Update: Matt Petersen points in the comments to a series of podcasts on Lent from the folks at “Trinity Talks” that are a much more balanced Protestant perspective on Lent, which I’m happy to hear. You can find them here, here and here.
Since I’m making an attempt at reinvigorating the old blog, here’s a thought I had during Lent that seems particularly appropriate since we’re currently in another season of fasting for the Eastern Churches, the Apostles’ Fast which runs from the second Monday after Pentecost till the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul.
I was happy to observe that this Lent, many Reformed pastors with blogs took up the subject of the Church’s foremost penitential season. But most of their thoughts were filled with trepidation about the practice of fasting.
Posts like Steve Wilkins’ here and Doug Wilson’s here and here are more open than usual to the idea of observing Lent and Advent, but the idea of their communities actually setting those seasons aside for actual physical fasting from food seems to fill them with fear.
Reformed Objections to Fasting
They cite many potential pitfalls to the practice. Wilkins says that fasting like the Catholics, by which he means giving up a particular thing a person is attached to like a food or drinking, isn’t really fasting at all since, according to him, biblical fasting is going without any food at all.
This is a bit unfair since that practice is more of a modern American Catholic piety than the sort of fasting the Church has encouraged in ages past and still does in may places.
In the East, the Lenten fast consists of giving up meat, eggs, dairy and, for those with a vocation to marriage, often sex as well, for the entire period of Great Lent, which actually runs more like 55 days by our calendar. And even in the Roman rite, fasting has typically been more rigorous than simply giving up chocolate or suchlike.
Wilson fears that if we fast for an entire season we will be doing more fasting than Israel did in the Old Covenant. Why, he reasons, would we fast more after the resurrection than before?
Both seem to fear that physical fasting will somehow detract from spiritual penitence. Don’t fast from food, many in this camp say. Repent from your sins instead.
They both give nods to the idea that fasting might be something that Christians ought to do sometimes, maybe for a day or so, but only for a specific purpose and only for a short time.
The Devil’s Greatest Triumph Since Luther
Why this avoidance of fasting when the practice has been fundamental to the spiritual life of the Church since the earliest times? My take—it’s the best trick the devil has pulled on Reformed folks since they broke ranks with their bishops.
Jesus fasted for 40 days before the beginning of his public ministry. St. Paul buffeted his body to make it his slave for ministry. Christ told his apostles that even the strongest demons are made weak in the presence of the fasting faithful. The writings of the Fathers of the Church are filled with exhortations to deny the body. And of course, the liturgical life of the Church has long revolved around periods of fasting.
Why would the devil want Christians to cease fasting collectively? Why would he want Christian ministers to teach their flocks to avoid extended periods of fasting? Because Christians who have trained their bodies to resist temptation are among the greatest threats to his dominion that could ever exist.
Reformed Christians are closer to the fullness of the Catholic faith than most Protestant groups. What better way for the devil to cripple their effectiveness than to convince them that fasting together profits them nothing?
It’s particularly strange that the CREC, of all denominations, would be leading the charge against corporate fasting. The Christians in the CREC are keenly attuned to the importance of corporate, liturgical acts. They’re no strangers to the idea that what God’s people do together, in the liturgical context, moves mountains in the world.
The CREC is also a denomination that has worked hard to recover traditions of the Church that many other Protestants have jettisoned. Of course, they still reject any traditions they perceive to be “unbiblical,” but what could be more biblical than corporate self-denial?
So What About Those Objections?
Let me take Wilson’s objections to Lent one by one.
First, if we were to adopt this practice, we would be in worse shape than our Old Covenant brethren, who had to afflict their souls only one day out of the year. Why would the time of anticipation of salvation be so liturgically celebratory, while the times of fulfilled salvation be so liturgically glum? Instead of establishing a sense of longing, it will tend to do the reverse.
This perspective fails to understand that everything gets more intense after Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection. It’s not just the joy that grows in intensity, the fight against evil does as well.
