Discover more from Hennessy's View
How to Fast Like Jesus in the Desert
Clearing up some confusion about what Christian fasting entails
Lent is an opportunity to join our suffering’s to Christ’s. One way we do this is through fasting.
Fasting can mean going without food, but denying yourself just about any pleasure is a form of fasting. Dietary fasting, though, seems to hold a special place in Judaism and Christianity and ought to be our primary means of imitating Jesus’ voluntary suffering during His 40 days in the desert.
The First Rule of God Was a Dietary Restriction
Then the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat fruit from every tree of the orchard, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.”
If God’s first commandment was about dietary restriction, we can conclude fasting and abstinence from certain foods holds the primary place among the forms of fasting available. Moreover, disobeying dietary restrictions broke the dam holding back all other sins. Until man ate what he was commanded not to eat, no other sin was possible.
Now, God did not command Adam and Eve to fast, but to abstain. In fact, He told them to eat freely of everything in the Garden, except for the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Fasting evolved as a spiritual exercise to help us overcome the other sins that failure to abstained unleashed on mankind.
But the important lesson is that dietary denial seems to have a special power. As Jesus told the Apostles in Mark 9:29: “And he said to them: This kind can go out by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.”
Fasting for physical improvement (which I highly recommend) will not drive out demons. Only prayerful fasting for spiritual improvement will do that. Still, fasting + prayer seems to be the perfect prescription for spiritual illness and strength.
How to Fast
The Church prescribes certain minimum rules of fasting that allow one full meal and two smaller meals that do not, together, constitute a full meal. To me, that’s gobbledygook. What’s a full meal? Are we supposed to count calories? Courses? Macronutrients?
Neither calories nor courses nor macronutrient counts were available to first century Jews when Jesus fasted 40 days in the desert, but, somehow, He fasted. This tells us that spiritual fasting must be less complicated than what the Church tells us.
The reason the Bible does not provide specific rules of fasting is probably because, at the time of the writing, everyone understood those rules. Parents taught their young children how to fast the way parents today teach kids to tie their shoes. The lessons are completely oral, and they stick for life. Thus, we don’t tell our older children, “Timmy, bend down and take one bitter end in each end. Using your right hand, cross over the left lace, pulling that lace through the gap left by the crossing, then. . .” We just say, “Tie your shoes.”
To get an idea of what the Gospels meant by fasting, I did a little research. Logically, Jesus would have fasted according to the commonly understood meaning of “fasting” among first century Jews in Palestine—which Jesus was. Likewise, the Gospel authors would have recognized fasting according to those rules and seen no reason to define or instruct further. Jesus might have eaten nothint at all for 40 days, but the Gospel writers probably would have referred to that, not as “fasting,” but as “starving.”
Since the first Christians were mostly Jews, they would have followed the Jewish rules of fasting at the time. The only exception to Jewish fasting rules noted in the Didache was a change in the days of fasting, not in the method. From Didache chapter 8:
But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites; for they fast on the second [Monday] and fifth [Thursday] day of the week; but fast on the fourth day [Wednesday] and the Preparation [Friday]. Neither pray as the hypocrites; but as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, thus pray: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, as in heaven, so on earth. Give us today our daily (needful) bread, and forgive us our debt as we also forgive our debtors. And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one (or, evil); for Yours is the power and the glory forever. Thrice in the day thus pray.
Early Christians, then, followed the Jewish method of fasting, but on Wednesdays and Fridays. Like Jews, Christians were prohibited from fasting on high holy days—Sundays and solemnities.
As far as the specifics go, Jewish fasting meant no food between sunrise in the morning and the appearance of the first stars that evening, except on the Day of Atonement and the Night of Ab, when fasting went from sunset the evening before until sunset the day of. From The Jewish Encyclopedia:
All Jewish fasts begin at sunrise and end with the appearance of the first stars of the evening, except those of the Day of Atonement and the Ninth of Ab, which last "from even till even."
And, regarding times when one must not fast, the early Christians would have adopted these Jewish rules:
The only fixed fast-day that may be celebrated on a Sabbath is the Day of Atonement; all the others, if they fall on a Sabbath, are postponed until the following day. Private or public occasional fasts can not be held on any of the holidays, or on a new moon, or on any of the minor festivals, or during the month of Nisan, or on the week-days of the festivals.
Likewise, Christians should suspend our Lenten fasts each Sunday and on any solemnities that occur during the time of Lent. When God calls us to His banquet, we feast with Him.
Now, we know that imitating Jesus’ 40-day fast is probably as simple is not eating from sunrise to sunset. No need to count calories or have your sandwich assayed. Just don’t eat between approximately 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. And don’t gorge when the fast is over.
Prayer and Fasting
Most importantly, though, spiritual fasting must be done in accompaniment with Jesus’ 40-day fast and Passion, not so we look good on the beach in May or fit into a flattering Easter dress. This fast is not for the body, but for the soul. The bodily benefits are just a bonus.
The Church gives us this time specifically to grow in closeness to Christ through denial of our corporeal desires. We practice walking past the tree in the center of the Garden. We suffer very little, but we offer that tiny inconvenience to God in union with the Son’s suffering.
It’s not complicated or dangerous. It’s very simple. Don’t eat during the day and don’t fast on the high feast days.