The Point of Fasting

Today (Ash Wednesday) I heard a homily in which the preacher said that there was no point giving something up for Lent if we were simply going to gorge ourselves on it on Easter afternoon. The point, the preacher continued, was to use Lent as the occasion to make a permanent change for the better in our lives, and that if we keep doing this God will over time come to have a more central place in our lives.

Perhaps I am simply an incurable hedonist, but something about this approach struck me as profoundly wrong (and ever-so-slightly Pelagian). New Year’s resolutions are the occasion for giving up bad things; Lent is for giving up good things so that we can come to appreciate more deeply the God who is the source of all good things. The point of fasting is not moral or even spiritual improvement, but rather the self denial that will make it possible for us truly to feast when the fast has ended. The pattern of fast and feast is a sign-act of Christ’s death and resurrection, and the restoration of that which we have denied ourselves for 40 days gives us a glimpse of the joy that Christ’s followers felt on Easter. So when our our fast is ended, let us by all means gorge ourselves with Easter joy.


  1. I think I agree with your preacher. What you describe …”The point of fasting is not moral or even spiritual improvement, but rather the self denial that will make it possible for us truly to feast when the fast has ended.” … seems like a kind of mental trick or sleight of hand that owes something to gnostic dualism 🙂

  2. The original point of fasting was the waiting for the risen Lord from the time of the crucifixion on Friday until the time of the Resurrection on Sunday.

    This got extended centuries later with the development of the formal catechumenate and the forty day preparation time, Quadragesima. [Only English has any name other than some version of “the forty days”. “Lent” actually means Spring. Why have we kept this confusing translation/folk association?]

    Can anyone report or provide a reference for the original REASONS for a longer fast, not just a timeline as to when it happened?

    I wonder if there is any likelihood that the fasting is some heretical carryover from a false division of body and soul, a false cultural idea that the body needs to be rejected and curbed instead of respecting the Incarnation and understanding humans as composed of both body and soul?

    Sorry, I am much better at remembering Christian doctrine and some of the mistakes made about than the names those mistakes went by.

    1. Tom, this is a rather outdated view of the origins of Lent. The forty days weren’t necessarily a backwards extension of the three-day pre-paschal fast. They were possibly an extension of pre-baptismal fasting, which became fixed to Easter when baptism did.

      I wholeheartedly agree with Fritz’s post above, as well as his recommendation of Peter Brown’s book below. Fasting, like all asceticism, is a discipline which, rather than dualistically devaluing the body in favour of the soul, affirms the freedom of the human person over necessity and compulsion. Its purpose is to be a liberating sign, which seems to me to suit well the season in which we reclaim our baptismal identity, the “glorious freedom of the children of God.”

      It’s not really serving this purpose if it’s moral self-improvement. Giving up something I shouldn’t do anyway isn’t asceticism; it’s morality. We’re called to far more than merely being well-behaved.

  3. I wonder if there is any likelihood that the fasting is some heretical carryover from a false division of body and soul, a false cultural idea that the body needs to be rejected and curbed instead of respecting the Incarnation and understanding humans as composed of both body and soul?

    The short answer: no.

    The long answer: You might take a look at Peter Brown’s The Body and Society and/or Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast, Holy Fast for compelling historical arguments refuting the notion that asceticism is rooted in gnosticism.

  4. I’m not really sure what I meant about gnostic dualism either, I guess – maybe just that the idea of punishing the body to improve the soul seems to see one as better than the other?

    1. I think it is a pretty standard Christian view to see the soul as, in some sense, “better” than the body (see Matthew 10:28). The soul is, after all, breathed into us by God (Genesis 2:7) and it is what makes the body live. Of course, this in no way makes the body “bad” in itself.

      1. Fritz, you are confusing the Semitic understanding of soul with the Greek. The Hebrew of Gen 2.7 uses the term ‘nephesh’ the best translation for which is simply ‘life,’ namely, that which differentiates a living human being from a corpse. This soul is not immortal. In Hebrew anthropology it ceased to exist at death, similar but not identical to the ruach breath/spirit which at death, returned to God from whom it came.

