Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 3

I ended my first post in the series with the confession that I might never have chosen truly to fast. The reasons are many and complex and I’m not sure I even have them all worked out. It is true, however, that I am a product of our present American culture. And by and large, we do not fast. In this post, I’ll weave through aspects of my formation and journey that seem relevant to me at this moment.

I’m not certain, but I believe I first encountered something of the idea of fasting in practice (as opposed to literature) when I attended a Roman Catholic school a block from our home in Houston for 6th through 8th grade. Even then it had faded as the practice has faded across the board in Roman Catholicism in America. But there were some adults who, for instance, did not eat meat on Fridays. It was discussed in Religion class. And even though the practice of Lent had largely become one of each individual selecting something for themselves to ‘give up’ from Ash Wednesday to Easter, it was still a definite practice and fasting was discussed.

I was not Catholic and I did not participate in any of the fasts. In truth, my attention at that time, to the best of my recollection, was primarily focused on the practice of Transcendental Meditation, numerology, palmistry, astrology, tarot, and a number of similar avenues of spiritual exploration. But I did pay attention. I was interested in all things spiritual. I would not say I understood on any visceral level. But I was aware.

Flash forward now through the twists and turns of close to two decades, soon after the time when the idea that I was acknowledging Jesus of Nazareth as my Lord and my God and attempting to follow him had become a core piece of my identity. (The word ‘conversion’ always seems inadequate to me. Plus, in a sociological sense, I probably had many ‘conversions’ both toward Jesus and away from him over the course of my life. All were ‘real’. That’s the best way I can describe what finally happened to me.) A lot happened over those years, some of it probably tangentially related to this discussion, but not central to what I want to explore right now.

Given my longstanding interest in history, especially ancient history, it did not take me long to begin reading ancient Christian writings and history in addition to the Holy Scriptures. Most particularly, it did not take me long to run across the Didache, a teaching and apparent baptismal confession recorded in the late first century and likely capturing an established oral tradition spanning back decades, very likely to the period of time when Paul and Barnabas were engaged in their early missionary journeys both together and separately. It’s a rich and haunting document, but for the purposes of this discussion, I want to focus on this excerpt.

But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday).

The hypocrites is clearly a reference to Matthew 23 and those to whom Jesus was speaking. And we know it was the discipline in Judaism at the time to fast on Monday and Thursday. This is part of what Jesus is referring to in the Sermon on the Mount in the section when he discusses how not to act and how to act when (not if) you fast. The assumption was that everyone fasted and his point was not to act in a manner that you drew attention to your fasting or the recognition of men would be all you would receive. In order to distinguish themselves from the unbelieving Jewish communities (and for theological reasons) the church from a very early time moved its days of communal fasting from Monday and Thursday to Wednesday and Friday. They did not cease observing days of communal fasting. They moved them to days that related to Jesus.

The Holy Scriptures, of course, speak often of fasting. You encounter it everywhere in the Old Testament. Jesus speaks of it. James speaks of it. It’s littered throughout the New Testament, where it frequently seems to be almost taken for granted rather than explained. I saw how the communal form of the practice quickly developed in the church. But I hadn’t really seen fasting like that anywhere in my life. And I saw no fasting anywhere in my particular community of faith. Feasting? (Or maybe gluttony, since I’m not sure you can properly feast if you never fast.) Oh yes! So much so that it was a topic for jokes. (When we meet, we eat!) But no communal practice of fasting. The only place I had encountered something close was in the Roman Catholic church. But even there, it was more a memory of the recent past than a present practice in the form I encountered.

This brings us up to the mid to late nineties and this post is more than long enough. We’ll continue this journey in the next post in this series.

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