From primitive times, fasting has been practiced for three basic reasons: the magical, the ethical and the religious. Apparently, the results brought about by fasting and by the use of drugs are similar: both release or produce mysterious powers. Unlike drugs however, fasting sharpens a person’s intellect and strengthens the will. Fasting can increase concentration and mind-expansion. Saying no to drugs or to any addiction is to be liberated from that addiction.
A hedonist culture with its look-good, feel-good attitude is likely to be lured more by indulgence than by fasting, despite its spiritual power.
For many, fasting and body beautiful go hand in hand. Every year as summer approaches and thoughts turn to swim wear, ads show effective ways of getting that svelte look in time for the show at the beach. At the other end of the spectrum, some undergo hunger strikes for a particular cause they have espoused. Mahatma Gandhi fasted for more than fifty days to bring about conciliation between the Hindus and the Muslims. Others like him were firm believers that fasting could relieve distress, especially great calamity. Their view: ‘If you want something from God, fast.’
Fasting as a Religious Practice: Judaism and Islam
As a religious practice or in accordance with prescribed law, fasting is understood as the complete or partial abstention from food. Refraining from the eating meat or meat products is known as abstinence.
Jews fast on designated holydays of the year to atone for sin. Certain phrases mean fasting, for example: “not to eat bread” (2 Sam 12:17), “to bow down one’s soul” (Lev 16:29). In the Hebrew Scriptures, fasting was practiced especially in times of war, famine, drought, and for deliverance from pestilence.
Islamic law has adapted Jewish practices to suit its own world view. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast for twenty-nine light hour days during which time they abstain from eating, drinking liquids, smoking, and sexual contact. Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islamic belief.
Why did the early Christians observe the fast and hold it in such high regard? They fasted in imitation of Christ ((Mt 6:16; Mk 2:20; 9:29; Acts 13:2; 14:23; 2 Cor 2:27). They also demonstrated an ethical concern by saving food to give as an offering for the needy, a sign of authentic repentance. Voluntary deprivation and intake of food was linked to the passion and death of their Master. Fasting is also related to the presence of the Holy Spirit and as a powerful weapon in the fight against evil spirits in the spirit of Our Lord’s comment: “This kind of demon can come out only through prayer and fasting” (Mk 9:29). By extension, today’s demons may be seen in various types of addictions.
According to Josef Jungmann, S.J., “in the beginning, fasting was not taken as a strict obligation. It was taken for granted as something which everyone observed, rather like civilized people who realize the obligation of rules of politeness, although they are nowhere prescribed” (The Early Liturgy: To the Time of Gregory the Great, 254-256).
Fasting in Second and Third Centuries
From the early days of the Church, Lent was characterized by three pillars: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It was not a matter of how much one gave but a matter of how much one kept.
Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays dates from the second-century document, Shepherd of Hermas and is continued as part of Holy Week. It is viewed as a public fast and a recognized form of worship. The Didascalia (mid-3rd c.) in Ch 21: 24 prescribes a pre-paschal fast which is extended to six days. Fasting is compared to death, and feasting to life. By the end of the third century, a fast of six full days is kept as the paschal fast of Holy Week.
Fasting in the Fourth Century
At the end of the third century or the beginning of the fourth, a forty-day fast, independent of the Lenten fast, appeared in Egypt. Its primary purpose “seems to have been less to prepare for Easter than to celebrate the Lord’s fast in the desert during the weeks after his baptism” (Irénée Henri Dalmais, Pierre Jounel and Aimé Georges Martimort, The Liturgy and Time, 66).
Mention of the Forty Days’ Fast in preparation for Easter is made at the Council of Nicaea (325). The number forty symbolized the fasting of Jesus for forty days (Mk. 4:2; Lk. 4:1-2) as well as the forty days Moses fasted on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 34:28), the forty days Elijah fasted on his journey to Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19:8), and the forty years of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness.
The fiery Athanasius exhorts the faithful to keep the Lenten fast. In fact, he is blunt: “Anyone who neglects to observe the Forty Days Fast is not worthy to celebrate the Easter Festival” (“Festal Letter,” XIX, 9).
After the Council of Nicaea, many of the Fathers discussed the forty-day fast. From the time of Augustine and John Chrysostom, Lent was characterized by (1) a period of fasting, sharing, and prayer for the whole Christian people, (2) preparation for catechumens to be baptized, (3) a period of preparation of penitents for their reconciliation.
Fasting and Feasting
From primitive times, fasting seems to have formed part of the very fabric of life, and there is no reason why the Christians would not have continued this practice. They did however interpret the number of fasting days in light of the Paschal Event, which breathed new life into the motives for fasting. Fasting represented dying to self, a physical diminishment; feasting, the emergence of the celebration of life. One followed the other.
The fast was therefore always accompanied by meeting for prayer, listening to the Word of God, and being attentive to the needs of others. One was done in conjunction with the other. The value of one was viewed in relation to the other. Later, the axiom arose: During Lent, we fast from the world.
According to Caroline Walker Bynum, “In the fourth century, feast and fast defined the church. Fasting and Sunday Eucharist were what everyone had in common. To receive the bread and wine of communion was not only to be mystically and individually fed with the bread of heaven, it was also to be present at a sacrifice that was the victory and triumph of the church, a death that was simultaneously glory and resurrection” (Holy Feast and Holy Fast, 33-34).
Whatever the reason for fasting, it was seen as a form of scarcity interpreted as a sign that feasting would soon come. Thus fast and feast not only joined Christian to Christian and Christian to the rhythm of nature as well (Ibid).
The inner struggle of the human condition never leaves a person. Fasting transforms dying to oneself to rising with Christ to new life. Once again it is the perennial principle of the old being made new. Even the beach people know this.