The Ancient Custom of Fasting

Archimandrite Symeon Koutsas What Is Fasting? The word νηστεία (fasting) is a compound and originates from the negative particle νη and the verb ἐζθίω and ἔδω and means ηρώγω, (I eat, devour). Νήζηις1—the first word created—means one who δέν ἐζθίει; doesn‟t eat. Subsequently, from this word came the verb νηζηεύω and the substantial abstract νηζηεία, which originally meant complete abstinence from food and drink; namely starvation and atrophy. Later, with the passing of time and the progressive shaping of the fasting custom, fasting no longer meant only complete abstinence from solid or liquid foods, but also the partial abstinence; namely from certain foods and the intake of other, specific foods. Thus, we have the distinction of different foods in νηζηήζιμες and ἀρηιμένες or ἀρηύζιμες. Ἀρηύω means καρσκεύω—I cook a food using seasonings. Ἄρηηζη is the cooking; the preparation of food with the use of seasonings. And ἀρημύαηα means the different seasonings the culinary art uses. According to this distinction, νηστήσιμερ foods are bread, vegetables, fruits and even nuts, dry foods, etc. On the contrary, ἀπτύσιμερ are the various foods we cook using olive oil or butter and various other flavourings. Ξηπουαγία [lit. ”dry eating”] is another term used in our ecclesiastical language that is connected with the distinction of foods into νηστήσιμερ and ἀπτύσιμερ. Ξηπουαγία means the intake of uncooked foods and is roughly equated with the more developed/advanced meaning of fasting. We also frequently find the term ἐγκπάτεια [temperance or self-control; the virtue of one who masters his desires and passions, especially his sensual appetites] in both the Holy Scriptures and our ecclesiastical tradition (the Patristic texts and ecclesiastical hymns). This term has a broader meaning and signifies, so to speak, the entire spiritual struggle conducted by the Christian. But not infrequently used to also denote the discipline of fasting. Fasting comprises an ancient ecclesiastical custom. However, as a religious phenomenon, it existed before the Christian Church. We encounter fasting amongst many ancient peoples, particularly of the East, and not just with the Israelites. We even find fasting amongst the ancient Greeks and Romans. The common viewpoint of all these peoples was that they could propitiate the gods and achieve moral purification and their spiritual elevation through fasting. Fasting in Old Testament Times In the pages of the Old Testament the religious value of fasting is put forth crystal clear. It constitutes the expression of man‟s inner turn towards God and reveals the sinful man‟s contrition and repentance. Through fasting, man is humbled before God. This humility and contrition—which demonstrates the affliction [κακοπάθεια] of fasting—gives man the right to warmly plead for God‟s mercy and help. This conviction of the pious Israelites interprets in many of the Prophet David‟s Psalms (Ps. 34:13; 68:11; 108:24).

“In the beginning of creation, when God created man, He immediately gave the command to fast and like a caring mother and excellent teacher, entrusted his salvation.” (St. John Chrysostom).2

Many Church Fathers, particularly St. Basil the Great, maintain that fasting was legislated in Paradise itself through the commandment God gave to Adam and Eve forbidding them to eat from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:16-17). St. Basil writes characteristically: “No, go back through history and inquire into the ancient origins of fasting. It is not a recent invention; it is a heirloom handed down by our fathers. Everything distinguished by antiquity is venerable. Have respect for the antiquity of fasting. It is as old as humanity itself; it was prescribed in Paradise. It was the first commandment Adam received: „Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat.‟ Through the words „ye shall not eat‟ the law of fasting and abstinence is laid down.”3 God Himself gave the commandment for a strict daily fast to Moses. This is the fast that occurred during the Day of Atonement Feast; Yom Kippur (Lev. 16:29-30; 23:27-33). It comprises the only fast that Mosaic Law orders and it was very strict; truly no eating. The Israelites wanted to atone God for their sins with this fast. After the Babylonian captivity, other regular fasts were also fixed in memory of the great religious and national events or various calamities (i.e. for the contrition of Moses of the two stone tablets of the Law [Ex. 32]; for the Jerusalem‟s capture by the Babylonians [4 Kgs. 24-25; 2 Chron. 36; Jer. 52:4, LXX], when the Temple of Solomon was set on fire [2 Chron. 36:19; Zach. 7:3], etc.). There were also temporary/extra fast days apart from the appointed fasts commemorated in the Old Testament. In the epoch of the Judges, a fast for the slaughter of thousands of Israelites by the sons of Benjamin occurred (Jdgs. 20:26). The Israelites for the unexpected death of their King, Saul (1 Kgs. 31:13). Still, David and his men fasted when they learned of the death of Saul‟s and his sons (2 Kgs. 1:1112). In the Old Testament, we also have individual, private fasts apart from the temporaray/extra fasts of the Israelite nation or some group of people. For example, the Prophet Moses fasted 40 days and 40 nights on top of Mount Sinai when he was about to receive the 10 Commandments from God: “he did neither eat bread, nor drink water,” as the Book of Exodus mentions (34:28). The Prophet Elias fasted “forty days and forty nights” as he proceeded to “Mount Choreb” (3 Kgs. 19:8-12). “If fasting was a necessity in Paradise, it is much more a necessity outside of Paradise. If fasting was an useful medicine before the traumatism, it is much more useful after the traumatism” (St. John Chrysostom).4 The Prophet Daniel also submitted to a strict fast. He says about himself: “In those days I Daniel was mourning three full weeks. I ate no pleasant bread, and no flesh or wine entered into my mouth, neither did I anoint myself with oil, until three whole weeks were accomplished” (Daniel 10:2-3). The inhabitants of Nineveh responded to the Prophet Jonah‟s sermon with fasting and repentance: “And the men of Nineve believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sack cloths, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (Jonas 3:5). Thus they escaped destruction.

