§ 1. General Reflections on Gluttony and Fasting
CHRISTIAN attitudes towards food and fasting have always been characterized by natural and spiritual contrasts so striking that they appear almost to be contradictions:
1. ON the one hand food is essential to life. At the present moment this is highlighted by acrimonious controversies concerning the moral obligation to provide food to everyone, even the disabled and permanently unconscious. Fasting can therefore only be a temporary exercise: if unnaturally prolonged fasting will destroy the body and cause death.
2. On the other hand, the misuse of food, either in quantity or quality, can result in physical and spiritual illness. First-world anxiety about obesity and diabetes in children and adults shamefully emphasizes the horrifying disparity between the majority of persons in the world who still do not have enough to eat, and the wealthy who expend vast sums pursuing (usually worthless) remedies for their gluttony
3. FASTING is almost universal in all human cultures: in Judaism, and throughout Christian history it has signified (among other things - see §2 below) personal and social mourning, conversion, and sorrow for sin, Christians find their model of fasting in Christ, who fasted in the wilderness (Mt. 4:2) and recommended methods of fasting to his disciples (Mt. 6:16-17) of whom he proclaimed, “when the bridegroom is taken from them, then they shall fast” (Mt. 9:15).
4. YET it is the FEAST of Passover - not the Fast-Day of Atonement - that becomes the Christian feast of the Eucharist, the “sacrament of sacraments” (Cat.Cath.Ch. 1330; Aquinas, S.Theol., Suppl. 37 a.2). In the Eucharist the true dignity of food becomes apparent: of all the matter in the universe, it alone is elevated to the dignity of becoming - not to put too fine a point on it - God. Christian fasting must therefore never signify contempt for something God has so ennobled.
Etymological and Biblical Meanings of Fasting
1) ETYMOLOGY and MEANING of FASTING in CLASSICAL ANTIQUITY
The basic word νῆστις / nēstis from the Indo-Europ. neá-eádtis, means generally “one who has not eaten, who is empty” [... The verb] νηστεύω can also mean generally “to be hungry, without food,” But [ in classical antiquity] it usually means “to fast” in a religious and ritual sense.
The practice of fasting, found in all religions, and used here in
the specific sense of temporary abstention from all nourishment on religious
grounds, is at first more common among the Greeks than the Romans, but then
under foreign influences it spread across the whole of the ancient world.
The original and most powerful motive for fasting in antiquity is
to be found:
 in fear of demons who gained power over men through eating.
 Fasting was also an effective means of preparing for [communion] with the deity and for the reception of ecstatic or magical powers.
It is striking that the fasting of antiquity stands in no close connection with ethos and ethics. Conversely, the moral idea of ἐγκράτεια /enkrateia which the philosophers proclaimed and sought to achieve in their schools never led to a demand for times of [fasting] νηστεία/nēsteia.
2) FASTING in the OLD TESTAMENT
Many aspects of Old Testament fasting are the same as in other religions.
 Fasting in case of death [...] has the character of a mourning custom expressing sorrow for the deceased, (1Sam.31:13 [1 Ch. 10:12]; 2Sam.1:12; 3:35; 12:21).
 Before receiving the Ten Commandments, Moses spent forty days and forty nights with Yahweh on Mt. Sinai neither eating nor drinking (Ex. 34:28; Dt. 9:9). Daniel fasted and mortified himself prior to his visions (Da. 9:3; 10:2 f., 12). In these cases fasting would seem to be preparation for receiving revelation. It makes Moses and Daniel capable of encounter with God and the hearing of His words.
