Christian fasting practices have been changed many times over the centuries. The focus on fasting practices have also varied among the different Christian denominations, with some ignoring fasting altogether.
The two most important Biblical stories concerning fasting are Jesus’ forty day fast in the wilderness and Moses’ forty day fast atop Mt. Sinai. Some Christians voluntary undergo some form of a forty day fast in order to deepen their faith and feel closer to God. Such actions are purely individual decisions as there is no edict or compulsory act that dictates this type of fast in any Christian tradition.
Early Christian Fasting Practices.
During the early years of Christian church there was a much stronger emphasis on fasting than there is today. Wednesdays and Fridays were considered days of fasting – or days where food and water were abstained from until midafternoon. This practice was originally voluntary but gradually more obligatory rules of fasting were put in place by Church authorities. By the Middle Ages fasting had assumed major importance. The strictness of the fasting varied in different areas but the rules were often quite stern. On Church proclaimed fast days, the faithful, especially monks and nuns, observed a total fast for twenty-four hours.
Christians were also encouraged to undertake their own self initiated fasts. Their purpose was to benefit the soul at the expense of the body, which the Church called mortifying the flesh. The word mortify was derived from the Latin mortificar, meaning to kill. Thus the devout Christian expressed a sort of symbolic death of all personal or selfish goals. The medieval heretics sect, the Catharists, would undergo a complete fast once they received consolamentum rites. This typically occurred on their death bed and was not, as some claimed, undertaken as a form of suicide.
In the medieval Christian Church every Friday was considered a fast day and it commemorated the death of Jesus. On the principle of fast before a feast the eve (vigil) of a holiday or Church festival was often a day of fasting and penitence: the Vigil of Christmas, the vigil of Epiphany, the Vigil of Pentecost, etc. There were also four seasonal fasts: the weeks following the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14), the Feast of Saint Lucy (December 13), the first Sunday in Lent, and Pentecost. Fasting would take place on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Two other periods, Advent, comprising the four weeks before Christmas, and Lent, the forty days that prepare the way for Easter, also included fasting periods. Since it was not possible to go without food for such an extended time, this fasting came to mean eating less food. In the early Church one meal a day was eaten. This was an evening meal that took place after the Vespers service. Meat, fish, eggs, and butter were forbidden on fast days. Sundays were not part of the fasting day and anything could be eaten.
The whole range of fasting or abstinence preached by the medieval Church was intended to reduce or control selfish impulses. Fasting fulfilled a number of purposes that included practicing self-control, purify oneself, and atoning for sin.
Post Reformation Fasting in the Catholic Church
Religious practices and observances began to change after the Reformation and the Counter Reformation. The Catholic Church in the late nineteenth century recognized two formal practices related to earlier fasting traditions: fasting now meant cutting down on the total amount of food eaten and abstinence meant not eating meat. Fasting days now included two small meals, typically defined as one quarter size of the normal meal, and one full meal. This included Lent and Advent. Abstinence days simply meant not eating any meat or meat products. This was supposed to be followed every Friday. On days of fast and abstinence, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, there were three meals allowed as per the fasting requirements but no meat could be eaten at the full meal.
A Eucharistic pre-Communion fast was also in place. If a communicant wished to receive the Sacrament on Sunday, fasting was required from midnight the night before and through Sunday until Mass ended. The Roman Catholic Church relaxed the rules for the Eucharistic fast in 1957. Abstaining from all food and alcohol three hours before Mass and drinking water at this time was permitted. In the 1960’s more changes were implemented where most of the laws of fasting and abstinence were abolished. Meat was only forbidden during Lent. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday were the only days where it was deemed desirable, rather than obligatory, to fast.
Reformatory Fasting Practices
Asceticism was largely purged from religious practice as part of the Reformation movement. In 1522 the civil authorities of Zurich banned the Lenten fast as an early step toward Calvinist reform. Luther himself did not specifically ban fasting, but he felt that the Church's stringent demands for self-denial led men to think that they could justify sin and immorality by fasting. He believed fast should only be done as a means of tamping down sexual and other longings of the body.
The practice of fasting is observed in different ways in different Protestant denominations. The Church of England simply advocates fasting. Bishops, rectors, and laymen are free to decide what types of rules they wish to follow. Methodists also have no formal rules for fasting although Wesley was an ardent faster and advocated fasting. George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, disapproved of public fasts but felt that private fasting was a help in time of confusion or trouble. Fasting was rather popular in the seventeenth century England he lived in. Fox, along with other early religious reform groups, such as the Anabaptists and Moravians, preached simplicity of diet.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints fast on the first Sunday of each month by omitting two of the three meals.