Quadregesima, Latin for “the 40” was established in 325 AD following the Council of Nicea and based on a deeper tradition of the early church where a period of worshipful reflection always preceded the Easter celebration.
Fasting has long been a form of worship for God’s people. In 1 Samuel 7: 5-6, the Hebrew people prayed and fasted for a day, begging the Lord’s forgiveness for 20 years of worshiping other gods. Nehemiah, when he hears that the walls and gates of Jerusalem have been destroyed, weeps, prays and fasts before God asking God to forgive the Israelites unfaithfulness (Neh 1:4).
However, God also commands periods of fasting, or ‘self-denial’ in Leviticus: “‘This is to be a permanent statute for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you are to practice self-denial and do no work, both the native and the foreigner who resides among you. Atonement will be made for you on this day to cleanse you, and you will be made clean from all your sins before the Lord’” (Lev 16:29-30 HCSB).
This period of ‘self-denial’ preceded the atonement of the sins of the all the Israelite people for the year by a sacrifice made by the High Priest.
Today, we no longer need a high priest to make a yearly sacrifice to atone for our sins. Jesus made the once and for all, ultimate sacrifice for all atonement forever when he died in our place on the Cross. In beautiful metaphor, the old Testament sacrifice was a shadow of what was to come, to show how we are incapable of being the ones to atone for our own sins.
However, we celebrate Christ’s victory over death every year at Easter, and mourn his death on Good Friday. In that same way, we practice the same period of self-denial leading up to the sacrifice, or the commemoration of that ultimate sacrifice, that the ancient Hebrews did.
Why? What about self-denial, fasting, prepares us for that day of atonement? The answer is not just that ‘God commands it.’ God does not give laws arbitrarily, but gives us laws based on his own character. Theft is not a sin because God says so, it is a sin because God is not a thief, and as Imago Dei, or Image Bearers of God, when we steal, we are being dishonest about who God is. Through the laws that we are given in scripture, God is defining for us in finite terms who He is. When God commanded the Israelites to fast before the day of atonement, and we choose to do the same before Easter, we are acknowledging that there are many, many things in this life that we love more than him.
Pastor John Piper puts it beautifully, “The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies, but his gifts. The deadliest appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of Earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable.”
On that day of sacrifice, when Christ went to the Cross, there was nothing that God was putting above his love for us. In the same way, as we prepare to commemorate that day, we fast and deny ourselves of the gifts and pleasures God has given us in order to recognize those things that we put higher than our love for HIM.
In that way, we can enter a deep and intimate communion with God, repenting of the idols in our lives, like the Hebrews in 1 Samuel and Nehemiah, allowing the gravity of what Christ did for us to be fully recognized. Then, gloriously, three days later, we can celebrate Christ’s victory over death and the forgiveness of all those sins.
As you abstain from something today, may you do so reminded that you are in a long line of people who have worshipped a worthy God through fasting.