Finding pathways through the desert of our own making

It’s the other Advent: this week, Christians around the world begin preparing themselves for Easter. There are various names for this segment of the calendar, but only one common goal, namely to reflect upon the essential.

Passiontide, Lent, and Great Lent: that is how Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians describe the phase of the year that has just begun. What is meant here is Quadragesima, a Latin term meaning “fortieth”, namely the fortieth day before Easter.

The number 40 is borrowed from the Bible, of course. That’s how many days the rain came down in the great flood. It is also how many years the people of Israel wandered through the desert. Moses spent forty days and nights on Mount Sinai, Elijah stayed on Mount Horeb for the same length of time, and it is also the same number of days Jesus spent in the wilderness. All three of them fasted in the process. And that’s exactly what Lent is all about.

Familiar in many religions

For millennia, many religions have been familiar with the practice of fasting—and for many different reasons. Some abstain in order to drive out demons, others to prepare themselves for an encounter with God. Some simply want to do a good work for their fellow human beings, while others think of it as a gift to God. At times it can be an expression of grief and sorrow, while at others it can be an sign of repentance.

All of these things are likewise reflected in the Bible, for example, when the people of Nineveh repented, or when David mourned his friend Jonathan. The same is true for Hannah in the Old Testament when she set off on her way to the sanctuary of Shiloh, or the Anna of the New Testament who served God with fastings in the temple, and even Saul when he prepared for his baptism. So how is it that Jesus Christ seems to reject the idea of fasting?

How fasting actually works

Jesus was reproached for being a “glutton and a winebibber” and the people asked: “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” His answer—“As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast”—means that the presence of Christ on earth is grounds for celebration, not fasting.

“But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” Yet fasting without repentance, without the will to change, doesn’t count for Jesus. This is something He makes clear in the parable of the (fasting) Pharisee and the (penitent) Publican.

And Christ also expresses this thought concretely in Matthew 6: 16–18: “When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting.” He goes on to say: “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place.”

Anything but asceticism

Fasting is not a major subject of interest in the letters of the Apostles or in the early church, for that matter. Quite the contrary: the further Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire—which was not exactly known for its ascetic lifestyle—the less the practice played any role at all.

It was only in the third century that it began to take on greater significance again, specifically during Holy Week, when new believers prepared for baptism—which was increasingly performed on Easter Sunday. Up until the fifth century, this ultimately developed into the 40-day period of Lent with which we are familiar today. In the early sixteenth century, the Reformers turned against the practice, as it had by then once again become caught up in outward appearances.

Easter fasting is practised today by believers from many denominations. Catholicism and Orthodoxy have some strict regulations. The New Apostolic Church has no regulations at all with respect to fasting on specific days or occasions—and thus follows in the tradition of the Reformation. Whether an individual fasts or not is at his or her personal discretion.

The freedom to reflect

Fasting does not merely refer to the practice of partially or completely abstaining from food. Today, believers can fast in a variety of ways that help them to free themselves from bad habits, to reflect on what is important, and, in the best case, even to serve their neighbour. Here are just a few examples:

  • abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, or sugar for seven weeks: the body—which is the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6: 19), after all—will certainly be grateful.
  • digital detox: use your smartphone or tablet less often, escape the endless scrolling and dopamine rush.
  • reducing one’s ecological footprint: How can I take greater responsibility for the creation in order to leave behind a healthier legacy for future generations?
  • the fasting of the mouth: Do I really always have to give my two cents about everything? Am I not doing myself the greatest favour by ranting, whining, and complaining a little bit less?
  • the fasting of the ears: Why not stop participating in certain conversations, and refrain from gossip, rumours, and backbiting?
  • the fasting of the thoughts: Why not abstain from annoyance and rejoice more often? Why not judge less and love more?

The important thing here, according to Jesus, is that it cannot merely be an outward show, but a matter between the believer and God alone.

Photo: Mihaela -

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Andreas Rother
Christian holidays, Easter, Denominations