Friday, March 4, 2022
Early Christians Fasted Even from Water During Lent

The history of the Lenten fast is replete with inspiration for us. Whereas modern man has steadily over the centuries given in to laxities and has abandoned fasting - and prayer and almsgiving too - it is necessary for those Catholics faithful to the Traditions to restore some of the fervor of our forefathers in the Faith. 

To the Early Christians, fasting was performed until sundown, in imitation of the previous Jewish tradition. Dom Gueranger’s writings affirm, “It was the custom with the Jews, in the Old Law, not to take the one meal, allowed on fasting days, till sun-set. The Christian Church adopted the same custom. It was scrupulously practiced, for many centuries, even in our Western countries." 

Liquids Broke the Fast In the Early Church

In the early Church, fasting also included abstinence from wine, taking man back to his antediluvian diet before God permitted Noah to eat meat and drink wine. As such, in apostolic times, the main meal was a small one, mainly of bread and vegetables. Fish, but not shellfish, became permitted on days of abstinence around the 6th century. Hence, some Eastern Rites will abstain from meat, animal products, wine, oil, and fish on fasting days which harkens back to these ancient times.

Remarkably, even water was forbidden during fasting times in the very ancient church. Fr. Alban Butler in his lives of the saints provides testimony of this when he writes: 

"St. Fructuosus, the holy bishop of Tarragon in Spain, in the persecution of Valerian in 259, being led to martyrdom on a Friday at ten o'clock in the morning, refused to drink, because it was not the hour to break the fast of the day, though fatigued with imprisonment, and standing in need of strength to sustain the conflict of his last agony. 'It is a fast,' said he: 'I refuse to drink; it is not yet the ninth hour; death itself shall not oblige me to abridge my fast.'"

Father Alban writes elsewhere, "It is undoubted, that anciently to drink on fasting days was no less forbidden than to eat, only in the refection after sunset." The account of St. Fructuosus illustrates that while water would break the fast, water was permitted when the meal was taken later in the evening. This reference to taking the meal after a set time prescribed by the Church would last for centuries, even though it would be moved up ultimately to noon by the 14th century. 

Father Alban also insightfully remarks, "Even the first allowance of a collation, which consisted only of a draught of drink, shows it was not allowed before to drink at all on fasting days before the hour of the meal...The Mahometans, though immersed in sensuality and vice, keep up this essential law in their fasts, which consist in neither eating, nor drinking, nor smoking the whole day, from morning to the rising of the stars in the evening." The custom of fasting even from water was similarly practiced in ancient Judaism.

The American Ecclesiastical Review in a 1938 piece on the Lenten fast notes that in the Early Church, even after water became allowed, liquids other than water would break the fast:

The fast observed in the early Church was much more severe than that of later centuries. The law of fasting did not permit the use of any food earlier than sunset during Lent and not earlier than three o'clock in the afternoon on fast days outside of Lent. Even in St. Thomas's time, the hour for the taking of food was circa horam sextam or noon. The earlier custom prohibited all liquids except water outside the meal, later liquids were allowed according to the principle that they do not break the fast. It was not until the thirteenth century that the custom of taking a little food such as fruit bread salad and the like in the evening was introduced. This refection received the name of collation apparently from the Collations of Cassian usually read by the monks at this repast. The frustulum or small quantity of food allowed in the morning is a practice of comparatively recent origin. Only when we consider the rigor of fasting as practised by our forefathers in the Faith can we appreciate the indulgence that the Church has accorded Catholics in this age.

Water Broke the Eucharistic Fast Until 1953

The final vestige of abstaining from even water was in the form of the Eucharistic fast leading up to the reception of Holy Communion. This was changed by Pope Pius XII on January 6, 1953, in Christus Dominus, which stated: “In the future, it shall be a general and common principle for all, both priests and faithful, that natural water does not break the Eucharistic fast.” Further changes were introduced on March 25, 1957, in Sacram Communionem by Pope Pius XII again. While legislating on a number of finer details, as a whole, Pope Pius XII’s legislation mitigated the fast to be for three hours before Holy Communion from all solid food and all alcoholic beverages. Nonalcoholic beverages were subject to a one hour fast, though water was permitted at any time as stated in Christus Dominus. Those old enough to remember Masses before 1953 may recall that Catholic schools would cover the drinking fountains until after Holy Mass had ended.


While this practice of abstaining from liquids may not be something we want to practice this Lent, it is worthwhile to consider for the sake of inspiration the remarkable discipline that Early Christians kept in the Lenten fast. And we too can keep an austere Lent this year by retaining some of the practices kept by our forefathers in the Early and/or Medieval Church.

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