The Kuyperian Commentary

Politics, Economics, Culture, and Theology with a Biblical Viewpoint

Archive for the tag “fast”

The History of Lenten Fasting, Part II

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This is a follow up post to The Origins of Lent.

In my previous post I argued that a 40 day preparatory period leading up to Easter is a very ancient Christian practice, as old as the Nicene Creed or the first complete articulation of the New Testament canon (4th c.). I also argued that fasting has always been a part of the Christian Church’s preparation for Easter, going at least as far back as the early third century. To make this argument I referenced several primary sources, including one well respected Christian Father, St. Athanasius of Alexandria.

The primary question that arises out of that post is, “What kind of fasting was involved in those early days?” and a consequent question is, “How should I fast during Lent?” This post is an attempt to begin to answer both of those questions.

The short answer is that these early sources do not tell us much about exactly how the fast was kept. In his second festal letter of 330 AD, St. Athanasius’ does not give any directions as to what is to be fasted from or how the fast is to be kept, only that it be kept. The reason for this seems to be that there was a great deal of local control over the nature of the fast, and that it was up to the local pastor (bishop) to set the parameters according to his own cultural situation and pastoral wisdom. Thomas J. Talley, in his book The Origins of the Liturgical Year, presents evidence that early Lenten fasting practices varied widely. By this he means that there was variation both in the number of actual fast days (for there was never a continuous 40 day fast. Sundays were always exempted and Saturdays were also in most places) and in the manner of fasting.

It seems clear that the most arduous form of fasting would be abstinence from all meat and dairy. Additionally, from the sixth century we find that monks were allowed to eat one meal a day during the fast. What this says about the laity and their practices is unclear, but it seems likely that their fast would have been less arduous. In addition there were periods of Lent were a less arduous fast was prescribed: some allowing for the eating of diary products and eggs for a portion of the fast.

Talley concludes at the end of the book that though the bulk of our detail concerning Lenten fasting comes from monastic sources, the laity still participated in the observance of Lent in some way. For the laity, Lent was primarily about penitence, a season to especially be mindful of and to repent of one’s sins. What fasting the laity observed is not clear, though it seems, as I mentioned above, that it was locally prescribed by local pastors and bishops, and that it must have been less arduous than that which was prescribed for monks.

Later in Church history Lenten practices become a bit clearer and more uniform. The practice that came into being was to take one meal a day during Lent, abstaining from meat, milk, and eggs (excluding Sundays). Yet how late this general practice came to be is not clear. As I mentioned above, most of the information we have is from monastic sources. Furthermore there were many local dispensations that kept the actual fasting from being so severe. Additionally, certain trades and people in certain conditions (ill, pregnant, young or old of age) were exempted. The fact of the matter is that with all the dispensations, Lenten fasting has always been something where a general ideal was applied to local and individual circumstances.

So we return to our original question, “What kind of fast was instituted in the early Church?” The answer is that it was locally variable and individually applicable. Pastors worked with the laity to ensure that some appropriate form of fasting or abstinence was taking place. Monks performed the most arduous fasts, but the laity surely did not follow with the same rigor.

This leads us, in closing, to the second question, which is, “How then should I fast?” The answer is that this is something best left up to individual pastors and churches to decide. Even in the Presbyterian tradition, the elders of the church have the authority to call a fast. The Westminster Confession of Faith 21-5 says that “solemn fastings,” are a part of the true religious worship of God. Furthermore, chapter 62 of the PCA’s Book of Church Order provides for individual churches, presbyteries, and the entire denomination to call for a fast. That chapter even allows for the church to keep a fast called for by civil authorities if the leaders of the church find it in keeping with the Christian faith. There is certainly nothing keeping any individual church or presbytery from calling a fast for Lent. It would be completely in accord with the constitution of our church.

In conclusion, we know that Lenten fasting is very ancient, and we know that the details of the fast have always (to greater and lesser degrees) been left to local churches. Therefore it seems that it would be good practice for our churches to consider ways in which we might begin incorporating Lenten fasting. This is one way in which we can keep step with the broader church and more fully express our unity with her. I wonder if we might heed the admonition of St. Athanasius, a Father of the Church that we hold in high regard:

Persuade them to fast; to the end that we who are in Egypt should not become a laughing-stock, as the only people who do not fast, but take our pleasure in these days.

We in Reformed circles are reticent to fast because we see it as a medieval catholic practice. Yet the historical sources show us that it is far more ancient. These same sources also show that local churches have always had the ability to set the parameters of the fast.

Therefore, let us keep the fast in order that we may keep the feast!

Dr. Timothy LeCroy is a Special Contributing Scholar to the Kuyperian Commentary and is the Pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Columbia, MO.

A third post in this series is planned that will address some common objections to Lenten fasting.

Lent, Fish, and the Feast of the Gentiles

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(First, if you aren’t quite sure how to think about Lent, start here)

I like eating. Eating is glorious and it’s at the heart of the Christian life, so I think about it a lot. That being the case, I recently got to thinking about the historical practice of eating fish during Lent and about the possible rationale behind it. Aside from an apocryphal story about a corrupt pope who owned a fishing business, I didn’t find much to satisfy my Protestant curiosity. Still I came to the ultimate conclusion that regardless of one’s particular Lenten practices, we could afford to eat more fish during the season. Let me tell you why.