The Old Testament prophets extol the significance of fasting. The Israelites benefitted through fasting to return close to the living and true God. “Return unto me,” God Himself orders through the Prophet Joel, “with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with lamentation and rend your hearts, and not your garments, and turn to the Lord your God... Sound the trumpet in Sion, sanctify a fast, proclaim a [solemn] service” (Joel 2:12-15). The Prophet Isaiah points out the danger of the standardization of fasting and puts forth those elements which constitute true fasting; fasting which is acceptable to God and erases sins: “[Your] fasting, and rest from work, your new moons also, and your feasts my soul hates: ye have become loathsome to me; I will no more pardon your sins...your hands are full of blood. Wash you, be clean; remove your iniquities from your souls before mine eyes; cease from your iniquities; learn to do well; diligently seek judgement, deliver him that is suffering wrong, plead for the orphan, and obtain justice for the widow...” (Is. 1:13-17). And elsewhere: “I have not chosen such a fast, saith the Lord; but do thou loose every burden of iniquity, do thou untie the knots of hard bargains, set the bruised free, and cancel every unjust account. Break thy bread to the hungry, and lead the unsheltered poor to thy house...Then shalt thou cry, and God shall hearken to thee...and thy God shall be with thee continually” (Is. 58:6-11). Jesus Christ and Fasting Before we mention Christ‟s teachings, let‟s cite two holy figures whom the Gospels speak about in their first chapters and who could also be considered prototypes of fasters. The first is the Prophetess Anna, daughter of Phanuel from the Tribe of Asher who, together with the righteous Symeon, greeted the Lord in the Temple as a 40-day old baby. So this is why the Evangelist Luke mentions that: “did not depart from the temple, offering divine services with fastings and petitions night and day” (Lk. 2:36). The other figure is St. John the Forerunner. The strictest life that is recounted (Mt. 3:1-4; Mk. 1:4-6) and his sermon in the desert of Judea comprised a shocking invitation to the people to return near to God through repentance and fasting.

“Since we did not fast, we fell from Paradise; let us, therefore, fast in order that we might return thither” (St. Basil the Great).5 “Fasting withers sensual desire, prayer purifies the nous and prepares it for true theoria” (St. Maximus the Confessor).6

Now we come to the person of our Lord. There are two essential elements the Holy Gospels preserve that define Christ‟s stance towards the custom of fasting; a custom that held a particular significance in the religious conscience of His fellow Jews. When the Lord was about to go out for His public ministry, he was led to the desert by the Holy Spirit and “When he had fasted forty days and forty nights, Jesus was hungry”(Mt. 4:1-2). With a 40 day fast— during which “He ate nothing in those days,” as the divine Luke writes (Lk. 4:2)—and prayer, Christ prepared for his public action. And in this way, Christ did not simply ratify the law of fasting but

