One of the practices in Christian churches during the season of Lent, which began last week, is fasting. Fasting is seen by most as, basically, the abstaining from food for a period of time. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, for example, are designated fast days. But Lent is also considered a season for fasting, as well as for repentance, almsgiving, study of the scriptures, prayer, and the like. Lent is 40 days long. Sort of.
In the Western church, Lent is the 40 days prior to Easter, not counting Sundays. Sundays are “feast days” and, generally are not necessarily subject to fasting. In the Eastern churches, Lent consists of the 40 days prior to Easter, Sundays included. So, in our church, if someone were going to fast during the Lenten season, one could fast for six days and then take a break on Sundays.
What does it mean to “fast?” Is it the total denial of food for the period designated? Well, it could be. I have fasted for periods of one day, three days, and some years ago, two weeks. During that time I had no food, just liquids. Not milkshakes or having steak and potatoes ground up into a blender, either. During the two week fast, I learned that hunger pretty much goes away after the third day. Weakness sets in, but not anything one cannot work around.
But fasting does not always mean the total absence of food. Many people, during Lent, will fast something like chocolate, or red meat, tobacco or alcohol. I have known people to give up Facebook or other social media and see that as a “fast.” But, usually fasting is about food.
In many traditions, fasting involves not eating until sundown, when one meal is taken. So, one would not eat anything from the time they arise until dinner time and then partake of food.
It is an interesting factoid that the McDonald’s Fish Filet Sandwich was created to accommodate Catholics who fasted meat but for whom fish was approved. When I was in elementary school we almost always had fish for lunch on Fridays. The Catholic tradition of fish on Fridays was so strong that it reached all the way into our solidly Protestant habitat in northeastern Tennessee where I laid nary an eye on a Catholic until I was a sophomore in high school.
St. Thomas Aquinas apparently approved of eating beaver on Fridays and not counting it as a red meat because the beaver was an aquatic-based animal. St. Augustine’s Prayer Book defines fasting as usually meaning not more than a light breakfast, one full meal, and one half meal, on the forty days of Lent, Abstinence, according to Saint Augustine, “means to refrain from some particular type of food or drink.”
For Eastern Orthodox Christians, “The purpose of fasting is not to suffer, but according to Sacred Tradition to guard against gluttony and impure thoughts, deeds and words. Fasting must always be accompanied by increased prayer and almsgiving (donating to a local charity, or directly to the poor, depending on circumstances). To engage in fasting without them is considered useless or even spiritually harmful. To repent of one’s sins and to reach out in love to others is part and parcel of true fasting.”
Classical Pentecostalism does not have set days of abstinence during Lent, but individuals in the movement may feel they are being directed by the Holy Spirit to undertake either short or extended fasts. Although Pentecostalism has not classified different types of fasting, certain writers within the movement have done so. Arthur Wallis writes about the “Normal Fast” in which pure water alone is consumed. The “Black Fast” in which nothing, not even water, is consumed is also mentioned.
Other traditions also have guidelines and instructions for fasting. Martin Luther believed that a Christian may choose to fast individually as a spiritual exercise to discipline his own flesh, but that the time and manner of fasting should be left to the individual’s discretion.
In Methodism, fasting is considered one of the “Works of Piety.” The Discipline of the Wesleyan Methodist Church required Methodists to fast on certain days. Historically, Methodist clergy are required to fast on Wednesdays, in remembrance of the betrayal of Christ, and on Fridays, in remembrance of His crucifixion and death.
For the most part, it is expected that Christian people between the ages of 18-59, who are in traditions that encouraging fasting, will practice fasting. Individuals with medical issues that would be aggravated by fasting (obesity doesn’t count) are usually excluded from this expectation.
It is importance to remember that fasting, whatever the methods and particulars, are, for Christians, spiritual exercises. The goal is to draw closer to God. Without the spiritual component, fasting is just a diet.
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Sharpsburg, GA between Newnan and Peachtree City (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Charismatic Episcopal Diocese of the Mid-South which consists of Georgia and Tennessee (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U. S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]