Fasting in Christianity
Fasting is a practice in several Christian denominations and is done both collectively during certain seasons of the liturgical calendar, or individually as a believer feels led by the Holy Spirit. In Western Christianity, the Lenten fast is observed by many communicants of the Catholic Church, Lutheran Churches, Methodist Churches, Reformed Churches, Anglican Communion, and the Western Orthodox Churches and is a forty-day partial fast to commemorate the fast observed by Christ during his temptation in the desert. While some Western Christians observe the Lenten fast in its entirety, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are nowadays emphasized by Western Christian denominations as the normative days of fasting within the Lenten season.
In the traditional Black Fast, the observant abstains from food for a whole day until the evening, and at sunset, traditionally breaks the fast. In India and Pakistan, many Christians continue to observe the Black Fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, with some fasting in this manner throughout the whole season of Lent.
Partial fasting within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (abstaining from meat and milk) which takes place during certain times of the year and lasts for weeks. Further information: Christian dietary laws
For Roman Catholics, fasting, taken as a technical term, is the reduction of one’s intake of food to one full meal (which may not contain meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays throughout Lent) and two small meals (known liturgically as collations, taken in the morning and the evening), both of which together should not equal the large meal. Eating solid food between meals is not permitted. Fasting is required of the faithful between the ages of 18 and 59 on specified days. Complete abstinence of meat for the day is required of those 14 and older. Partial abstinence prescribes that meat be taken only once during the course of the day. Meat is understood not to include fish or cold-blooded animals.
Pope Pius XII had initially relaxed some of the regulations concerning fasting in 1956. In 1966, Pope Paul VI in his apostolic constitution Paenitemini, changed the strictly regulated Roman Catholic fasting requirements. He recommended that fasting be appropriate to the local economic situation, and that all Catholics voluntarily fast and abstain. In the United States, there are only two obligatory days of fast – Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The Fridays of Lent are days of abstinence: eating meat is not allowed. Pastoral teachings since 1966 have urged voluntary fasting during Lent and voluntary abstinence on the other Fridays of the year. The regulations concerning such activities do not apply when the ability to work or the health of a person would be negatively affected.
Prior to the changes made by Pius XII and Paul VI, fasting and abstinence were more strictly regulated. The church had prescribed that Roman Catholics observe fasting or abstinence on a number of days throughout the year.
In addition to the fasts mentioned above, Roman Catholics must also observe the Eucharistic Fast, which involves taking nothing but water and medicines into the body for one hour before receiving the Eucharist. The ancient practice was to fast from midnight until Mass that day, but as Masses after noon and in the evening became common, this was soon modified to fasting for three hours. Current law requires merely one hour of eucharistic fast, although some Roman Catholics still abide by the older rules.
Colloquially, fasting, abstinence, the Eucharistic Fast, and personal sacrificial disciplines such as abnegation of sweets for Lent are altogether referred to as fasting.
The Catholic Church has also promoted a Black Fast, in which in addition to water, bread is consumed. Typically, this form of fasting was used only by monks and other religious individuals who practice mortifications and asceticism, but all Catholics are invited to take part in it with the advice and consent of their spiritual director.
The Book of Common Prayer prescribes certain days as days for fasting and abstinence, “consisting of the 40 days of Lent, the ember days, the three rogation days (the Monday to Wednesday following the Sunday after Ascension Day), and all Fridays in the year (except Christmas, if it falls on a Friday)”:
A Table of the Vigils, Fasts, and Days of Abstinence, to be Observed in the Year.
- The eves (vigils) before:
- The Nativity of our Lord.
- The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
- The Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin.
- Easter Day.
- Ascension Day.
- St. Matthias.
- St. John Baptist.
- St. Peter.
- St. James.
- St. Bartholomew.
- St. Matthew.
- St. Simon and St. Jude.
- St. Andrew.
- St. Thomas.
- All Saints’ Day.
- Note: if any of these Feast-Days fall upon a Monday, then the Vigil or Fast-Day shall be kept upon the Saturday, and not upon the Sunday next before it.
Days of Fasting, or Abstinence.
- The Forty Days of Lent.
- The Ember-Days at the Four Seasons, being the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the First Sunday in Lent, the Feast of Pentecost, September 14, and December 13.
