The Reign of Christ. Book One. Chapter Twelve: Lent and Other Fasts, and the Taking of Food
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4 min read
Some believe that the Lenten observance was introduced by the apostles and some are of the opinion that it was introduced later. It is evident in ancient writings, however, that not all the churches observed this practice uniformly, but some fasted only one day before Easter, others seven, some more, others less. But those churches which observed a complete Lent did not condemn the ones which did not, since the former did not even compel any of their own people to fast, but merely invited them to do so by pious exhortations. On one day of every week (some on the fifth, others the seventh), they observed fasting (Chrysostom, Homily 11, On Genesis; and Saint Augustine, Letter 86, to Casulanus).
On certain days, they ministered the word of God and the sacraments until the ninth hour of the day, i.e., toward evening; after these services, those who were fasting would take food for the first time. Meanwhile, however, the holy fathers also consoled and praised those who, on account of the weakness of their body, took food beforehand and came nevertheless to the sacred gathering and heard the word of God.
And so it is anti-Christian to prescribe fasting for Christians as something per se necessary for salvation (Chrysostom, Homily 10, On Genesis). For the Lord and the apostles, although they condemned making a ceremony out of fasting, nevertheless left its observance free for Christians; just as fasting cannot be piously accomplished unless it is undertaken with a willing spirit (Matt. 6:16-17, and 9:15; I Cor. 7:7; II Cor. 6:5).
However, since the Lord himself and his apostles so highly recommended fasting to the churches, certainly they who observe no fasting at all cannot glory in the spirit and sovereignty of Christ. It is necessary, therefore, for those who wish to see the Kingdom of Christ solidly restored to retrieve the discipline of fasting, at least on some days of the year; and especially if some calamity presses the Church, if any persons in the Church have fallen into more serious sins, or if the Church has an opportunity to undertake something magnificent for the glory of God, the people should be gathered in holy assembly and earnestly invited from Sacred Scriptures truly to repent for sins and pour forth prayers to God (Joel 1:14 and 2:12; I Cor. 7:5) . On these days there should be abstinence not only from illicit pleasures of the flesh but even from permissible pleasures; the degree of abstinence from necessary food and drink, however, must be freely committed to individual consciences. In this also the nature and customs of the people must be duly considered so that the number of days are dedicated to fasting which it may be hoped will be devoutly observed.
For in these matters every precaution must always be taken lest ceremonies which are instituted for the worship of God be twisted into blasphemy against God; we see that this has happened under the Antichrist’s shepherds; although during Lent and other times of fasting, sermons for the most part and individual prayers are observed among them and fasting is proclaimed as necessary to salvation, it is very rarely found that anyone knows the true nature of fasting, so absent is its observance in their midst.
They have read that among the ancients those who were fasting took nothing to eat until after the evening worship had been accomplished; in order to appear to follow this practice and not to take food before evening prayers, they say these prayers at the third hour of the day, or at the latest, at the fourth or fifth hour. What else is this but to mock God? They do just this when they hold public worship for the people in a foreign language; not even the sermons instruct men to any real and living repentance for sins. These abominations must, therefore, be driven far away from the churches of Christ and no trace of them left behind.
On this account, it is highly desirable that those who think that the government should forbid the use of meat on certain days in order that there may be a greater supply of meat for other days, and that fish might be conveniently distributed, would choose other seasons than Lent for this, and days other than those which were formerly consecrated to religious fasting, and which, on the impious pretext of fasting and abstinence from meat, were converted by the Antichrists into a mockery of God.
When the holy fathers of the early churches, instructed by Sacred Scriptures, wished to consecrate one day of the week singularly to religion, they did not choose the seventh day which the Jews observed, lest they might seem to be in accord with the Jews who were seeking to impose the Mosaic Sabbath on the Church of Christ. Thus the later fathers, although they approved of a pious rather than a superstious fast even on Sunday, nevertheless, lest they might seem to concede anything to the madness of the Manichaeans, forbade fasting on Sunday as an occasion for offense. How much the more does it befit us to flee all appearance of accord with the Antichrists in the choice of foods and the composition of the calendar as well as in other matters.
Further, even though there is no prohibition of the eating of meat on certain days, the economic use of fish for the sake of variety can still be maintained, not merely under the pressure of the scarcity of meat, but by the variety of tastes of men. This takes place among the Turks, and has happened before among all nations from the beginning of the world; each person used whatever food he could, at any time when this was permitted. It would contribute very much to the conservation of the meat supply if there were a limitation on the luxury of the self-indulgent and a repression of the insatiable avarice of certain persons rather than the kind of prohibitions which oppress no one more than Christ’s poor. But whatever happens to be one’s judgment concerning these prohibitions, it is nevertheless unworthy so to mix public policies with the practices and observances of the Church and of the Kingdom of Christ that the old superstition of not a few is confirmed and many good people are caused great inconvenience.