Israel only fasted one day every year. Why? Because they couldn’t handle it any more than they could handle the Christian teaching on divorce. Moses allowed for divorce because of Israel’s hardness of heart. But Christ forbids it because now we have the Spirit. We have the strength to do things Israel never dreamed of.
His examples also fail to take into account the many accounts in Scripture of spontaneous collective penance, like the people of Nineveh when they heard of God’s impending judgement.
Granted, it wasn’t a liturgical celebration of God’s people, but it does clearly show the value of a community coming together to perform works that express their contrition for their sin and their desire for repentance. This is exactly what the Church’s penitential seasons seek to instill in us.
Second, each penitential season keeps getting interrupted with our weekly Easters. Many who relate exciting movies they have seen to others are careful to avoid “spoilers.” Well, these feasts we have, according to God’s ordinace every seven days, spoil the penitential mood.
They do indeed. And each Eucharistic celebration is indeed a breaking of the fast in a certain sense. And we couldn’t get through Lent if it weren’t for the joy we find in the weekly Eucharist.
But Father Alexander Schmemann in his book Great Lent: Journey to Pascha relates the idea that the breaking of the Eucharistic fast does not necessitate the breaking of the fast from food.
In fact, continuing the fast, even on Sundays, is necessary for the kind of sustained effort that the penitential seasons are trying to produce in us. It is through this sustained fasting that we realize that our life is not sustained by food, but by God himself.
Schmemann points out that the first sin was that of eating, of Adam and Eve thinking they could sustain their own life through food. This is the common assumption we all labor under—until we go without food.
When we undertake the kind of sustained fast the Church requires of us several times a year, we get to the end of our ability to sustain our life. At the most intense points of the fast, it starts to feel like we’re losing control of our life, like we’re coming apart at the seams.
And that’s exactly the point. We learn what we are really capable of through the power of the Holy Spirit when we stop trying to sustain our lives on our own steam. We learn that God is capable of sustaining our lives even when we don’t succumb to our belly-gods. And when we learn this lesson, heights of holiness we never imagined can be opened to us. It should be no surprise that the greatest saints in Church history are usually great fasters. (I should add that I lay no claim to having reached these vistas of holiness, only that I believe they exist and have caught glimpses of them during seasons of fasting.)
And last, what gospel is implicitly preached by the practice of drawing out the process of repentance and forgiveness? It is a false gospel. Now I am not saying that fellow Christians who observe their church year in this way are preaching a false gospel, but I am saying that lex orandi lex credendi—the law of prayer is the law of faith, and over time, this liturgical practice will speak very loudly to our descendants. If we have the opportunity to speak to our descendants, and we do, then I want to tell them that the joy of the Lord is our strength.
As do I. And I also want to tell them that if they resist the devil, and he will flee. But without sustained resistance, his attacks will come apace, as they always do. It is only through the long effort of learning to control our passions that we can finally accomplish that work of resistance.
Finally, Wilkins alludes to the idea that we shouldn’t do some petty fast from some food, but rather seek to cultivate true repentance for sins.
But this misses the point. We are not abstaining from certain foods as an end in itself. We are abstaining from certain foods to cultivate the habit of repentance, of turning from the desires of our sinful flesh to the selfless service of Our Lord.
Give it a Try
My recommendation: if you’ve never fasted seriously for an extended period of time, why not try it? WWJD, after all. Want it to be more effective? Do it with as many of God’s people as you can gather. Your whole Church if you can pull it off. During Lent or Advent? All the better, since God’s people all over the globe are doing it to varying degrees during these seasons.
Never separate fasting from prayer, almsgiving and repentance. These are considered the “pillars” of the penitential seasons of the Church and without them, fasting is nothing.
The Reformed objections to sustained, collective, liturgical fasting are strawmen, because true fasting is not opposed to joy, true repentance or a firm knowledge of the post-resurrection era in which we live. Rather, fasting is a strong support of all these things. Without it, we can never attain the heights of spiritual joy that Christ intends for us. Who would oppose such a thing except Old Scratch himself?