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.
(Column continues below)
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