The season of Lent is coming upon us. I’m reminded of Lent annually when those who are enamored with perhaps a higher liturgy of worship because it connects them to a historical faith inquire about it. Calvin has a section in the 4th book 12th chapter of his Institutes labelled “The use and purpose of fasting, private and public: principles to be guarded in it, 14-18” in which he treats the subject of Lent.
4.12.20 Calvin writes “At that time the superstitious observance of Lent had prevailed everywhere, because the common people thought that in it they were doing some exceptional service to God, and the pastors commended it as a holy imitation of Christ”(1)
When Christians participate in Lent, there is a concern that those who would participate assume it is the norm or commanded in Scripture. Therefore they are entering into Lent thinking they are doing something out of obedience or even something special when they aren’t. It secretly becomes the ritual that we do out of superstitious thought rather than out of explicit biblical obedience.
Then why does Christ fast? He doesn’t fast to set an example for others but to prove that the mission he was about to begin (the proclamation of the Gospel) was “no human doctrine but from God.” [Mat 4:2]. This event of Christ’s fasting was not something he did yearly but once. It wasn’t set as a command but something he does in preparation for the ministry of the Gospel he was set to take on. Look at the example he set, 40 days with no food. He surely doesn’t set an example of fasting that is seen in contemporary circles. The idea for Christ to fast from “sports, only meat, only fish, etc” is unthinkable. He doesn’t set an example and our small attempts to remember his fasting with ours is a mockery.
Moses fasts when he received the law in Ex 24:18; 34:28, Christ fasts before his Gospel ministry lest the appearance would be that the Gospel “yields to the law”. But even before Christ the Jews were not fasting to follow the example of Moses, neither did the prophets or patriarchs even in the highest of their zeal and piety. Elijah goes 40 days without food and drink [1 King 19:8] but for a reason. It was to bring notice to the people of Israel to restore the law they had left.
Those who “observe” Lent today do it in preparation for Easter. However, if in their heart they think they are justified because it shows their zeal for the Gospel and they are following the example set by Christ I think they are misguided. The history of fasting in the Church is not consistent. Some would do it for a few weeks, some would only abstain from choice foods, some ate only bread and water.
If we want to be obedient to God then we will be obedient to Jesus
“Matt 6:17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face”
and not mark our head with ashes to let everyone know of our piety.
(1) 1 Christ’s forty-day fast. Cf. Augustine, Sermons ccv, ccvi, ccvii, ccviii, ccix, ccx, ccxi (MPL 38, 1039-1058); Augustine, Letters lv. 15. 28 (MPL 33. 217 f.; tr. FC 12. 283 ff); Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah xvi (on Isa. 58:3) (MPL 24. 564); Against Jovinian II. xvii (MPL 23.311; tr. NPNF 2 ser. VI. 401 f.). Cf. Cadier, Institution IV. 233, note 4.