Saturday, February 28, 2015

Stump the Priest: Is Lent Biblical?

Question: "This article was sent to me as "proof" that Lent is contrary to the scriptures: How do we respond?"

The author of this article has to concede that fasting is itself legitimate, because Christ Himself fasted, said that fasting was necessary, and said that his disciples would fast. But in order to find some fault with the idea of regular corporate fasting he cites a number of passages of Scripture that have nothing at all to do with fasting.

One such passage cited is 1 Timothy 4:1-5:

"Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer."

This passage is not talking about fasting or abstaining from some good things for a period of time devoted to prayer. St. Paul himself speaks of married couples abstaining from sex by mutual consent so that they can devote themselves to prayer and fasting (1 Corinthians 7:5). St. John Chrysostom says of this passage: "This is said of the Manichæans, the Encratites,and the Marcionites, and the whole of their tribe, that they should hereafter depart from the faith. Seest thou that this departure from the faith is the cause of all the evils that follow!" (Homily 12 on 1 Timothy).

Another passage cited is Galatians 4:9-11:

"But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain."

In the context of this epistle, St. Paul is noting here that in addition to observing circumcision, the Galatians were also observing the Jewish calendar, with the Old Testament laws associated with it. He was not suggesting that Christians could not observe the Lord's Day (Sunday), or any feast days, because it is clear that the Christians -- including St. Paul himself -- did observe these days, from the New Testament itself:

"For Paul had determined to sail by Ephesus, because he would not spend the time in Asia: for he hasted, if it were possible for him, to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost" (Acts 20:16).

"And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight" (Acts 20:7).

"Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come" (1 Corinthians 16:2)

"I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet" (Revelation 1:10).

Then the author quotes from Colossians 2:16-23, and in this instance uses a highly questionable translation that gives the appearance of condemning asceticism:

"Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh."

This is from  the English Standard Version, which is usually not the worst translation one might use, but in this case, it is way off the mark. The English word "asceticism" comes from the Greek word "askesis", and since the original text of Colossians is Greek, you would expect to find some form of that word there, if this was a fair translation, but you find nothing of the sort. The word in question is "ταπεινοφροσυνη" which means "lowliness of mind" or "humility." Blessed Theodoret tell us that what St. Paul is referring to here is to a sect that taught, out of a false humility, that God was beyond their reach, and could only be reached through the mediation of the Angels -- and he mentioned that there were still remnants of that sect up to his own time (Blessed Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, Vol. 2, trans. Robert Charles Hill, (Brookline, Ma: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2001), p. 95). There is thus nothing in this passage that condemns Christian asceticism. Christian fasting is not about saying that any food is evil, but about limiting how much we eat, how often we eat, and what we eat for periods of time that are devoted especially to prayer, which is completely consistent with the teachings of St. Paul. Canon 51 of the Holy Apostles says: "If any Bishop, or Presbyter, or Deacon, or anyone at all on the sacerdotal list, abstains from marriage, or meat, or wine, not as a matter of mortification, but out of an abhorrence thereof, forgetting that all things are exceedingly good, and that God made man male and female, and blasphemously misrepresenting God’s work of creation, either let him mend his ways or let him be deposed from office and expelled from the Church. Let a layman be treated similarly." It is unusual for a canon to call not only for a clergyman to be deposed, or a layman to be excommunicated, but also for them to be expelled from the Church, but we see it in this canon, because the Church so strongly rejects such erroneous and divisive teachings.

The author suggests that only in the "medieval period" did the practice of fasting for 40 days take shape. However, in the canons of the First Ecumenical Council, the practice of fasting for 40 days is already mentioned in passing in Canon 5: "As for these synods, let one of them be held before Lent, in order that, with the elimination of all small-mindedness, the gift may be offered to God in all its purity; and let the second one be held sometime in autumn." The original Greek word for "Lent" in this canon is "Τεσσαρακοστή", which means "forty days", and is the equivalent of the Latin "Quadragesima". Clearly, for a reference of this sort to be made at the First Ecumenical Council, the practice of fasting for forty days was already fairly universal, and unobjectionable -- how those forty days were calculated varied, but not the basic idea.

Some scholars believe that there was a forty day fast that originally followed Theophany (or Epiphany), which is the commemoration of the Baptism of the Lord, in imitation of Christ's forty day fast in the wilderness which immediately followed that event. They suggest that eventually, this fast shifted to immediately precede the shorter fast of Holy Week (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 1969), p 135ff). In fact, in the Orthodox Church we do not count Holy Week (Lazarus Saturday through Holy Saturday) as part of the forty days of Lent, but as a distinct period of fasting. Which is why the first hymn at Vespers for Lazarus Saturday says:

"Having completed the forty days that bring profit to our souls, we beseech Thee in Thy love for man: Grant us also to behold the Holy Week of Thy passion, that in it we may glorify Thy mighty acts and Thine ineffable dispensation for our sakes, singing with one mind: O Lord, glory to Thee."

In the Roman Catholic Church, Holy Week is included in the forty days of Lent, but the Sundays of Lent were excluded because on those days, they did not fast, and so this is why they begin Lent on Ash Wednesday, and the Orthodox begin Lent two days earlier, on Clean Monday. We simply do not have enough documentation to determine exactly how and when the observance of Lent took shape, but aside from minor differences, it was observed by all Christians prior to the Protestant Reformation. But in any case, the objection raised by the author really has little to do with the length of time of the fast. His real issue with the idea of corporate fasting per se. However, the practice of there being some corporate fast prior to Pascha was clearly very early, and universal.

In the Gospels, Christ did not say that his disciples might fast if they wanted to. He said that they would fast:

"Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly" (Matthew 6:16-18).

"Then came to him the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast" (Matthew 9:14-15).

Only in our individualistic culture would you find people arguing that fasting should only be done according to the whim of the individual, and alone, rather than corporately. In the Old Testament, there were specific times of fasting appointed (Leviticus 16:29-34Zechariah 8:19), and there were fast that were proclaimed for a specific need or purpose (2 Chronicles 20:3Ezra 8:21). In the Didache, which is the earliest Christian writing outside of the New Testament, we find reference to the apostolic practice of fasting on Wednesday and Friday (Didache 8:1-2). Even Protestants would often fast corporately -- for example, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a day of prayer and fasting on March 30, 1863. However, in more recent times, the reality in most Protestant circles is that fasting is almost unheard of in actual practice, and this is because it is left up to individual whim -- and individual whim usually is not inclined to fast. So given that Christ said his disciples would fast, and given that few Protestants actually do fast, who are the ones actually not following what the Scriptures teach on the subject?