Christians are now fully underway in fasting before Easter. Western Christians, namely protestants and most Catholics (celebrating Easter this year on April 21) began either on Ash Wednesday on March 6, or Pure Monday, on March 4. The Orthodox, who calculate Easter according to the older, Julian calendar, began the Great Fast in earnest with Pure Monday on March 11. Whether you’ll be celebrating on April 21 or 28, we are all now fully immersed in preparation for Easter.
Fasting, and asceticism generally, are grossly misunderstood terms, not only in secular society but even among Christians. Put simply, asceticism is the practice of prayerfully denying yourself worldly pleasures so as to train yourself in resisting the empty pleasure of sin.
In the Christian tradition, there are common periods of fasting that have been observed since the earliest days of the Church. Traditionally, Christians would fast on Wednesday, because that is the day Christ was betrayed, on Friday, the day Christ died, and Saturday, the day Christ was in the tomb. Fasting prior to Easter in a longer and more rigorous way also emerged fairly early in Christian history.
Over time, other fasts emerged. Rigorous fasting was observed in the west on four sets of Ember Days throughout the years. In the Byzantine tradition, which I do my best to follow, there are also periods of fasting 40 days before Christmas, 14 days before the Dormition of Mary (August 15), and from the second Monday after Pentecost (itself 50 days after Easter) to the feast of Saints Peter and Paul (June 29).
The Coptic, Armenian, and Syriac fast traditions are also spiritually rich, and have served their faithful well for 2,000 years. But rather than going into a history of Christian asceticism, I want to encourage those Christians reading this to take up prayer, fasting and almsgiving this Lent, even if you aren’t part of a denomination that traditionally does so. Rather than avoiding Lent as “too Catholic” or legalistic, embrace this time, as an element of your shared tradition, to prepare yourself for the most important feast day in the Christian’s year: Easter.
Asceticism does not just mean fasting. Some people aren’t able to fast at all. Pregnant women, young children, the elderly and those with eating disorders will often be exhorted by their pastors not to fast, or to fast in a less difficult way than what is prescribed generally. If limiting your food is not an option, you can also also abstain from certain foods or activities. Around this time of year, it is common for many Christians to give up chocolate, sugar, alcohol or television. Some people take cold showers, exercise, or will stop listening to music in the car.
Even though we’re less than a month until Easter, you can still start doing something. I can assure you that fasting from worldly pleasures, if done prayerfully, will prepare your heart for the joyousness of the rising of Christ (and ourselves) to new life in a way you would not expect.
You might notice the qualifier I added there: prayerfully. Fasting apart from prayer is just dieting (and not very good dieting, as the strictest fasts tend to mostly be carbs) and won’t give you anything but a bad attitude and an empty stomach. If you go to Church on Sundays, excellent. Add more services throughout the week. At Trinity, that might be Catholic Student Group’s Eucharistic Adoration on Wednesdays and Fridays, or InterVarsity’s large groups on Thursdays. In the Byzantine tradition, we celebrate the Divine Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts, a special Lenten service that offers us a chance to receive our Eucharistic Lord in a more penitential way than is usually appropriate for Sunday Liturgies, which are always oriented towards Easter, even during the Great Fast.
I want to close with a final exhortation: if you’re Catholic, do more than the bare minimum this Lent. Do as much as you can do, and do it well. If you’re from a faith background that doesn’t typically fast, don’t let that stop you. Christ gave us instructions for when we fast, not if we fast. Fast, pray, and give alms.
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A final note: if you’re still confused about fasting, I highly recommend you check out this short video from Eastern Hospitality, featuring Mother Gabriella of Christ the Bridegroom Monastery and my friend Father Moses of Holy Resurrection Monastery.
Photo from the Facebook page of St. Anastasia the Great Martyr Byzantine Catholic Community of San Antonio during Lent, where the author attends Church.