- The Three Rogation Days, being the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, before Holy Thursday, or the Ascension of our Lord.
- All the Fridays in the Year, except Christmas Day.
Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book defines “Fasting, 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’s Prayer Book, “means to refrain from some particular type of food or drink. One traditional expression of abstinence is to avoid meat on Fridays in Lent or through the entire year, except in the seasons of Christmas and Easter. It is common to undertake some particular act of abstinence during the entire season of Lent. This self-discipline may be helpful at other times, as an act of solidarity with those who are in need or as a bodily expression of prayer.”
In the process of revising the Book of Common Prayer in various provinces of the Anglican Communion the specification of abstinence or fast for certain days has been retained. Generally Lent and Fridays are set aside, though Fridays during Christmastide and Eastertide are sometimes avoided. Often the Ember Days or Rogation Days are also specified, and the eves (vigils) of certain feasts.
For Eastern Orthodox Christians, fasting is an important spiritual discipline, found in both the Old Testament and the New, and is tied to the principle in Orthodox theology of the synergy between the body (soma) and the soul (pneuma). That is to say, Orthodox Christians do not see a dichotomy between the body and the soul but rather consider them as a united whole, and they believe that what happens to one affects the other (this is known as the psychosomatic union between the body and the soul). Saint Gregory Palamas argued that man’s body is not an enemy but a partner and collaborator with the soul. Christ, by taking a human body at the Incarnation, has made the flesh an inexhaustible source of sanctification. This same concept is also found in the much earlier homilies of Saint Macarius the Great.
Fasting can take up a significant portion of the calendar year. 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.
There are four fasting seasons, which include:
- Great Lent (40 days) and Holy Week (seven days)
- Nativity Fast (40 days)
- Apostles’ Fast (variable length)
- Dormition Fast (two weeks)
Wednesdays and Fridays are also fast days throughout the year (with the exception of fast-free periods). In some Orthodox monasteries, Mondays are also observed as fast days (Mondays are dedicated to the Angels, and monasticism is called the “angelic life”).
Other days occur which are always observed as fast days:
- The paramony or Eve of Christmas and of Theophany (Epiphany)
- Beheading of John the Baptist
- Exaltation of the Cross
Fasting during these times includes abstention from:
- oil (interpreted variously as abstention from olive oil only, or as abstention from all cooking oils in general), and
- red wine (which is often interpreted as including all wine or alcoholic beverages)
- sexual activity (where fasting is pre-communion)
When a feast day occurs on a fast day, the fast is often mitigated (lessened) to some degree (though meat and dairy are never consumed on any fast day). For example, the Feast of the Annunciation almost always occurs within the Great Lent in the Orthodox calendar: in this case fish (traditionally haddock fried in olive oil) is the main meal of the day.
There are two degrees of mitigation: allowance of wine and oil; and allowance of fish, wine and oil. The very young and very old, nursing mothers, the infirm, as well as those for whom fasting could endanger their health somehow, are exempt from the strictest fasting rules.
On weekdays of the first week of Great Lent, fasting is particularly severe, and many observe it by abstaining from all food for some period of time. According to strict observance, on the first five days (Monday through Friday) there are only two meals eaten, one on Wednesday and the other on Friday, both after the Presanctified Liturgy. Those who are unable to follow the strict observance may eat on Tuesday and Thursday (but not, if possible, on Monday) in the evening after Vespers, when they may take bread and water, or perhaps tea or fruit juice, but not a cooked meal. The same strict abstention is observed during Holy Week, except that a vegan meal with wine and oil is allowed on Great Thursday.
On Wednesday and Friday of the first week of Great Lent the meals which are taken consist of xerophagy (literally, “dry eating”) i.e. boiled or raw vegetables, fruit, and nuts. In a number of monasteries, and in the homes of more devout laypeople, xerophagy is observed on every weekday (Monday through Friday) of Great Lent, except when wine and oil are allowed.
Those desiring to receive Holy Communion keep a total fast from all food and drink from midnight the night before (see Eucharistic discipline). The sole exception is the Communion offered at the Easter Sunday midnight liturgy, when all are expressly invited and encouraged to receive the Eucharist, regardless of whether they have kept the prescribed fast.
