— by Rev. Daniel Merz
In the early Church and, to alesser extent still today, there were two fasts. There was the "total fast" that preceded all
major feasts or sacramental events. The
ancient name for this fast was "statio" from the verb "sto, stare" to stand
watch, on guard or in vigil. The second
fast was a fast of abstinence from certain foods, e.g., meats or fats. This was more an act of self-discipline and
self-control. The statio
fast was total and a means of watching and waiting…i.e. for
something. The fast of abstinence was more general and
personal, to help oneself be more disciplined or self-controlled. The total fast is still kept today prior to
reception of Holy Communion. Following
Holy Communion, the total fast ceases because Jesus had explicitly stated that
we don't fast when the bridegroom is here, in other words, what we're keeping
vigil for has arrived, the wait is over. On the other hand, the fast of abstinence was allowed on Sundays because
the continuity of abstinence can be important for it to be effective.
observations, then, teach us that the Eucharist is always the end of a
preparation. It is always the
fulfillment of an expectation. In the
Orthodox Church during Lent, they have Eucharist only on Saturday and
Sunday. But because Wednesdays and
Fridays are total fast days, those two days are also days for the Communion
service (Liturgy of the PreSanctified) which are held in the evening, i.e.,
after the day of preparation. Fasting is
But how did fasting become such an important means
of preparing for the Eucharist and of learning virtue through
self-discipline? Christian fasting is
revealed in an interdependence between two events in the Bible:the "breaking of the fast" by Adam and Eve;
and the "keeping of the fast" by Christ at the beginning of his ministry.
Humanity's "Fall" away from
God and into sin began with eating. God
had proclaimed a fast from the fruit of only one tree, the tree of knowledge of
good and evil (Gen. 2:17), and Adam and Eve broke it. Fasting is here connected with the very
mystery of life and death, of salvation and damnation. Food perpetuates life in this physical world,
which is subject to decay and death. But
God "created no death." (Wis. 1:13) Humanity, in Adam and Eve, rejected a life dependent on God alone for
one that was dependent rather on "bread alone." (Dt. 8:3; Mt. 4:4; Lk.
4:4) The whole world was given to man as
a kind of food, as a means to life, but "life" is meant as communion with God,
not as food. ("Their god is their
belly." Phil. 3:19) The tragedy is not
so much that Adam ate food, but that he ate the food for its own sake, "apart"
from God and to be independent of Him. Believing that food had life in itself and thus he could be "like
God." And he put his faith in food. This kind of existence seems to be built on
the principle that man does indeed live "by bread alone."
however, is the new Adam. At the
beginning of his ministry in the Gospel of Matthew, we read, "When He
fasted 40 days and 40 nights, He became hungry." Hunger is that state in
which we realize our
dependence on something else—when we face the ultimate question: "on what
does my life depend?" Satan tempted both Adam and Christ,
saying: Eat, for your hunger is proof
that you depend entirely on food, that your life is in food. Adam
believed and ate. Christ said, "Man does NOT live by bread
alone." (Mt. 4:4; Lk. 4:4) This
liberates us from total dependence on food, on matter, on the
world. Thus, for the Christian, fasting is the only
means by which man recovers his true spiritual nature.In order for
fasting to be effective, then, the
spirit must be a part of it. Christian
fasting is not concerned with losing weight. It is a matter of prayer and
the spirit. And because of that, because it is truly a place of the spirit, true
fasting may well lead to temptation, and weakness and doubt and
irritation.In other words, it will be a
real fight between good and evil, and very likely we shall fail many
these battles. But the very discovery of
the Christian life as "fight" and "effort" is an essential aspect of
Christian tradition can name at least seven reasons for
- From the beginning, God commanded some fasting, and sin
entered into the world because Adam and Eve broke the fast.
the Christian, fasting is ultimately about fasting from sin.
- Fasting reveals our dependence on God and not the
resources of this world.
- Fasting is an ancient way of preparing for the
Eucharist—the truest of foods.
is preparation for baptism (and all the sacraments)—for the reception of grace.
- Fasting is a means of saving resources to give to the
- Fasting is a means of self-discipline,
chastity, and the restraining of the appetites.
This article draws in part
on the writings of Alexander Schmemann, "Notes in Liturgical Theology," St. Vladimir's Seminary Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 1,
Winter 1959, pp. 2-9. Rev. Daniel Merz is a former Associate Director of the USCCB Divine Worship office.