“But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and they will fast” (Matthew 9:14)
“Moreover, when you fast …” (Matthew 6:16)
Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, being tempted by the devil. And those days He ate nothing, … (Luke 4:1, 2)
In the Byzantine tradition of Orthodox Christianity, we have passed the third Sunday of the Triodion, Judgement Sunday. This coming weekend is Forgiveness Sunday. After the evening Forgiveness Vespers Service, we will begin the Great Lenten Fast.
Roman Catholics, liturgical Protestants (such as Episcopalians and Lutherans), and Orthodox Christians are asked about this period on our calendar by our evangelical brethren. In person and online, I frequently hear such statements like, “Lent isn’t in the Bible.” “Jesus didn’t tell us to give up anything except sin.” “Fasting is a tradition of man, so we don’t have to do it.” Many American ideas of religion are based on the Radical Reformers and Great Awakening Movements who wanted little or nothing to do with any Christian practice that seemed too much like Roman Catholicism. I was raised Baptist with the belief that Lent was unbiblical and unnecessary. Even before my conversion in 2014, I have come to believe that the great fast is firmly rooted in scripture and very useful for those who follow Jesus Christ.
Lent in the Byzantine tradition does start with three Sundays (The Triodion) devoted to scripture that highlight themes that we are to be aware of; humility in prayer, repentance, and our mortality. In the west, there is a sense of merriment on the eve of the fast and then they start with services that also remind believers of God’s ultimate judgement. Certainly, the Lord’s declaration to Adam and Eve, “From dust you came, to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19) serves as a major call to repentance. Ash Wednesday developed in Western Europe perhaps a little later than what was always done in the East. But, the message is the same. Begin the fast in a spirit of humility before God.
A “Christian” is one who lives to imitate Christ. The Gospel writers confirm that Jesus Himself fasted for 40 days after being baptized. Over the years, it became the practice for early Christians to do likewise within reason. Except for very strict monastics, people still needed to eat for sustenance. So, the early Church Fathers saw that abstaining from meats, dairy products, alcohol, olive oil, and overeating in general was a good standard that most Christians could adhere to. The fast does vary according to jurisdiction or a person’s health needs. These Fathers selected the 40 days before Holy Week and Easter (Pascha, The Lord’s Passover) to observe the fast. An old English word for “Spring” is “Lecten” which is from a Germanic word for the lengthening of Days. So, in repentance and humility, believers imitate the Lord’s fasting and prepare to celebrate His rising from the dead.
There is no verse in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt fast for 40 days before Holy Week and Easter and call it Lent.” But, does there have to be? The themes of repentance, humility, imitating Christ, self denial (“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24) are essential parts of the fast and imbedded in the Old and New Testaments. In the first and second verse submitted in this article, Jesus seems to assume that His followers will fast. He doesn’t make specific rules of what to abstain from, how long, or even when and how often. Later in the Gospel, we do find that there spiritual victories that require fasting as well as prayer (Matthew 17:21, Mark 9:29). In the story of healing the epileptic son, we don’t see where Jesus fasted or directed the Disciples to do so. But, it is fair to say that the Lord did fast as a part of His prayer life and the disciples taught others to do likewise (Matthew 28:19, 20). During Lent, we also have additional weekly worship, prayers, and are expected to contribute to the less fortunate. Many of us try to read a book or two and more scripture as well.
Great Lent is not a command, mandate, or obligation imposed by someone in Canterbury, Constantinople, or Rome. It is a season of renewal that I freely approach with expectation. I believe I grow every year by participating in the cautious eating (yes, one can still fall into gluttony eating healthy food), spiritual reading, and prayers of the tradition that is intertwined with the scriptures. If interested, talk with someone who observes Lent.