During certain festal times the rules of fasting are done away with entirely, and everyone in the church is encouraged to feast with due moderation, even on Wednesday and Friday. Fast-free days are as follows:
- Bright Week-the period from Pascha (Easter Sunday) through Thomas Sunday (the Sunday after Pascha), inclusive.
- The Afterfeast of Pentecost-the period from Pentecost Sunday until the Sunday of All Saints, inclusive.
- The period from the Nativity of the Lord until (but not including) the eve of the Theophany (Epiphany).
- The day of Theophany.
In Methodism, fasting is considered one of the Works of Piety. The Discipline of the Wesleyan Methodist Church required Methodists to fast on “the first Friday after New-Year’s-day; after Lady-day; after Midsummer-day; and after Michaelmas-day.” 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. “The General Rules of the Methodist Church,” written by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, wrote that “It is expected of all who desire to continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation, by attending upon all the ordinances of God, such are: the public worship of God; the ministry of the Word, either read or expounded; the Supper of the Lord; family and private prayer; searching the Scriptures; and fasting or abstinence.” The Directions Given to Band Societies (25 December 1744) mandated fasting on all Fridays of the year, a practice that was reemphasized by Phoebe Palmer and became standard in the Methodist churches of the holiness movement. Wesley himself also fasted before receiving Holy Communion “for the purpose of focusing his attention on God,” and asked other Methodist Christians to do the same. In accordance with Scripture and the teachings of the Church Fathers, fasting in Methodism is done “from morning until evening”. The historic Methodist homilies regarding the Sermon on the Mount also stressed the importance of the Lenten fast. The United Methodist Church therefore states that:
There is a strong biblical base for fasting, particularly during the 40 days of Lent leading to the celebration of Easter. Jesus, as part of his spiritual preparation, went into the wilderness and fasted 40 days and 40 nights, according to the Gospels.
Good Friday, which is towards the end of the Lenten season, is traditionally an important day of communal fasting for Methodists. Rev. Jacqui King, the minister of Nu Faith Community United Methodist Church in Houston explained the philosophy of fasting during Lent as “I’m not skipping a meal because in place of that meal I’m actually dining with God”.
All Oriental Orthodox churches practice fasting; however, the rules of each church differ. All churches require fasting before one receives Holy Communion. All churches practice fasting on most Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year as well as observing many other days. Monks and nuns also observe additional fast days not required of the laity.
The Armenian Apostolic Church (with the exception of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem) has followed the Gregorian Calendar since 1923, making it and the Finnish Orthodox church the only Orthodox churches to primarily celebrate Easter on the same date as Western Christianity. As a result, the Armenian church’s observation of Lent generally begins and ends before that of other Orthodox churches.
With the exception of the fifty days following Easter in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, fish is not allowed during Lent, or on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Paramon days. Other than that fish and shellfish are allowed during fasting days.
The discipline of fasting entails that, apart from Saturdays, Sundays, and holy feasts, one should keep a total fast from all food and drink from midnight the night before to a certain time in the day usually three o’clock in the afternoon (the hour Jesus died on the Cross). Also, it is preferred that one reduce one’s daily intake of food, typically by eating only one full meal a day.
The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church generally follows the fasting practices of the Coptic Church however in some cases it follows the Ethiopian Church.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has an especially rigorous fasting calendar.
Fasting in the Ethiopian Church implies abstention from food and drink. No animal products are consumed, including dairy, eggs and meat, and utensils that have touched such products must be washed before touching the strictly vegan foods that are consumed on fast days. During fast periods, Holy Liturgy (Mass) is held at noon (except on Saturdays and Sundays), and because no food can be consumed before communion, it is traditional for people to abstain from food until mass is over (around 2 to 3 in the afternoon). Every Wednesday and Friday are days of fasting because Wednesday is the day that the Lord was condemned and Friday is the day he was crucified (the Wednesdays and Fridays between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday are an exception as well as when Christmas or Epiphany fall on a Wednesday or a Friday). The fasts that are ordained in the canon of the Church of Ethiopia are:
- 1. Lent including Holy Week and the 10-day Fast of the Cross proclaimed by Byzantine Emperor Hereaclus (known as Hudadi, Abiye Tsom or Tsome Eyesus), 56 days.