Some arms of the Church, Romans in particular, have a longstanding tradition of observing the Fridays in Lent as days of particular penance, marked by abstinence from the eating of meat. Historically, fish has served as a popular meat substitute on these days, distinguished from other prohibited meats because the fish is a cold-blooded creature (Lev. 7:26 seems to back this up). Excepting a sometimes-but-seldom-invoked acronymic relationship between the Greek word for fish—ἰχθύς—and the name of Jesus—Iesous ChristosTheou Yios, Sotor—the choice of fish, in practice, is mostly arbitrary or pragmatic (it is filling and satisfying like meat). But there better, deeper-rooted reasons to make fish a part of our Lenten diet.

In Scripture, the seas and waters under the earth are commonly a symbol of the gentile nations, and likewise the fish dwelling in them. The rulers of Tyre are called “the princes of the sea” (Ez.26:16), Nebuchadnezzar is pictured as a great sea monster (Jer. 51:34), the nation of Egypt is called a nation of fish and river-dwellers (Ez. 29:4). (for more on this, see Through New Eyes or pretty much anything else Jim Jordan has ever written…ever…probably even his grocery lists). In contrast, Israel is seen as a people of the land, and in the Old Testament the prominent men of God are farmers and keepers of livestock, not fisherman. That changes when Jesus comes calling fishermen into his service. With me so far? Okay, here’s where the ride speeds up.

The forty days of Lent are taken from the forty-day period our Lord spent in the Wilderness after his baptism, which in turn shares a typological relationship with other ”forty” periods in Israel’s (or protoIsrael’s) history—most notably the forty days on the ark after Noah’s flood and the forty years of exile after crossing the Red Sea. These earlier events culminated in further separation from and/or victory over the gentile “nations.” Jesus’ forty days, however, orient Israel in the opposite direction. He comes out of the Wilderness and departs immediately to Galilee of the Gentiles, the first order of business being to recruit experienced fish-catchers. Unlike the conquest of Canaan, Jesus doesn’t slay gentiles and drive them away, but begins drawing them to himself by the net-full.

In fact, after Jesus’ forty days of fasting, the first food mentioned in each of the synoptic gospels is fish. While the first Joshua supplanted the nations and took possession of their land and their vineyards, the final and greater Joshua desires to possess the nations themselves—fish is the sign of the gentile peoples being incorporated into the body of Christ. Throughout the gospels, fish is one of the few foods explicitly named as something Jesus ate, and he is always feeding it to his disciples. Alongside bread it is the food given to the multitudes in all the gospel accounts of miraculous feedings. Jesus not only tells Israel to embrace the nations (to love her enemies and be a light shining before all nations), he has them practicing it through meals of fish. Finally, the Lord’s “feed my sheep” admonition to Peter in Jn. 21 follows immediately on the heels of his preparing a breakfast of fish for his disciples and bidding them “come and eat,” a possible sign that the life and health of the Church will be bound up with the pursuit and inclusion of the gentile nations.

So, how should we then eat? As we—the Church, a mixed multitude—move through this season that appropriately culminates in both Jesus’ calling of the gentiles and his death and resurrection (if you aren’t already thinking about the Sign of Jonah, start now), giving thanks to God that the work of Christ is for all the world, we have a boat load of reasons to have fish on the table. Do my comments and observations translate into a biblical imperative to consume fish? No, of course not.. But, all things considered—whether feast, fast, or famine—I can’t help but find it beautifully appropriate.*

*Unless you’re eating fish sticks, which should only be served to children (as punishment for being picky) or to convicts (as punishment for being convicts).

Giving Up Me for Lent?

Lent approaches (Wednesday, the 13th for those who aren’t following along) and many–but certainly not all–Christians will be deciding what to give up.

Many will follow the historic practice of the Church and give up animal products (meat, eggs, dairy, etc.) Others will follow the contemporary practice of the Church and give up something they like (chocolate, soda, alcohol, tobacco, etc.) Still others will follow a more recent, yet popular, practice of giving up something that distracts them (television, Facebook, the internet, etc.)

N.T. Wright, in one of his many good books on the Christian life (Simply Christian, maybe) mentions that Lent is a season of death, therefore we give up something. Easter follows as a season of new life and new creation, so we should take up something–something new and good.

It is not my intention to come across as smug, overly pious, or prideful–but I realize that what I am about to say is all of those things and contradicts the very thing I am intending to do–yet I hope to give readers something to consider for their own Lenten practices this year.

A friend recently shared Andrew Murray’s Humility with me. Then, I re-read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Then, my pastor preached on humility and pride. Then, well you get the idea. Each of these books or sermons deals directly with humility and pride. It may just be that God is trying to tell me something. Thus, I’ve decided to give up myself for Lent. I don’t know if this is a legitimate thing to fast from during Lent–historically anyway–but it is my plan. From Ash Wednesday to Easter, I am giving up myself. I will strive to not tell any stories about myself, not to “out-do” anyone else. Just listen. Just ask questions about them. Just be interested in them. Just care about who they are. I’m not going to tell people how great I am, and I’m not going to tell people how despicable I am–both are cases of pride, although we often try to convince ourselves the latter is humility when it is not.

Whatever your view of Lent is, whatever your view of fasting is, I’m sure you agree that pride is a great evil for Christians and humility is a great weakness for many. Pray for me, that the Lord would have mercy. That I might give up myself for Lent.

I’d rather hope that I can ask this question without it turning into a competition to out-holy one another. So, if you are practicing Lent this year, what are you giving up?

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