bequeathed us to follow His personal example. Just as in the other elements of the Israelites‟ religious life, so to in Christ‟s epoch fasting been reduced to a type; without substantial content or real value. For example, the Pharisees fasted “twice a week” (Lk. 18:12) apart from the established annual fasting. And they fasted ritualistically [τςπολατπικά] for display; “so that people may see that you are fasting” (Mt. 6:16), as the Lord Himself pointed out. Christ spurns/rejects such fasting and in his Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 6:16-18) He sets/determines which fasting is true and likeable/pleasing to God. The Lord teaches: “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites with their gloomy faces. For they disfigure their faces so that people may see that they are fasting. Amen, I tell you: they have received their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that people may not see that you are fasting. Only your Father who is in secret will see, and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” The power of fasting even drives away demons and has equal value to prayer. Christ reveals this to us when he answered His disciples why they couldn‟t heal the young possessed boy: “This kind can come out by nothing, except by prayer and fasting” (Mk. 9:29). The three synoptic Gospels also preserved another teaching of the Lord that mentions fasting (Mt. 9:1415; Mk. 2:18-20; Lk. 5:33-35). And here Christ not only accepts fasting but also pre-announced its necessity for His disciples after His Ascension. And the Lord‟s reason for this, as the book of Acts mentions, we see realized in the lives of His apostles and the first Christians. Fasting in the Life of the Church Fasting is a custom with a very significant position in the religious life of ancient Israel, as well as in the life and teachings of the Theanthropos. So, it was natural to understand fasting‟s relative importance in the lives of Christians. The Christians gained fasting as a custom and not the legal orders or the various “doctrines of men” (Mt. 15:9) that defined the Jewish fasts. The Church gained this custom from the Jewish environment in which it appeared and began to grow. For the first disciples, the teaching concerning fasting by the leader of their faith, Jesus Christ, was their infallible criterion. And the top landmarks of the Saviour Lord‟s life on earth—the Passion and His glorious Resurrection—were the axis around which the Church‟s fasts began to form (the purpose, time, and manner of the Christian fasts). The fast before Pascha was the first fast to appear amongst the Christians. Simultaneously, two other fast days were defined: Wednesday and Friday replaced the Monday and Thursday fast kept by the Pharisees. From the outset, fasting was associated with the significant events of the Lord‟s life on earth. The Christians observed these fasts with great austerity; namely, they fasted the entire day. The change we observed in the time of the Christian fasts is initially linked with a new meaning of fasting. Fasting is no longer aimed at the soul‟s benefit, taking place secretly rather than ostentatiously. Cheerfulness and joy had characterized fasting, not mourning and gloom. From the various historical testimonies in existence, we are informed that the fasting of the first Christians lasted the entire day. Fasting, therefore, meant complete abstinence.

From various historical evidence we are informed that the first Christian fasting lasted the whole day, from morning till evening. Fasting therefore perfect meant starvation. The ? [ο στατιων] was a conservative form of fasting. It constituted, shall we say, half-abstinence since the fast stopped at the 9th hour; namely around 3pm. In exceptional circumstances, fasting was also extended throughout the duration of the night for two or three days. Fasting was then called „superposition‟ [ςπεπθεσιρ]. Anyone observing such a fast abstained from everything, even water. Principally, Great Friday and Great Saturday were such fasts; they were terminated at midnight with the announcement of the Resurrection. “Fasting is a weapon against the army of demons”-St. Basil the Great7 “As eating is the beginning of every sin, so fasting is a great weapon against temptations”-St. Theophylact of Bulgaria.8 With the passage of time, due to its severity, the „superposition‟ [ςπεπθεσιρ] was only kept by zealous Christians in the world and mainly by monks and ascetics. Moreover, the ascetic spirit that inspired the monks contributed to the gradual increase of time for the fasting durations. However, fasting started to take new forms from complete starvation; abstaining from certain foods, especially meat and wine. As illustrated by many Fathers, this abstention did not mean the contempt of certain foods as abominable. Rather, this abstention aimed at the body‟s ascesis and curbing the fleshly desires that these principally incite. So, with this development, fasting came to be divided into a) complete abstinence, b) dry eating (ξηπουαγία) and c) abstaining from certain foods. According to the 50th Canon of the Local Synod of Laodicea, convened in 364, Christians, “ought to confine themselves to xerophagia throughout the period of Lent.” In practice, xerophagia seems to be confined mainly to Wednesday and Friday. As with other ecclesiastical customs, fasting—the peak of the monastic life and the significant impact it exercised in the life of Christians—not only contributed to the cultivation of an ascetic mindset amongst the faithful in the world, but also in the transportation of the different types of fasts the monks observed in the monasteries. Even during the 12th century, however, fasting—both in its length of time and the manner it was observed—continued to remain undetermined. The different Canons mentioning fasting both Ecumenical and Local Synods, allow us to understand the spirit by which the Church and the significance that fasting gradually acquired in her conscience. “Fasting with discernment is a spacious mansion for every good thing; but he who neglects fasting makes every good totter”-St. Isaac the Syrian.9 The 53rd Apostolic Canon condemns those clergyman who did not eat meat or drink wine during feast days because they “loathe these things and not on account of asceticsm.” From this Canon, together with the 2nd Canon of the Synod of Gangra (350)10 which mentions xerophagia, we conclude that with these decisions, the Church wanted to combat certain ascetic excesses that had appeared and reached the point of distinguishing between clean and unclean foods.