- 2. Fast of the Apostles, 10–40 days, which the Apostles kept after they had received the Holy Spirit. It begins after Pentecost (known as Tsome Hwariat).
- 3. The fast of Assumption of the Holy Virgin, 16 days in August (known as Tsome Filseta).
- 4. Christmas Eve (Gahad ze Lidet) and The Eve of Epiphany, (Gahad ze Timket).
- 5. Advent, 40 days (Known as Tsome Gena that begin with “Sibket” on 15th Hedar and ends on Christmas Eve).
- 6. The fast of Nineveh, commemorating the preaching of Jonah. (On the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of the third week before Lent.
- 7. All Wednesdays and Fridays of the year except the ones that fall between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday.
In addition to these, there is the fast of repentance which a person keeps after committing sin, it being imposed as a penance by the priest for seven days, forty days or one year. There is also a fast which a bishop keeps at the time he is consecrated. Also there are fasts that are widely observed but which have not been included in the canon of the church and which are therefore considered strictly optional such as the “Tsige Tsom” or Spring Fast, also known as “Kweskwam Tsom” which marks the exile of the Holy Family in Egypt.
All persons above the age of 13 are expected to observe the church fasts. Most children over age seven are expected to observe at least the Fast of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin. Dispensations are granted to those who are ill.
The total number of fasting days amounts to about 250 a year. While many observe the Coptic Church’s allowance for fish during the longer fasts, it has increasingly become practice in the Ethiopian Church to abstain from fish during all fasts according to the canons of the Ethiopian Church.
The observation of Lent within the Syriac Orthodox Church was once very strict but now is comparatively lenient compared with how it is observed in other Orthodox Churches.
Church of the East
The Assyrian Church of the East practices fasting during Lent, the seven weeks prior to Easter, wherein the faithful abstain from eating eggs, meat and any dairy or animal products. This is preceded by Somikka night.
The Church of the East strictly observes the Nineveh Fast (Som Baoutha). This annual observance occurs exactly three weeks before the start of Lent. This tradition has been practised by all Christians of Syriac traditions since the 6th century. At that time, a plague afflicted the region of Nineveh, modern-day northern Iraq. The plague devastated the city and the villages surrounding it, and out of desperation the people ran to their bishop to find a solution. The bishop sought help through the Scriptures and came upon the story of Jonah in the Old Testament. Upon reading the story, the bishop ordered a three-day fast to ask God for forgiveness. At the end of the three days, the plague had miraculously stopped, so on the fourth day the people rejoiced.
Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran Churches, held that fasting served to “kill and subdue the pride and lust of the flesh”. As such, the Lutheran churches often emphasized voluntary fasting over collective fasting, though certain liturgical seasons and holy days were times for communal fasting and abstinence. Certain Lutheran communities advocate fasting during designated times such as Lent, especially on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. A Handbook for the Discipline of Lent delineates the following Lutheran fasting guidelines:
- Fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday with only one simple meal during the day, usually without meat.
- Refrain from eating meat (bloody foods) on all Fridays in Lent, substituting fish for example.
- Eliminate a food or food group for the entire season. Especially consider saving rich and fatty foods for Easter.
- Consider not eating before receiving Communion in Lent.
- Abstain from or limit a favorite activity (television, movies, etc.) for the entire season, and spend more time in prayer, Bible study, and reading devotional material.
It is also considered to be an appropriate physical preparation for partaking of the Eucharist, but fasting is not necessary for receiving the sacrament. Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training, but a person who has faith in these words, ‘given for you’ and ‘shed for you for the forgiveness of sin’ is really worthy and well prepared.”
