Preparing for Lent : How to fast like the Saints (Part 1)

Author: Matthew Plese

The Purpose of Fasting

In principio, in the beginning, the very first Commandment of God  to Adam and Eve was one of fasting from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (cf. Genesis 2:16-17), and their failure to fast brought sin and disorder to all of creation. The second sin of mankind was gluttony. Both are intricately tied to fasting.

Both Elijah and Moses fasted for forty days in the Old Testament before seeing God. Until the Great Flood, man abstained entirely from the flesh meat of animals (cf. Genesis 9:2-3). Likewise, in the New Testament, St. John the Baptist, the greatest prophet (cf. Luke 7:28) fasted and his followers were characterized by their fasting. And our Blessed Lord also fasted for forty days (cf. Matthew 4:1-11) not for His own needs but to serve as an example for us. Our Redeemer said, “Unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). Fasting and abstinence from certain foods characterized the lives of man since the foundation of the world.

The Church has hallowed the practice of fasting, encourages it, and mandates it at certain times. Why? The Angelic Doctor writes that fasting is practiced for a threefold purpose:

“First, in order to bridle the lusts of the flesh…Secondly, we have recourse to fasting in order that the mind may arise more freely to the contemplation of heavenly things: hence it is related of Daniel that he received a revelation from God after fasting for three weeks. Thirdly, in order to satisfy for sins: wherefore it is written: ‘Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning.’ The same is declared by Augustine in a sermon: ‘Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity.’”

St. Basil the Great also affirmed the importance of fasting for protection against demonic forces: “The fast is the weapon of protection against demons. Our Guardian Angels more really stay with those who have cleansed our souls through fasting.”

The Baltimore Catechism echoes these sentiments: “The Church commands us to fast and abstain, in order that we may mortify our passions and satisfy for our sins” (Baltimore Catechism #2 Q. 395). Concerning this rationale, Fr. Thomas Kinkead in “An Explanation Of The Baltimore Catechism of Christian Doctrine” published in 1891 writes, “Remember it is our bodies that generally lead us into sin; if therefore we punish the body by fasting and mortification, we atone for the sin, and thus God wipes out a part of the temporal punishment due to it.”

Pope St. Leo the Great in 461 wisely counseled that fasting is a means and not an end in itself. For those who could not observe the strictness of fasting, he sensibly said, “What we forego by fasting is to be given as alms to the poor.”  To simply forgo fasting completely, even when for legitimate health reasons, does not excuse a person from the universal command to do penance (cf. Luke 13:3).

The Lenten Fast in the Early Church

The great liturgical Dom Gueranger writes that the fast which precedes Easter originated with the Apostles themselves:

“The forty days’ fast, which we call Lent, is the Church’s preparation for Easter, and was instituted at the very commencement of Christianity. Our blessed Lord Himself sanctioned it by fasting forty days and forty nights in the desert; and though He would not impose it on the world by an express commandment (which, in that case, could not have been open to the power of dispensation), yet He showed plainly enough, by His own example, that fasting, which God had so frequently ordered in the old Law, was to be also practiced by the children of the new…The apostles, therefore, legislated for our weakness, by instituting, at the very commencement of the Christian Church, that the solemnity of Easter should be preceded by a universal fast…”

The Catechism of the Liturgy by a Religious of the Sacred Heart published by The Paulist Press, New York, 1919 affirms the apostolic origin of the Lenten fast: “The Lenten fast dates back to Apostolic times as is attested by Saint Jerome, Saint Leo the Great, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and others.” In the 2nd century, St. Irenaeus wrote to Pope St. Victor I inquiring on how Easter should be celebrated, while mentioning the practice of fasting leading up to Easter.

Initially, the Lenten fast was practiced by catechumens preparing for their Baptism with a universal fast for all the faithful observed only during Holy Week, in addition to the weekly fasts that were devotionally practiced. But early on, the baptized Christians began to join the catechumens in fasting on the days immediately preceding Easter.  The duration of the fast varied with some churches observing one day, others several days, and yet others observing intensive 40-hour fasting, in honor of the forty hours that the Lord spent in the sepulcher. By the third and fourth centuries, the fast became forty days in most places. St. Athanasius, in 339 AD, referred to the Lenten fast as a forty-day fast that “the whole world” observed.

Heortology: A History of the Christian Festivals from their Origin to the Present Day by Dr. K.A. Heinrich Kellner states the following regarding the Lenten fast in the ancient Church, noting the strictness that intensified in Holy Week and even more so on Good Friday and Holy Saturday:

“Among Catholics also abstinence was pushed to great lengths. The canons of Hippolytus prescribe for Holy Week only bread and salt. The Apostolic Constitutions will only permit bread, vegetables, salt and water, in Lent, flesh and wine being forbidden; and, on the last two days of Holy Week, nothing whatsoever is to be eaten. The ascetics, whose acquaintance the Gallic pilgrim made in Jerusalem, never touched bread in Lent, but lived on flour and water. Only a few could keep so strict a fast, and generally speaking people were satisfied with abstaining from flesh and wine. But this lasted throughout the entire Lent, and Chrysostom tells us that in Antioch no flesh was eaten during the whole of Lent. Abstinence from milk and eggs (the so-called lacticinia) was also the general rule.”

Shortly after the legislation of Christianity in the Roman Empire, the bishops at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD fixed the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The canons emerging from that council also referenced a 40-day Lenten season of fasting.

To the Early Christians, fasting was performed until sundown, in imitation of the previous Jewish tradition. Dom Gueranger’s writings affirm, “It was the custom with the Jews, in the Old Law, not to take the one meal, allowed on fasting days, till sun-set. The Christian Church adopted the same custom. It was scrupulously practiced, for many centuries, even in our Western countries. But, about the 9th century, some relaxation began to be introduced in the Latin Church.”

And notably in the early Church, fasting also included abstinence from wine, taking man back to the same diet that mankind practiced before God permitted Noah to eat meat and drink wine. As such, in apostolic times, the main meal was a small one, mainly of bread and vegetables. Fish, but not shellfish, became permitted on days of abstinence around the 6th century. Hence, some Eastern Rite Catholics will abstain from meat, animal products, wine, oil, and fish on fasting days which harkens back to these ancient times.

Remarkably, even water was forbidden during fasting times in the very ancient church. Fr. Alban Butler, in Moveable Feasts and Fasts, provides testimony of this when he writes: “St. Fructuosus, the holy bishop of Tarragon in Spain, in the persecution of Valerian in 259, being led to martyrdom on a Friday at ten o’clock in the morning, refused to drink, because it was not the hour to break the fast of the day, though fatigued with imprisonment, and standing in need of strength to sustain the conflict of his last agony. ‘It is a fast,’ said he: ‘I refuse to drink; it is not yet the ninth hour; death itself shall not oblige me to abridge my fast.'”

To be continued…