The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting. Then they came and said to Him, “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days. (Mark 2:18-22)
Questions and debates about fasting have existed within the Christian movement from its very inception. In the Gospel passage above, Jesus is questioned about why His disciples don’t fast while the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Forerunner do fast. Jesus made it clear that His disciples did not fast as long as He, ‘the bridegroom’, was with them. This of course raises an interesting issue for modern Orthodoxy with its four major fasting seasons plus requiring fasting on almost every Wednesday and Friday throughout the year, not to mention the customs of fasting before going to Communion which can also be extensive. Jesus said His disciples didn’t fast as long as He, the Bridegroom, was with them. In the Great Commision which Jesus gave us, He said: “... and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20). If He is with us always, then it would seem there would be no mandatory fasting for Christians. Christ’s presence ushers in the Kingdom of Heaven breaking into this world, and fasting is superfluous. Or perhaps over time, there was a sense that Christ wasn’t with us as He had ascended to heaven and so fasting became the norm and mandatory.
In history, Christians debated exactly how fasting was to be done. For example, Pope Victor of Rome (d. 199AD), upon hearing that there were a variety of practices regarding fasting and for determining the date of Pascha throughout the Christian world, was enraged that not all the churches kept the same practices as they did in Rome and he saw the diversity as a threat to Church unity and so excommunicated any who didn’t follow the practices of the Church in Rome. Many Eastern bishops opposed his actions. The ancient church historian Eusebius quoting St Irenaeus (d. 177AD) regarding the controversy stirred up by Pope Victor writes:
For the controversy is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast; for some think that they ought to fast one day, others two, others even more, some count their day as 40 hours, day and night. And such variation of observance did not begin in our own time, but much earlier, in the days of our predecessors who, it would appear, disregarding strictness maintained a practice which is simple and yet allows for personal preference, establishing it for the future, and none the less all these lived in peace, and we also live in peace with one another and the disagreement in the fast confirms our agreement in the faith. (IRENAEUS OF LYONS: IDENTIFYING CHRISTIANITY, p 55)
The most ancient practice among the Christians regarding fasting “allows for personal preference” and didn’t follow the strictest rules for fasting. Some ancients fasted only one day and others more. St Irenaeus notes that despite the diversity of practices there still was mutual concord among the Christians. Demanding uniformity and conformity regarding fasting was not the ancient Tradition of the Church, but respect for personal conscience was. Pope Victor’s efforts to demand uniform fasting practice throughout the Christian world ended up dividing the Church! The Catholic Church was not a monolith but included people who held a great variety of practices. Having one bishop determine spiritual practice for the entire Church was not normative in ancient Christianity. That was an innovation that crept into the Church replacing the ancient apostolic practice. It also contributed to Christian division.
Some have seen Christ’s words in Matthew 6:16 as a command to fast:
“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Yet, it doesn’t appear to be a command to fast but only directions on how to do the fast if you are going to do it: it should be private, seen only by God and not a public display as some Orthodox make it today. If a bishop were to say, “When you sin, repent and go to confession,” is he commanding you to sin, or only telling you what to do in case you sin?
Fasting did become an integral part of the Orthodox spiritual tradition, a tradition which became shaped by an increasingly hierarchical institution which increasingly demanded conformity and uniformity from its members. Christ and His disciples were accused of not fasting. The question being asked of Christ and His followers was – why do they not fast like other religious people of their day? Today, the Orthodox are asked why they do fast. The change in fasting custom and command is something the apostolic church might wonder what changed and why an innovation replaced the ancient Tradition. The effort to control the oneness of the Church by hierarchical authority demanding conformity of practice contributed to the splintering of Christianity. The oneness which Christ prayed for His Church was not to be found in absolute authority of those ruling over the Church but rather in the Lord Jesus Himself.
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand. One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. He also who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; while he who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14:4-8)
[In response to a comment I received through a private email, I would just add that Jesus’ answer to the question, “Why do your disciples not fast?”, is: because I am with them. This is the basis of any Christian discipleship. And I would say to think about St Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 4:1-8. His distinction between godliness (Greek : eusebeia – piety) and bodily training (Greek: somatike gymnasia) is especially interesting, but its meaning not further defined by Paul:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving; for then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. If you put these instructions before the brethren, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the good doctrine which you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless and silly myths. Train yourself in godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.]