        The corollary of saying that the soul is better is that the body is worse or inferior.

      2. Gerard,

        I think it’s pretty generally agreed these days that the sharp distinction between “Semitic” and “Greek” thought posited by 19th century German scholarship is quite overdrawn. Plenty of Greeks thought the soul died with the body (Aristotle, for one).

        Also, I don’t find a consistent view in the Old Testament regarding the post-mortem state. Certainly the belief in Sheol would seem to indicate that not all Israelites thought the soul died with the body.

        And, yes, the body is inferior to the soul. This no more means that the body is “bad” than the claim that filet mignon is superior to hamburger means that hamburger is bad. Further, as a Thomist I hold that the soul separated from the body is inferior to the body-soul composite.

  5. Could we refrain from accusing each other of ancient heresies over the slightest errors? It’s never constructive.

    Anyways, consider St. Paul, a teacher of the Faith if there is one, who said “Who will free me from this body of death?” and “But I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.” and “I practice the very evil that I do not want”

    Or consider the line from the hymn, “Jam lucis orto sidere”: “carnis terat superbiam potus cibique parcitas” “Abstinence in food and drink wears down the body’s pride”

    It is perfectly orthodox to speak of the body or the flesh as “an other”. Not in a perfect, sinless body perhaps, but since sin has caused division, or antipathy, within the body itself, this language is valid. In the same way, we can generally speak of “contempt for the world” without fear of heterodoxy.

  6. What was the point of Jesus going out into the desert for 40 days?

    Certainly it was not for repentance or self improvement.

    Jesus went out into the desert after the manifestation of the Holy Spirit at his baptism; he was driven there by the Spirit.

    Why the desert? Deserts were not simply dry places. They were any wildness that did not have the benefits (and drawbacks) of society and culture. They were the refuge of the lawless and other beasts.

    The desert is the place of discernment of spirits, to distinguish the Holy Spirit from evil spirits. As Jesus experienced, even the devil can quote Scripture.

    The desert is the place where we give up our former society and culture, where God renews his people and gives them the foundation of a new society and a new culture, as God did after the Exodus and the Exile.

    So Lent is the time when we need to not only question our selves, but also our society and our culture. That includes the society and the culture of our congregations and churches.

    As Merton has said the only world that is a problem is the world that is in our hearts e.g. the love of money, of status, of controlling others.

    It is abundantly clear to me that love of money, status, and power are at the heart of the bishops’ failure in the sex abuse scandal, as also in the many corporate scandals our nation has experienced.

    So Lent is the time to confront these demons in our selves, our institutions and our culture where they often disguise themselves as good things, and quote scripture.

    Food is the basic resource of life. Once it absorbed a great deal of human labor, but no more, especially in our advanced societies. So while giving up food might once have meant something practically as well as symbolically, today there are many more expensive and valuable resources that we might redirect to the greater benefit others. Almsgiving has traditionally been part of Lent, too.

  7. While Jesus fasted in the desert for His own reasons, we are not perfect as He.

    Fasting has many facets.
    * Discernment is one. Tob 12:8; Acts 13:2-3; 14:23
    * Worship is another. Lk 2:37
    * Lamenting is another. 1 Sam 3:13; 2 Sam 1:12; Est 4:3
    * Contrition (penitence, mortification) is another. Jdg 20:26; 1 Sam 7:6; 2 Sam 12; 1 Kgs 21; Ezr 8:21-23

    And then there’s the righteous fast of Isaiah 58. And Zechariah 8:19 foretells a time when the fasts of Judah will be seasons of great joy and gladness, veritable feasts!

    I see great value in harnessing the power of the physical effects of fasting, and redirecting that power to a spiritual end. I really appreciate Pope St. Leo the Great’s five sermons on the discipline of Lent.

