From ancient times, it was believed that the deity was appeased by voluntary sufferings of people. Since abstinence from food brought suffering, fasting became a way for people to make amends for their misdeeds. The Jewish nation from the beginning observed fasting to show humility, sorrow or dependence upon God, described often as an action “to afflict one’s soul” (Levitius 16:29)
Old Testament stories attest to fasting on particular occasions by Israelites, individually or in groups. During times of war, when fighting the Benjamites, “They sat there in the Lord’s presence and did not eat until evening” (Judges 20:26). Again, during the Philistine war, “They drew some water and poured it out as an offering to the Lord and fasted that whole day” (1 Samuel 7:6).
Ancients also believed fasts to be a means of inducing visions, dreams, and divine communication. Both Moses, upon encountering God at Mount Sinai, and Elijah, on his way to meet God at Mount Horeb, fasted 40 days and 40 nights.
David, upon hearing of the death of Saul and Jonathan, “tore his clothes” (a sign of grief) and “grieved and mourned and fasted until evening…” (2 Samuel 1:12). After Jonah preached to the people of Nineveh that the city would be destroyed, they believed God’s message, fasted, and “put on sackcloth to show that they had repented” (Jonah 3:5).
Although fasts were practiced at various times, only one fast was prescribed by Jewish law — the Day of Atonement, a holy day filled with ritual as described in Leviticus 23:26-32. During the exile, Zechariah mentions four fasts being observed (Zechariah 8:18-19). Public and private fasts continued to be held after the exile, during times of national misfortune, anniversaries, or for individual needs.
In the New Testament, we find the Pharisees, a Jewish sect, and the followers of John the Baptist to have fasted (Mark 2:18). Jesus, himself a Jew, fasted throughout his ministry (Matthew 4:2) but discouraged conspicuous displays of fasting (Matthew 6: 16-
18). Even the new Christians prayed and fasted together. The members of the Antioch Church “fasted and prayed, placed their hands on (Barnabas and Saul) and sent them off” (Acts 13:3). They were the first Christian missionaries.
Customs in fasting varied from place to place. Some continued from the Jewish practices, others were added. Early on, the Apostolic Church observed two days of the week for special observances: Sunday in honor of Christ’s resurrection and Friday became the fast day in memory of his death.
“The days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day” (Mark 2:20). This passage from Jesus’ discussion on fasting led the early Christian to practice a strict two-day fast (from Good Friday to Easter Sunday). In addition, Fridays throughout the year became a weekly day of fasting.
Good Friday to Easter became known as Quadragesima (the Latin word for Lent) which signified the 40 hours of fasting to commemorate Christ’s suffering and his 40 hours in the tomb. It was the time to prepare the new converts for baptism on Easter eve. By the third century, this period was extended to six days to conform with catechetical training.
During the 4th century, Christianity became the state religion of Rome. Because there were so many new members, it was required that all adhere to the strict regulations of the Lenten fast, and not just those being baptized.
Although observances and the practices of Lent varied in these early centuries, Lent eventually became fixed at 40 days to commemorate Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness.
Lent didn’t always include Ash Wednesday —omitting Sundays, Lent added up to only 36 days, not 40. It was St. Gregory in the 7th century who established the fast to begin four days earlier in order to make Lent the exact 40 days. Pope Urban II gave the first day of Lent its name —Ash Wednesday. To make fasting practices consistent, Pope Gregory also ruled “to abstain from flesh meat and from all things that come from flesh as milk, cheese, eggs.”
By the 9th century, less rigid rules and common senses rules were instituted. Saint John Chrysostom stated: “If your body is not strong enough to continue fasting all day, no wise man will reprove you: for we serve a gentle and merciful Lord who expects nothing of us beyond our strength.”
And Pope Saint Leo 1 added: “What we forego by fasting is to be given as alms to the poor.”
In most cases, fasting doesn’t mean going completely without food; there are many different kinds of fasting. One can limit the quantity of foods one eats, rather than abstain completely. Or a person can fast one meal on a certain day, or even contribute something extra to the church collection.
During the Reformation and after, fasting had become neglected. Today, some churches are in compliance with the strict laws of fasting throughout the 40 days of Lent. In most Protestant churches, Lent is mainly a time for reflection and devotion. It can be a time “to give up something,” to “afflict one’s soul,” and to let God know you depend on Him and eagerly await His Feast of the Resurrection.