A couple of years ago, when I first started reading about Eastern Christianity's distinctive penitential discipline, I came across the practice of fasting and abstaining on both Wednesday and Friday. This brought to mind immediately the parable of Christ about the proud Pharisee who complimented himself on his twice per week fasts. Of course, Christ himself said that when the bridegroom had been taken from his friends, that they would then fast. In the Western Church, however, this traditional weekly fast on Wednesday has fallen off the charts; most people would probably be amazed to learn it had ever been part of the regular routine of Western Christians. Yet this fast is found mentioned in the Didache and is still kept by the Eastern Church.
However, the Wednesday fast has never entirely been forgotten in the Western Church; it is remembered in those ancient fast days of the Embertides, when fasting was enjoined on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays four times yearly; and it is remembered by some liturgists and spiritual writers.
I suppose that as I learned about the penitential customs of the past, I was drawn to take a closer look at them and try to institute them in my own life. It seems the more eager some of my peers in the contemporary Church to abandon traditions, the more eager I am to take them up. And so, as a sort of New Year's resolution for 2006, I'll begin trying to keep the Wednesday fast. Using as a model the Eastern fast, this will be a day with only one meal, observing abstinence of meat, dairy and eggs. I suppose if I'm going to write about food and eating, I better keep some perspective and fasting should help with that.
The earliest reference to the Wednesday fast is in the Didache, following its teaching on baptism and the necessity of the baptismal candidate to fast for a day or two prior to his baptism. At the head of the eighth chapter we read:
Your fasts must not be identical with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Mondays and Thursdays; but you should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.1
The fast of the hypocrites on Mondays and Thursdays would have been the twice weekly fast of pious Jews, which the Pharisee of the parable got so mixed up about. Perhaps the hypocrites mentioned are the Ebionites, Jewish Christians of the first two centuries who continued to keep the Law of Moses and in some instances, insisted on the necessity of conversion to Judaism prior to baptism.
In the Rule of St. Benedict, Wednesday as a penitential day along with Friday is listed when deciding when and how often the monks may eat:
From holy Easter till Pentecost let the brethren dine at the sixth hour and take supper in the evening. From Pentecost on, however, during the whole summer, if the monks have no work in the fields and the excess of the heat doth not interfere, let them fast on Wednesday and Friday until the ninth hour; but on the other days let them dine at the sixth hour. This sixth hour for dinner is to be continued, if they have work in the fields or the heat of the summer is great. Let the Abbot provide for this; and so let him manage and adapt everything that souls may be saved, and that what the brethren do, they may do without having a reasonable cause to murmur. From the ides of September until the beginning of Lent let them always dine at the ninth hour. During Lent, however, until Easter, let them dine in the evening. But let this evening hour be so arranged that they will not need lamp-light during their meal; but let everything be finished whilst it is still day. But at all times let the hour of meals, whether for dinner or for supper, be so arranged that everything is done by daylight.2
And more recently, The St. Dunstan Psalter mentions the Wednesday fast in passing in its Introduction to the Office:
Then, there may be said the Exhortation and General Confession (p. 243-244), especially on the penitential days (e.g. Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year; ferial days in Advent, Lent, Passiontide; Ember Days; etc.).3
1. Early Christian Fathers, Cyril C. Richardson, editor. Macmillan Publishing Company. "The Didache" p. 174.
2. The Rule of St. Benedict, http://www.kansasmonks.org/RuleOfStBenedict.html, accessed on January 18, 2006.
3. Saint Dunstan's Plainsong Psalter, copyright 2002, Lancelot Andrewes Press, p. 232.