Fasting, in preparation for Pascha was universal in the Early Church, both in the East and in the West, as evidenced by various second and third century references to the practice. Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History makes reference to St Irenaeus who had written on the debate regarding the date for Pascha and on the nature of the period of abstinence preceding it:
“For the controversy is not only concerning the day, but also concerning the very manner of the fast. For some think that they should fast one day, others two, yet others more; some moreover, count their day as consisting of forty hours day and night. And this variety in its observance has not originated in our time; but long before in that of our ancestors.”
Not only does this reference establish that fasting before Pascha was already a custom in the lifetime of St Irenaeus but that it was of even earlier, if not of Apostolic origin. By the fourth century, this pre – Paschal fast had undergone a transformation, both in its form and length. It had evolved into a forty day fast and became centred, as a result of its long duration, more in the restriction of certain kinds of foods rather than total abstinence from food. The first explicit reference to a forty day fast is in the Council of Nicaea (325) in Canon 5. By the end of the fourth century Bishop Kallistos (Ware) concluded that:
“the observance of a forty day fast seems to have been the standard practice in most parts of Christendom…Lent as we know it … is the result of a convergence between… two elements – between the six day pre- Nicene fast, which was directly in preparation for Easter and the forty day post-Nicene fast, which originally formed part of the training of candidates for Baptism…[but] came to evolve the whole body of the faithful, and not just those preparing for Baptism.”
It is in this prototypic period of the Church’s history that fasting came to be marked by a restriction in the types and quantity of food eaten. And it is this latter meaning that serves as the model for the present day Lenten period of fasting in the Orthodox Church today.
It becomes clear that the Lenten fast, which is observed today, was originally a monastic fast which crept into the life of the whole Church. That is to say that this fast was ascetical, a mortification of the flesh whose purpose it was to assist the monk in his spiritual ascent to theosis. Asceticism, of which fasting is a form, is not something optional but is a necessary tool for the successful attainment of salvation. A contemporary monk of Mount Athos, Father Tickon wrote: “whoever fasts shows that he has started to transcend earthly and temporal things and longs for the heavenly and eternal things.” However, one must be careful not to make fasting an end in it self, a law or an obligation. Rather, an honest attempt must be made to empty ourselves, to become transparent and allow the grace of God to permeate within us. Fasting, in this sense is a means, which the Church offers its faithful members as an opportunity for them to transform their hunger and thirst for food into hunger and thirst for God Himself.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College