  8. Maybe I’m just missing the obvious, but I don’t understand how not eating certain foods at certain times can effect a change in one’s moral worth, or alternatively how refusing to eat at present so that eating later will be more pleasurable is anything but an agreement with yourself to fool yourself.

    It’s not that I think a change of heart can’t take place but to ascribe that to something arbitrarily chosen for its self-denying properties … I mean, going hungry doesn’t automatically make you holy, it makes you hungry – ask pewople who have no choice about going hungry. And the idea that joy in the resurrection is made more joyful by the awfulness of Jesus’s agonized death seems to say that God needs evil to make good better.

    I guess I just don’t understand.

    1. I wouldn’t say that fasting affects our “moral worth” in a direct way. But it can shape our hearts. It can help us:

      * Learn not to cater to every whim of desire
      * Live in solidarity with those who suffer from hunger
      * Learn what it means to “hunger and thirst for righteousness”
      * Recognize our own weakness and depend more upon God
      * Live our lives in imitation of Christ

      You might find it helpful to read the lives of some of the early desert saints. I find The Life of St. Antony by Athanasius a beautiful meditation on some of these themes.

  9. Maybe we do not need to choose between the two sides Fritz has set up in his thought-provoking post. For one, the “New Year” Fritz identified as the point in time for resolutions “to give up things that are bad” is a rather secular notion, not exactly recognized in the liturgical calendar (which begins its New Year with Advent I)… So, could Lent not be a time in which we embrace both kinds of fasting? The “fasting before feasting” (let’s say, a wonderful cocktail I really enjoy) AND those fasts that are the beginning of more permanent renunciations in our life (e.g., I gave up taking short-cuts in composting some years ago, and in allowing me to use plastic bags — and these initially Lenten, now permanent practices have helped me “green” my life overall).
    Lastly, for those who are interested in liturgical history, the best introduction to the development of Lent is in the new book by Paul Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson, “The Origins of Feasts, Fasts and Seasons in Early Christianity” (Liturgical Press, 2011) chapter 3.

    1. Teresa,

      You are, of course, correct. We should not restrict our abandoning of bad things for Lent, but Ash Wednesday is as good a time as any, and perhaps the best time, to resolve to give them up.

      Maybe the distinction I’m looking for is one between repentance and ascetic practice — the former involving renouncing an evil and the the latter involving temporary non-indulgence in some good.

  10. Well, no human act, not even a personal commitment to secretive fasting, can create holiness. We rely on grace whether we pass on meat or sugar on the first day of Lent or we bring a spiritual practice from Lent into days beyond.

    I feel sympathetic to the quoted preacher’s emphasis. My preacher yesterday said that outward acts of sacrifice (whether seen or not) were worthless unless accompanied by a change of heart. Or perhaps a desire to be changed in the heart.

    For the twentieth, fortieth, sixtieth time, maybe it’s become too easy to give up sweets, smokes, or booze. Maybe Lent should involve us in new territory, unfamiliar places, and discomfort rather than a possibly empty exercise we know from past experience, we can conquer easily.

    And let’s remember the first reason for Lent: the Christian community joined its elect in the final journey toward the Easter sacraments. For the elect, they are approaching Lent not as a blip in another hedonistic year, but as an opportunity to convert, to turn away from sin, to permanently adhere themselves and their lives to Christ. What point is there is the faith community is doing a “temporary” sacrifice when the elect are being challenged to a whole new way? What better witness and encouragement is there if believers took Lent as a time to go to AA, or to drop extra pounds permanently, or made a commitment to their family, or stopped gorging on television?

    I think we can decline to eat sweets for six weeks and then embrace a sugary Easter. But at the same time, perhaps Lent is indeed a good time to give up something we are prepared to give up for good, for the greater good. After all, are any of us going to run out of vices and indulgences in the next century at the rate of one a year?

  11. Rather than being tied to Easter, Talley suggested Lent began as a forty day fast after the octave of the Epiphany (i.e. the celebration of the Baptism of Christ). Some of the monks of Palestine would leave their monasteries and go out into the desert (like Jesus) and not return until Palm Sunday.