 The most prominent feature, and one which is unique to the Old Testament, is, however, the fact that fasting expresses submission to God Thus the individual fasts when he hopes that God will liberate him from tormenting care, (2 S. 12:16 ff.; 1 K. 21:27; Ps. 35:12; Ps. 69:10). In times of emergency the whole people fasts in order that God may turn aside calamity, (Ju. 20:26; 1 S. 7:6; 1 K. 21:9; Jer. 36:6, 9; 2 Ch. 20:3 f.; Jl. 1:14; 2:12 ff.; Jon. 3:5 ff.-where even the animals fast). Fasting and prayer go hand in hand to cause God to answer, (Jer. 14:12; Neh. 1:4; Ezr. 8:21, 23; Est. 4:16), especially penitential prayer and confession, (1 S. 7:6; Jl. 1:14; 2:12 ff.; Neh. 9:1 ff.; Jon. 3:8), also fasting and vows, (1 S. 14:24; cf. Nu. 30:14).
 Up to [the time of the] New Testament fasting comes to occupy so high a place in the practice and estimation of Judaism that for Gentiles it is one of the marks of the Jew, (cf. Tacitus Hist., V, 4)
 A vow is confirmed by fasting, Tob, 7:12; Ac. 23:12, 14. So, too, in many cases is prayer, 1 Macc. 3:47; 2 Macc. 13:12; Bar. 1:5; Jdt. 4:9 ff.; Lk. 2:37; Test. Jos. 4:8; 10:1; Test. B. 1:4; Jos.Ant., 19, 349; 20, 89; cf. Tob. 12:8:
 Fasting is an exercise in virtue, as may be seen from the example of Jos. in Egypt, Test. Jos. 3:4 f.; 4:8; 10:1. God loves the virtuous man who fasts. 9:2; cf. 3:4: The meritoriousness of fasting is mentioned, e.g., Eth. En. 108:7 ff.; Philo Spec. Leg., II, 197, and Apoc. Eliae 22 f. which magnifies fasting as something which God created: “It forgives sins and heals diseases, it drives out spirits and has power even to the throne of God.”
 The rule is a fast of one day from morning to evening, Ju. 20:26; 1 S. 14:24; 2 S. 1:12. The only instance of a severer fast of 3 days, including the nights, is in Est. 4:16. The 7 day fast of 1 S. 31:13, cf. 2 S. 3:35, involves fasting only during the day, up to sunset. The 3 week self-mortification of Da. 10:2 f. is not a total fast. [...] Alongside the generally obligatory fast of the Day of Atonement, and other prescribed fast days (cf. S. Bar. 86:2; Jos.Ant., 11, 134; Vit., 290; Ap., 2, 282) the zealous among the righteous select two days in the week, the second (Monday) and the fifth (Thursday) (Did., 8, 1 ) and voluntarily make them regular fast days which they keep strictly, Lk. 18:12 (Mk. 2:18 and par.). A fast may often last, not just one day (1 Macc. 3:47; S. Bar. 5:7), but three (2 Macc. 13:12, cf. also Ac. 9:9, 19), or seven (4 Esr. 5:13, 20 etc.; S. Bar. 9:2; 12:5 etc.) or even forty days (Vit. Ad. 6). [Note that these longer fasts are NOT complete abstention from food, but abstention during the daylight hours, from sunrise to sunset]
3) FASTING in the NEW TESTAMENT and EARLY CHURCH
The position which Jesus adopts towards fasting is new and distinctive. At the beginning of the story of the temptation (Mt. 4:2; Lk. 4:2) He spent 40 days (and 40 nights) fasting in the wilderness [...] The significance which He ascribes to fasting is wholly different from that [of the Old Testament].
 Fasting is service of God
 It is a sign and symbol of the conversion to God (metanoia / μετάνοια) which takes place in concealment: Impressive display before men defeats the end of true fasting.
 Fasting before God, the Father of those who turn to Him, is joy. Hence there is no place for melancholy signs of mourning.
 Thus in the early Church Christians voluntarily fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. Neophytes and their teachers fast in preparation for baptism; and all Christians fast before receiving communion and especially from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.[...] Fasting is commonly practised along with and to strengthen prayer.
This Webpage was created for a workshop held at Saint Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California in 2003