The history and meaning of a common lenten practice

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday [of the entire year] in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice.” Where does the Lenten fast come from, and how was it practiced in the history of the Church? How does fasting make you a better Christian?

Like many aspects of the Catholic faith, liturgical fasting comes directly from ancient Judaism. God prescribed many fasts for the Israelites. For example, He set rigorous guidelines in the Book of Exodus prohibiting the consumption of leavened bread on the days leading up to Passover. The Old Testament also includes examples of personal fasting. In the Book of Jonah, the Ninevites repented by fasting from all food and drink, wearing sackcloth, and sitting in ashes after they learned that their city would be destroyed. Similarly, in the Book of Esther, all Jewish people fasted, prayed, wore sackcloth, and sat in ashes when the king decreed their destruction. King David even fasted and wore sackcloth when the child he had with Bathsheba became mortally sick.

Fasting is also prominent in the New Testament. For example, it was a central aspect of John the Baptist’s ministry. He wore a garment of camel’s hair and ate only locusts and wild honey. Jesus also told his disciples that some demons could only be cast out through prayer and fasting. Christ Himself fasted for forty days in the desert after His Baptism, and during that time, He was tempted by the Devil. Jesus’ steadfastness, according to the Catechism, “recapitulates the temptation of Adam in Paradise and of Israel in the desert.”

In a sermon on Christ’s fasting and temptation, Saint Peter Chrysologus writes, “Lent is not a human invention; it arises from divine authority.” Thus, the custom of fasting during Lent was not arbitrary but done in remembrance of what the Lord endured in the desert. Before the forty day fast (or Quadragesima) was systematized at the Council of Nicea in 325, Saint Irenaeus noted a disagreement concerning the fast leading up to Easter, which commonly ranged from one to two days. The fourth century Pilgrimage of Egeria describes Christians in the Holy Land fasting for eight weeks before Easter, except on Saturdays and Sundays. The observation of the Quadragesima prompted distinct regional practices by around 370, although all early Christians practiced some form of rigorous Lenten fast. The fifth century Church historian, Socrates Scholasticus, mentions that some people fasted from all meat, while others exempted birds and fish. Other fasting practices described include eating only bread or giving up fruit or eggs.

By the time of Saint Thomas Aquinas (c. 1250), fasting typically involved limiting oneself to one meal a day, which guarded against concupiscence while still meeting bodily need. In his Summa Theologiae, Aquinas writes about fasting’s morally formative character, describing how fasting cultivates virtue by tempering the flesh, cleansing the soul, elevating the spirit, and humbling the heart. Fasting then prepares us to overcome temptation, like Jesus during His forty days in the desert.

Saint John Chrysostom observes that Christ did not say, “Come to me because I fasted,” but “because I am meek and humble of heart.” Christ’s ultimate act of humility was obedience unto death on a cross. As Blessed Pope Paul VI notes, “the duty of doing penance is motivated above all by participation in the sufferings of Christ.” Lenten fasting then has particular significance in the Church not only because of Jesus’ fasting in the desert but also because of His victorious Passion. As our Lenten fasts culminate in recollection of the Paschal mystery, we are drawn more intimately into the mystery of “that Friday called ‘Good’ because on that day Christ suffered in the flesh and died for our sins.” Through self-denial for the sake of our relationship with God, we come closer to understanding Jesus’ self-sacrifice for us on the Cross.

Lent is a beautiful opportunity to follow in Christ’s footsteps. It is a chance to participate in His self-denial, His self-restraint, and ultimately His self-gift. As we fast in our own ways over these next few weeks, let us offer our self-sacrifices in joyful anticipation of Christ’s victory. Go forth and make this a Great Lent.

This article was brought to you by the Theology Club’s Zossima Project: Making prayer an education. A special thank you to Professor Wawrykow in the Theology Department for sources on medieval fasting. For a complete works cited, please email Thank you for your readership.