    A variation on this Palestinian monastic custom (leaving instead on the Forgiveness Sunday at the beginning of Lent) is found in the Life of Saint Mary of Egypt, (ca. 344 – ca. 421).This is read during the Great Canon of Andrew of Crete, a major feature of the Byzantine celebration of Lent.

    The life is found here

    This story is the liturgical inspiration for my view of Lent as a time of discernment.

    Father Zozimas, an accomplished spiritual director, is tempted by spiritual pride. “Is there a monk on earth who can be of use to me and show me a kind of asceticism that I have not accomplished? Is there a man to be found in the desert who has surpassed me?” An angel sends him to a Palestinian monastery; he goes into the desert during Lent in search of a greater spiritual mentor. He finds the naked former harlot, Saint Mary of Egypt. After clothing her with his mantle, he discovers she is that mentor as she narrates the story of her conversion and life in the desert.

    The Life is full of desert monastic tradition, e.g. mantles as symbols of spiritual authority. The high point occurs when Mary of Egypt, after making the sign of the cross, walks on the waters of the Jordon (as an icon of Christ) to receive Viaticum from Father Zosimas.

    The Life and the Great Canon praise the great deeds of God in both the macrocosm of salvation history and the microcosm of our own salvation history. “It is good to hide the secret of a king, but it is glorious to reveal and preach the works of God” (Tobit 12:7) are the opening words of the Life.

    Both the life of Mary and that of Zozimas have more to do with following the Spirit into the desert than with asceticism per se.

  12. On a tangent again:

    What is the purpose of the Forty Days*, as it now exists?

    Is it fair to say that the Forty Days are about preparing for Easter*?

    Consider these possibilities rather than “giving up something for Lent.”

    – Daily reading scheduled to go at least twice through a New Testament book one has not previously read or not read in a long while, especially one which is difficult for you.

    – Spend Lent literally preparing for the Triduum.
    Get all your family preparations for Easter Sunday done early so that only the few things which absolutely cannot be done in advance remain. Schedule time off work and send notes to school for your children to be able to participate with you in the Christian High Holy Days. Set the VCR/TIVO to record anything of real interest from sundown Thursday through Sunday. Plan to wear long-sleeved white clothes to the Vigil and encourage all in the parish to thus show their membership in the choir of saints which the newly baptized join when they wear their white garments. Get the family together in advance to plan church times and meal times during the Triduum. Locate some place the family can go to actually walk the way of the cross on Friday. Figure out in advance what other activities the family can agree are appropriate but not burdensome for each person for during the day on Friday and Saturday, including naps so as to be fresh for evening services. Plan time after the services to discuss their effects and meanings for the family. In other words, actually spend time in Lent preparing how to observe the Institution of the Eucharist, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Lord.

    [* The Forty Days or Quadragesima, only in English is there a word “Lent” which, rather inappropriately for the liturgical season, means “Spring”]
    [Easter is another English-only word, relating to a pagan goddess. Pascha or Passover of the Lord or Resurrection of the Lord are all more meaningful.]

  13. Fritz Bauerschmidt :


    Also, I don’t find a consistent view in the Old Testament regarding the post-mortem state. Certainly the belief in Sheol would seem to indicate that not all Israelites thought the soul died with the body.


    Fritz, it is a contradiction to say that for the Hebrews the nephesh did not die with the body. Nephesh is simply the life of the living body. The meaning of death is that life ends.

    Belief in Sheol in no way supports the view that nephesh did not end with death. Sheol was not inhabited by the soul, but rather by the raphe, or shade, a new dimension of the human person which came into existence at death. Nowhere is nephesh identified with raphe.

    The Hellenistic concept of the immortality of the soul is not the Semitic understanding. Methodologically it is not always possible to differentiate between Semitic and Graeco-Roman, particularly in the Hellenistic period. But it is a mistake to identify the one with the other. The immortality of the soul is one such fundamental difference.

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