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A primer on fasting in the church


Catholic News Service

Fasting is a method that people can use to limit or deny their physical desires for a higher, often spiritual, goal.

Fasting was widely practiced among the ancient Jews, usually before important feast days. It was also practiced by disciples of John the Baptist.

As a Jew, Jesus would have fasted, his disciples likewise fasted, and the earliest Christians followed in that path. The New Testament speaks of fasting, but the Bible and other early sources simply do not include many statistics. Initially fasting was not universal.

Yet Jesus’ example would win out, and the early Christians decided that they also would fast. By the second century, Wednesday and Saturday were treated as fast days in individual churches.

As fasting became increasingly accepted, the early Christians decided to follow the Old Testament practice of fasting before major feast days. For the believers, the most important feast day was Easter, commemorating the Resurrection because, as the apostle Paul had said, “If Christ has not been raised, (our) faith is vain” (1 Cor 15:17). The supreme feast deserved a preparatory fast.

The initial pre-Easter fast was only a few days, and Christian leaders soon concluded that such a brief time did not adequately presage so crucial a feast. They looked to the Gospels and decided to imitate the Lord by having a fast of 40 days.

This widespread practice was approved by the bishops of the first ecumenical council, Nicaea, in 325, thus making Lent a universal practice.

The initial observance of the fast was very demanding. Christians could eat only one full meal per day. Many churches forbade the consumption of meat, fish, eggs and delicacies at the risk of violating the spiritual value of the fast.

The churches soon developed liturgical practices to go along with Lent, believing self-denial to be spiritually important but insufficient. The bishops introduced the practice of almsgiving. If one wished to do more than just deny bodily satisfaction, giving to the poor was a positive, practical way to do so since it effectively involved self-denial.

Another — but quite modern — form of self-denial was depriving one’s self of some personal enjoyment, such as not going to a movie or a sporting event and donating the funds to a charity. Simply making larger than usual donations to charity would also be a form of self-denial.

Some modern Catholics question the value of self-denial during Lent, since retailers make Easter a secular holiday that leads young believers, caught up in the secularity before Easter, to have difficulty with the religious aspects of Lent.

But modern secular values cannot triumph over a feast that is two millennia old. Every so often, we must say “No” to such a travesty. When religious people fast, they know why they do so, and they are reminded of the good reason for the practice.

To all readers, a blessed Lent and a truly Happy Easter.

(Joseph F. Kelly is retired professor at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio.)




Fasting as a form of sacrifice has existed since the earliest days of the church. The Fathers of the Church often spoke of fasting — why to fast, how to fast, what disposition and attitude to have while fasting — and encouraged their flock to persevere in the practice.

Here are some quotes from the fathers to inspire and fortify you in your Lenten sacrifice of fasting:

“If you have fasted for two days, do not for this reason think yourself better than those who have not. You fast and perhaps become angry; another eats, but perhaps exercises kindness. … When you reflect on yourself, do not base your glory on the failings of others, but on the true value of your actions.” (Jerome, “Letters to Eustachius”)

“God does not want pointless fasting: Offering such fasting to God does nothing for your holiness. You must offer a different kind of fasting to God, which is this: Do nothing wicked in your life, but serve the Lord with a pure heart; obey his commandments and progress in his precepts; allow no evil desire to entire your soul, but trust in God.” (Hermas, “The Shepherd”)

“Fasting is dangerous for those who use it to seek human praise and who acquire a saintly reputation by showing their vain pallor. … Therefore, take note of how the Lord does not consider fasting a primary good: It is not pleasing to God in itself, but in merit of the other good works it brings with it.” (John Cassian, “Conferences”)

(Excerpts taken from “Lent and Easter with the Church Fathers,” U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops/Libreria Editrice Vaticana)