In the 56th Canon of the Quinisext Ecumenical Synod (691), eggs and cheese were placed in the category of artisimi foods as coming from “sacrificed” animals; the meat of which Christians are not allowed to eat during the period of Great Lent. The observance of various fasts slowly acquired a compulsory character for all the faithful. The 69th Apostolic Canon exempts those who are unable to fast “by reason of bodily illness.” St. Timothy, Bishop of Alexandria, added “women in child-bed” in his Canonical Replies (# 8). From the beginning, fasting was inextricably linked with prayer. According to the Apostle Paul‟s teaching, the time devoted to fasting and prayer also presupposes parallel continence for spouses; namely, to avoid sexual relations.11 The forbiddance of weddings during fasting periods was aimed precisely at this. The 52nd Canon of the Local Synod of Laodicea specifically prohibits the performance of weddings during Great Lent.12 In the Canons, we observe a separate regulation concerning the Sundays and Saturdays that are included in a fasting period. From the beginning, Sunday was considered a day of joy. It was the principle day of the Lord that reminded Christians about the Resurrection. “Fasting is a medicine. But medicine, as beneficial as it is, becomes useless because of the inexperience of the user. He has to know the appropriate time that the medicine should be taken and the right amount of medicine and the condition of the body which is to take it, the weather conditions and the season of the year and the appropriate diet of the sick and many other things. If any of these things are overlooked, the medicine will do more harm than good.”-St. John Chrysostom13 Saturday, as the day of God‟s cessation from the work of creation, also took a special place in the Christian conscience. This is why oil and wine are permitted during these two days when they coincide with a fast. To be more precise, oil and wine weren‟t simply permitted but rather imposed so these days maintained their particular character. The 66th Apostolic Canon makes provisions to depose the clergy and excommunicate the laity that fast on Sunday or Saturday.14 The 55th Canon15 of the Quinisext Ecumenical Synod as well as the 18th Canon16 of the Local Synod of Gangra, also refer to this same subject. Great Saturday is the only exception to this general regulation. Great Saturday is dedicated to the Lord‟s burial and abstinence was co-regulated in strict fasting days. Notes 1. In Greek mythology, the name Nistis is a known deity, which Empedocles mentions as a personification of sperm and water. The St. Photios the great wrote more specifically that Nistis was a local deity of Sicily. 2. On Fasting; Homily 5:1 [PG 49, 307]. 3. On Fasting; Logos 1:3 [ΒΕΠΕΣ 54, 12] 4. On Fasting; Homily 5:1 [PG 49, 307]. 5. On Fasting; Logos 1:4 [ΒΕΠΕΣ 54, 12] 6. Chapters on Love; 1:79 7. On Fasting; Logos 1:9 [ΒΕΠΕΣ 54, 12]

8. On Matthew, Chapter 4 [PG 123, 180C] 9. Logos 85 10. “If anyone criticize adversely a person eating meat (without blood, and such is not meat that has been sacrificed to idols or strangled) with reverence and faith, as though he had no hope of partaking, let him be anathema.” 11. “Do not deprive each other {of marital relations} unless it is by consent and for a season, so that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer. Then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Cor. 7:5). 12. “That weddings and birthdays must not be held during Great Lent.” 13. Homily 3, In the Absence of Bishop Flavian [PG 49, 51-52] 14. “If any of the clergy be found fasting on the Lord's day, or on the Sabbath, excepting the one only, let him be deposed. If a layman, let him be excommunicated.” 15. “Since we understand that in the city of the Romans, in the holy fast of Lent they fast on the Saturdays, contrary to the ecclesiastical observance which is traditional, it seemed good to the holy synod that also in the Church of the Romans the canon shall immovably stands fast which says: If any cleric shall be found to fast on a Sunday or Saturday (except on one occasion only) he is to be deposed; and if he is a layman he shall be cut off.” 16. “If any one, under pretence of asceticism, shall fast on Sunday, let him be anathema.”