and manner of fasting in Christianity, to parallel the fast of Ramadan in Islam, the practice and spirit of fasting in the various ways illustrated has remained more or less central in Christian observance in different churches.  In western Christianity, because it is not so overtly evident, it can be harder to detect but it has undergone something of a revival in modern times in various non-European cultures and more attention is paid, on an individual basis, by European Christians with the development of “days of fasting and prayer” for certain causes, “hunger lunches” in solidarity with the poor and in an emphasis on study and reflection on Christian discipleship during the traditional fasting seasons.

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