Update 2018: I recently published a book called 40 Days with the Fathers, which is a daily reading plan and an introduction to the Early Church Fathers that is spread across forty days, originally written as a Lenten reading plan. You can get a copy by clicking here.
Lent 2016: Lent is upon us once again! Even though we are already four days into the fast (according to Western tradition) I thought it’d be good to write something on the discipline of fasting.
And, much like any major holiday, there is the usual arguments and accusations about how it's all just pagan festivities with a "Christian mask". Easter is no different, and usually gets hit the hardest over its so-called "pagan roots" or Lent being some "invention of the Catholic Church".
So this year I decided to look into it a little, since I like to try and observe Lent, and it turns out that much of the accusations against Easter and Lent are nonsense and misinformation.
A 40 day fast prior to Easter has been a long established practice within the Church dating back to within the first century. This is well established from ancient letters we still have available, such as from Irenaeus:
For some consider themselves bound to fast one day, others two days, others still more. In fact, others fast forty days ... And this variety among observers [of the fasts] did not have its origin in our time, but long before in that of our predecessors.
See here he notes that this was a practice passed onto them by their "predecessors", a term often used in conjunction with the Apostles themselves, or those which immediately came after them, putting the origins of this Lent fast much earlier than when Irenaeus wrote in 180.
While there is a tentative link to the name "Easter" and a old Saxon goddess, the older root of the word simply means "East" or "dawn" in some other renditions, according to an Etymological Dictionary:
Ester and oster, the early English and German words, both have their root in aus, which means east, shine, and dawn in various forms.
But an even more primitive root is where these words derive: Auferstehung which means resurrection! That seems more fitting for the Easter season, don't you think? Other than English and German, pretty much all other languages have some word with its root meaning coming from pascha - ie. Passover. Which is what the original Christians called this time of year too.
By the time of the Council of Nicea (325 AD), Easter celebrations within the Church was a standard event which was preceded by 40 days of fasting. Athanasius had a custom of writing his "paschal (Easter) letters" to the churches at this time of year to give encouragement for fasting and self-control and moderation, linking the 40 days to the length of Jesus' fast in the desert. His letters are useful as they show quite clearly that the time of Lent and Easter have been established for many centuries in the Church, and are nothing to do with paganism!
The beginning of the fast of forty days is on the fifth of the month Phamenoth [Ash Wednesday]; and when, as I have said, we have first been purified and prepared by those days, we begin the holy week of the great Easter on the tenth of the month Pharmuthi [Palm Sunday], in which, my beloved brethren, we should use more prolonged prayers, and fastings...
I won't go into much more detail on the history of Lent and Easter (or pascha), but I hope you can see from this brief intro that the practice has been well established in the historical Church since the beginning, and isn't a "new" or invented thing merged from/with paganism and fertility goddesses.
So with that said, let's take a look at the practice of fasting. It seems to be a spiritual discipline which has been pushed aside in many churches today, with prayer, worship and bible reading taking more precedence in a Christian's life instead (not that those are bad things to do!).
If you want to fast in the same way as the Early Church and keep with historical Christianity, fast every day until sunset (or 3pm) during your fasting period. Historically also, the Church has always had a weekly partial fast on Wednesdays and Fridays alongside other times (such as Lent).
Generally, you can drink what you like (except soup, as it’s still a food), though there are different types of fasts the Church has kept throughout the year (the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches still do this) which have different restrictions, like no alcohol. But plenty of water is ideal in any case.
The first five days or so will be the hardest if you observe the strict fast for a longer period of time. Persevere past this as it does get easier! I've always been told to drink a large glass of milk if you experience headaches, I'm not sure why this helps but it does seem to!
It’s not a sin to tell people you are fasting! The warnings of Jesus in Matt 6:16 about not looking dismal and sad, is like the warnings against public prayer – it’s all down to motivation. If you do it for the praise of others, or to look “super spiritual” then you have gained an earthly reward and lost a heavenly one. If people notice and ask, tell them. It may be an opportunity to witness about your faith, as it’s fairly unusual for people to hear of these days; just don’t go around advertising it or boasting, that’s all!
Remember what Jesus says in Matthew 6:16-18 – go about your days as normal!
As with the historical tradition: don’t fast on Sundays – this is because it is a day of celebration in remembrance of the resurrection; a “mini-feast day” as it’s known! Also, this is why and how the forty days “fits” from Ash Wednesday to Easter Saturday, by not counting the Sundays of Lent, otherwise it would be 46 days.
There’s a whole variety of different fasts which the Church has observed over the years (see this calendar as an example of Orthodox fasting)!
But here’s a breakdown of some typical fasts which anyone in good health should be able to keep which I’ve taken from the various teachings found in the Church Fathers letters on fasting and Lent:
because Wednesday was when Jesus was betrayed, and Friday because of the crucifixion and Passion.
Observe any as you are able and healthy to do so. As we fast, we should remember the true and better fast which God prefers and spoke of through Isaiah in Isa 58:6-9–
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Verse 10 onwards tells us that living holy and right before the LORD as our spiritual fast, He shall guard us and give us good health, and shall answer us.