John Calvin, the figurehead of the Reformed tradition (the Continental Reformed, Congregational, Presbyterian, and Anglican Churches) held that communal fasts “would help assuage the wrath of God, thus combating the ravages of plague, famine and war.” In additional, individual fasting was beneficial in that “in preparing the individual privately for prayer, as well as promoting humility, the confession of guilt, gratitude for God’s grace and, of course, discipling lust.” As such, many of the Churches in the Reformed tradition retained the Lenten fast in its entirety. The Reformed Church in America describes the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, as a day “focused on prayer, fasting, and repentance” and considers fasting a focus of the whole Lenten season, as demonstrated in the “Invitation to Observe a Lenten Discipline”, found in the Reformed liturgy for the Ash Wednesday service, which is read by the presider:
We begin this holy season by acknowledging our need for repentance and our need for the love and forgiveness shown to us in Jesus Christ. I invite you, therefore, in the name of Christ, to observe a Holy Lent, by self-examination and penitence, by prayer and fasting, by practicing works of love, and by reading and reflecting on God’s Holy Word.
Good Friday, which is towards the end of the Lenten season, is traditionally an important day of communal fasting for adherents of the Reformed faith. In addition, within the Puritan/Congregational tradition of Reformed Christianity, special days of humiliation and thanksgiving “in response to dire agricultural and meteororological conditions, ecclesiastsical, military, political, and social crises” are set apart for communal fasting.
In more recent years, many churches affected by liturgical renewal movements have begun to encourage fasting as part of Lent and sometimes Advent, two penitential seasons of the liturgical year. Members of the Anabaptist movement generally fast in private. The practice is not regulated by ecclesiastic authority. Some other Protestants consider fasting, usually accompanied by prayer, to be an important part of their personal spiritual experience, apart from any liturgical tradition.
Classical Pentecostalism does not have set days of abstinence and 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. Dr. Curtis Ward points out that undertaking a black fast beyond three days may lead to dehydration, may irreparably damage the kidneys, and result in possible death. He further notes that nowhere in the New Testament is it recorded that anyone ever undertook a black fast beyond three days and that one should follow this biblical guideline. Dr. Herbert Shelton advises that one should drink water according to natural thirst. In addition to the Normal Fast and the Black Fast, some undertake what is referred to as the Daniel Fast (or Partial Fast) in which only one type of food (e.g., fruit or fruit and non-starchy vegetables) is consumed. In a Daniel Fast, meat is almost always avoided, in following the example of Daniel and his friends’ refusal to eat the meat of Gentiles, which had been offered to idols and not slaughtered in a kosher manner. In some circles of Pentecostals, the term “fast” is simply used, and the decision to drink water is determined on an individual basis. In other circles profuse amounts of pure water is advised to be consumed during the fasting period to aid the cleansing of internal toxins. Most Pentecostal writers on fasting concur with Dr. Mark Mattson who says that sensible intermittent fasting with a sensible water intake can strengthen the organism and assist thwarting degenerative diseases.
For charismatic Christians fasting is undertaken at what is described as the leading of God. Fasting is done in order to seek a closer intimacy with God, as well as an act of petition. Some take up a regular fast of one or two days each week as a spiritual observance. Members of holiness movements, such as those started by John Wesley and George Whitefield, often practice such regular fasts as part of their regimen.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, fasting is total abstinence from food and drink accompanied by prayer. Members are encouraged to fast on the first Sunday of each month, designated as Fast Sunday. During Fast Sunday, members fast for two consecutive meals (24 hours); this is usually Sunday breakfast and lunch, thus the fasting occurs between the evening meal on Saturday and the evening meal on Sunday. The money saved by not having to purchase and prepare meals is donated to the church as a fast offering, which is then used to help people in need. Members are encouraged to donate more than just the minimal amount, and be as generous as possible. The late LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley asked: “Think … of what would happen if the principles of fast day and the fast offering were observed throughout the world. The hungry would be fed, the naked clothed, the homeless sheltered. … A new measure of concern and unselfishness would grow in the hearts of people everywhere.” Fasting and the associated donations for use in assisting those in need, are an important principle as evidenced by Church leaders addresses on the subject during General Conferences of the Church, e.g. The blessing of a proper fast in 2004, Is Not This the Fast That I Have Chosen? in 2015
Sunday worship meetings on Fast Sunday include opportunities for church members to publicly bear testimony during the sacrament meeting portion, often referred to as fast and testimony meeting.
Fasting is also encouraged for members any time they desire to grow closer to God and to exercise self-mastery of spirit over body. Members may also implement personal, family or group fasts any time they desire to solicit special blessings from God, including health or comfort for themselves or others.