Fasting: Lens of Tradition

The generation of Christians after the Apostles followed a collection of liturgical writings known as the Didache.  Think of it as a manual to doing a church service for early century Christians.  Your own denomination probably has a way of doing things that are similar to other congregations of the same denomination. For example, if you walked into a Baptist Church in the South on a baptism Sunday, someone is going to be dunked (immersed) as opposed to sprinkled. The Didache was similar to that. It was their way of doing things, including how to fast:

 8:1 And let not your fastings be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and the fifth day of the week;
8:2 But do you keep your fast on the fourth and on the preparation day.

In other words, since the Jews (read: hypocrites) fasted on 2nd and 5th day of the week, Christians should fast on 4th and 6th (Sabbath). I want to stop and say that I don’t condone the antisemitism present here. It is by far one of the greatest losses within Christian culture to lose our touch with our Judaic roots. There is a richness and depth still preserved still today by modern Jews who have faithfully practiced for thousands of years. I do believe that salvation is only through Christ, so don’t misunderstand me. But I feel that we are lesser for our deliberate segregation.

Regardless, our tradition again assumed that Christians would fast as a normal part of Spiritual discipline.

In modern times, you’ve probably associated fasting with the Celebration of Lent within Catholic communities. In order to understand Lent, we need to understand the Council of Nicaea.

Around the 4th Century, the Church had a somewhat broken system for leadership. You didn’t have all the denominations we have today. Rather you had these pockets of communities where in the leadership was gained from apostolic succession. The apostles left leaders in charge as they went from place to place. These leaders in turn left other leaders, and so on down the line.

Several hundred years down the road and you run into a problems as humans are prone to do. Arguments arose over who should be in charge and what beliefs Christians actually held. So in AD 325, Emporer Constatine who is arguably a believer, called a council together to establish definitions around what we the Church believed. This council also discussed a 40 day fasting period in preparation for Easter Sunday and they called it “Lent”.

Two centuries later, Pope Gregory moved the fasting dates back to accommodate Sundays, which are considered feast days. So after 520 AD, Lent started on Ash Wednesday. After that point, the rules around fasting became more lax, eventually allowing people to eat after 3 PM, then at noon, then to include/exclude certain foods, all the way up to allowing fish which is what we commonly see around this time of year.

Discipline of Fasting Series

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