Replace mealtimes with and hunger pangs with prayer and/or Bible study. Read a chapter or two of a Gospel each meal time and work your way through the whole New Testament.
Pray! “But I don’t have enough things/people to pray for!” you may say – Make a list and routine of people and/or issues you care about and pray for these each day and see where the Holy Spirit leads you. Pray the Lord’s Prayer.
Pray for protection. You will no doubt experience some sort of spiritual attack and strong temptation. Keep your guard up and mind focussed on God. Put on the armour of God (Eph 6:11). Remember, even Jesus didn’t escape this attack from the devil during His long fast (Matthew 4:1-11)!
Learn to pray contemplative prayer. Ps 46:10 – “Be still, and know that I am God!”
This is an ancient type of Christian meditation which is the complete opposite to secular and Eastern religious meditation which aims to empty your mind. Christian meditation is about filling your mind with thoughts and reflections on and about God and Scripture – to really focus on a verse or passage of Scripture and to pray and wait on God in silence until you become aware of His presence and His voice (in whatever form that takes, ie. visions, pictures, words etc.), and are filled with the Spirit who can reveal the deeper things of God and Scripture (1 Corinthians 2:10).
You can read more on this type of prayer, and it’s Scriptural basis, in my other article, here.
Pray the ancient “Jesus Prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
When words fail you and your mind is busy and cluttered, I have found this to be most helpful in stilling and focusing the mind completely on God. This practise dates back to around the 4th century when monks endeavoured to do as Paul instructed when he wrote to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
The prayer is simple and easy to remember, with the point that you can pray it anywhere, anytime when you want to focus; or during contemplative prayer when you have time to really focus on each word and phrase and its meaning. It is said that this prayer contains the essence of the Gospel, and so praying it continually will help you to remember and realise the great truth that the Son of God came down from glory to be a man and die for us while we were still sinners.
Fasting can be hard! It’s not easy – there’s no denying that, and it’s probably why it’s fell out of fashion and practise in the modern church as it goes so much against our comfortable lifestyles, it’s almost painful! But that’s also precisely why we should fast! It is so totally counter-cultural that we cannot help but be refocused away from this world and all its distractions, and back onto God and to spiritual things.
Read through the Gospels and we’ll see Jesus stating that “When you fast…” (Matthew 6:17) – not if; and even throughout the book of Acts we can see that the early church fasted regular and often, especially when they sought direction from God.
If it were not for the church fasting and praying in Acts 13:1-4, they may not have heard from the Holy Spirit about sending Paul out on his first missionary journey, and if he had not done that, the faith may never have spread as far and fast as it did, nor would we have the majority of our New Testament! Fasting is a vital church discipline, I believe.
Similar, history changing events, also happened from prayer and fasting in 2 Chronicles 20, and the post-Acts early church. Here’s a quick quote from Tertullian (c.198) and Irenaeus (c.180), respectively, on the power of prayer and fasting:
“When, indeed, have droughts not been put away by our kneeling and our fastings?”
“When the entire church in that particular locality entreated God with much fasting and prayer, the spirit of the dead man has returned, and he has been bestowed in answer to the prayers of the saints.
The general belief about fasting, which we can see in the early writings, also shows that the Church taught not only abstaining from food, but any evil deed, word or thought (Clement of Alexandria, c.195), and that during a fast, our prayers “ascend with more acceptability” (Tertullian c.198).
Also, even here in Britain in 1756! John Wesley recounts a time when the King of England called for a time of fasting and prayer when France threatened to invade. He wrote in his journal:
“The fast day was a glorious day, such as London has scarce seen since the Restoration. Every church in the city was more than full, and a solemn seriousness sat on every face. Surely God heareth prayer, and there will yet be a lengthening of our tranquillity.”
He later noted that following this, the invasion was averted! More accounts of national prayer and fasting in crisis times can be read here.
In one of the earliest post-New Testament books we have still in existence, called The Shepherd, the writer, Hermas, is fasting and praying and gives advice to other Christians on the practice. As well as mentioning the 'lifestyle fast' of Isa. 58, he says:
“Be on your guard against every evil word, and every evil desire, and purify your heart from the vanities of this world. If you guard against these things, your fasting will be perfect.”
Our fasting is as much about living right and conforming ourselves to the mind of Christ, as it is about avoiding certain foods for a time. As Augustine wrote, there are three main things we ought to do in order to live a righteous life, which he deduced from Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels: fasting, alms and prayers.
“Now in the fasting [Jesus] indicates the entire subjugation of the body; in the alms, all kindness of will and deed, either by giving or forgiving; and in prayers He implies all the rules of a holy desire.” –Augustine, Treatise on Man’s Perfection in Righteousness, ch.18.
May our lives be a spiritual fast of Isa 58 and our bodies be a spiritual sacrifice in worship to God, as of Rom 12:1 and 1 Pet 2:5-6, as we humble ourselves and learn humility and self-control through physical fasting; putting to death the flesh so that we may be made alive in the Spirit!
Lent Reading/Devotional Plan:
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