The surprising truth about fasting for Lent

Forty days in the wilderness: Temptations of Christ, St Mark’s Basilica.

The excesses of the carnival are over, the clean-up completed. And so begins the year’s traditional period of abstinence. Leading up to Christianity’s most holy day, Easter, is the 40-day period called Lent, when pledges are made to give up everything from alcohol and smoking to nail-biting and overeating.

But given the importance of Jesus’s death from the very dawn of Christianity, it’s rather surprising that the practice of recognising this significant period has changed considerably over the past two thousand years – and in some very strange ways.

Lent in the New Testament

Today, Lent is connected with the 40-day fast that Jesus undergoes (Mark 1:13; Matthew 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13). Mark tells us that Jesus was tempted by Satan, but it is in Matthew and Luke that the details of the temptation are fleshed out. All three accounts say that Jesus went without food for the 40 days.

The devil carries Jesus up to a mountain to tempt him with an earthly kingdom (Luke 4:5–8; Matthew 4:8–10) Missal, France c.1470-75; Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, MS 425, fol. 48r. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Christians, like adherents to many other religions, have long fasted. But it was only after Christians began to fast specifically prior to Easter, about 300 years after Jesus’s death, that anyone looked to the Bible to find a source for the practice. Before then, surprisingly, the two hadn’t been connected. So how did it happen?

The holiness of hunger

Fasting – not eating (and sometimes drinking) for an extended period of time – is a practice that goes back long before Jesus. Ancient Jews fasted on certain days throughout the year. Mark 2:18–23 and Matthew 6:16–18, for example, both take for granted that fasting is a normal part of Jewish religious practice. Other Jewish texts from the Greco-Roman period depict fasting as an effective substitute for sacrifice. About a hundred years before Jesus, the Psalms of Solomon 3:8–9 describe fasting as a way to atone for sins and as a habitual practice of the righteous.

In the earliest years of Christianity, Christians seem to have observed the same fast days that Jews observed. Some authors were violently opposed to this cultural and religious intermingling. John Chrysostom (c. 349-407), writing against Christians sharing anything in common with Jews, admonishes Christians who fast on the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.

John Chrysostom Dionisius. Wikimedia

Not eating and not drinking could be seen as a means of atonement, as with Yom Kippur, but it could also clear the way for an expected meeting with God. Moses, for example, fasted prior to going up the mountain to meet with God and receive the Ten Commandments in Exodus 34:28. Fasting is also prominent in other texts, closer in date to Jesus’s time, such as 4 Ezra. In this first century text, Ezra prepares to receive revelations from God by abstaining from food and drink for seven days. After his period of fasting, an angel tells him divine secrets.

Jesus’s fast in the desert, then, would have been understood to prepare him to commune with God and to strengthen him against the devil’s temptations. It is little wonder, then, that later Christians began to associate fasting with being close to God. Perhaps the most well-known development of fasting practice that emerges after antiquity is the so-called “holy anorexics” – women, such as Angela of Foligno (1248–1309) and Catherine of Siena (1347–1380), who refused all food but the Eucharist.

The true origins of Lent

Christian texts as early as the second century talk about fasting leading up to Easter, but different Christian groups appear to observe different types and lengths of fasts, and even within a church there were differences of opinion. Irenaeus of Lyons noted the variety:

For the dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual form of the fast. For some think that they should fast one day, others two, others again more; some for that matter, count their day as consisting of 40 hours day and night.

The earliest reference to a sustained fast of more than two or three days is in the Didascalia, a Syrian Christian document probably from the the third century AD.

Therefore you shall fast in the days of the Pascha from the tenth, which is the second day of the week; and you shall sustain yourselves with bread and salt and water only, at the ninth hour, until the fifth day of the week. But on the Friday and on the Sabbath fast wholly, and taste nothing … For thus did we also fast, when our Lord suffered, for a testimony of the three days …

This text connects a six-day fast with Easter and with Jesus’s suffering, but surprisingly still not with Jesus’s 40-day temptation depicted in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It was Peter I of Alexandria in the fourth century who connected Christian penitential (still not Lenten) fasting to Jesus’s 40-day fast in the wilderness:

It is sufficient, I say, that from the time of their submissive approach, other forty days should be enjoined upon them, to keep them in remembrance of these things; those forty days during which, though our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ had fasted, He was yet, after He had been baptised, tempted of the devil. And when they shall have, during these days, exercised themselves much, and constantly fasted, then let them watch in prayer, meditating upon what was spoken by the Lord to him who tempted Him to fall down and worship him: ‘Get behind me, Satan; for it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.’

Sandro Botticelli The Temptation of Christ detail.

Indeed, the likely reason why fasting later became associated with the run-up to Easter is that people started holding baptisms at Easter. The three-week long preparation for becoming a Christian through baptism included fasting, and as baptism became more strongly associated with Easter in the fourth century AD, it is possible that fasting in the lead-up became more generalised to include people who were already Christians. Until Christians decided on a standard way to calculate the date of Easter, under the Emperor Constantine, a specific Lenten fast was far from universal.

The changing traditions associated with Lent can be seen also in Pope Francis’s recent announcement that women would be included in the foot washing service performed to commemorate Jesus’s washing of his disciples’ feet (John 13:1–20).

Either way, it is clear that many of the feast and fast days of Christianity predate the religion, but also have been transformed over time by its adherents. And it serves as a reminder that nothing remains the same – even religion.