Penance & Fasting:
Definition of Terms:
The Act of Penance refers to deeds done out of penitence that correspond with the internal repentance of an individual. These acts may be self-imposed, which is common during penitential seasons, such as Lent. It may also be imposed by a priest or member of the clergy when following the Sacrament of Confession. Penance often consists of fasting, prayer, or charity, as
“Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others” (CCC).
Fasting is the intentional act of voluntarily abstaining from food or other personal indulgences. It is a spiritual practice observed as a means of self-discipline, self-control, and spiritual growth by fostering humility, detachment from the physical world, and a sense of reliance on God’s sustenance. By temporarily giving up certain comforts or indulgences, individuals may develop a greater appreciation for what they have and gain empathy for those who experience constant deprivation.
Fasting, when it is done with a penitent and contrite heart, can be combined with penance as a visible expression of sorrow for sins committed and the desire for reconciliation with God. Through fasting, a person can express a willingness to make amends for their actions. It can be seen as a form of reparation or offering, signifying a desire to repair the relationship with God and others affected by the sins.
Acts of penance have their roots in Scripture, with examples such as David’s repentance in the Psalms and Nineveh’s fasting and repentance in the book of Jonah. In the New Testament, Christ indicates that there will be a time when His followers will fast, after He has Ascended into Heaven (Matt. 6:16-18, Mark 2:18-20, Acts 13:2-3, Jas. 4:8-10). Christ expected his disciples to fast (Mt 9:14-15) and issued instructions for how they should do so (Mt 6:16-18).
Jesus Himself fasted for forty days before beginning His ministry and Christians are called to imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). By doing so, we may recognize that if we unite our suffering with Christ’s own suffering, it can aid in Christ’s redemptive work within the Church (Colossians 1:24) and help us to grow in hope and endurance (Romans 5:3-5). By willingly embracing the hunger that fasting produces, we show that we are willing to shoulder the burdens of others (cf. Col. 1:24). Fasting teaches us humility (Ezra 8:21) and provides Christians with a means of sanctification;
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” -1 John 1:9
Suffering and penance are closely linked to the concept of sanctification. Suffering, whether self-imposed through acts of penance or endured due to life’s challenges, can lead to personal growth, increased empathy, and a deeper understanding of the human condition. As believers embrace suffering with the right intentions, it refines their character, strengthens their faith, and aligns them with the example set by Christ’s own suffering. Scripture highlights this transformative nature of suffering when it is embraced in a spirit of penance and humility;
- Romans 5:3-4 – “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
- 1 Peter 4:1 – “Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin.”
- Hebrews 12:11 – “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
- 2 Corinthians 1:6 – “If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.”
- James 1:2-4 – “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
- 1 Peter 1:6-7 – “In all this, you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”
- Romans 8:17-18 – “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
- Colossians 1:24 – “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”
While Christ’s death on the cross provides redemption for sins, penance remains relevant as a means of personal transformation. Christ’s sacrifice forgives sins and the eternal punishment that is their due, but individuals still experience the consequences of their actions in this life. Scripture indicates temporal penalties may still be present even following forgiveness (2 Samuel 12:7-14). Temporal consequences of sin are apparent in the world from the Fall of Adam to our current judicial system.
Acts of penance are not intended to earn salvation, but rather to demonstrate sincere repentance and humility. They serve to purify the soul, detach from worldly desires, and cultivate a deeper relationship with God. They also help heal relationships within the Church as it may involve making reparations to an individual if the sin involved injury or loss to another, such as in the case of theft.
The Early Church:
Early church evidence of penance and fasting can be found in the writings of early Christian authors and church leaders. The Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), likely written in the 1st or 2nd century, contains guidelines for fasting and prayer, emphasizing the importance of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. The Shepherd of Hermas describes penance and the concept of second chances for those who have sinned after baptism. The Didascalia Apostolorum, believed to be from the 3rd century, contains instructions for fasting, emphasizing the importance of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays to commemorate Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion.
Tertullian (AD 160-225) wrote extensively on the subject of penance and fasting in his treatise “On Repentance.” In the 3rd century, St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, addressed the importance of penance and fasting in his epistles, stressing their significance for reconciling with God after committing serious sin. St. Augustine, one of the most influential Church Fathers, emphasized the necessity of penance for sinners. Augustine famously said, “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”
The Early Church had a penitential system in which there were four classes of penitents who had committed major sins (e.g., idolatry, murder, abortion, adultery), and they moved through the classes on their way to full reconciliation (see Church Father Quotes below for details). Weepers were not allowed in the church but stayed outside and asked those going in to pray for them. Hearers stood inside church doors and heard the liturgy of the word but were dismissed, like the catechumens, before the liturgy of the Eucharist. Kneelers knelt or lay down in church and participated with the Church in specific prayers for them before being blessed by the bishop and dismissed prior to the Eucharist. Standers sat in the congregation and stayed for the liturgy of the Eucharist but did not receive Communion.
“In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks. I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks.”
“Then I proclaimed a fast . . . that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a straight way for ourselves, our children, and all our goods.”
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. 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 others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
“Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.'”
“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying, they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”
“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
“Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.'”
1 Corinthians 11:1
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Church Father Quotes:
“Before the baptism, let the one baptizing and the one to be baptized fast, as also any others who are able. Command the one who is to be baptized to fast beforehand for one or two days…[After becoming a Christian] do not let your fasts be with the hypocrites. They fast on Monday and Thursday, but you shall fast on Wednesday and Friday” (Didache 7:1, 8:1 [A.D.70]).
Pope Clement I of Rome
“You [Corinthians], therefore, who laid the foundation of the rebellion [in your church], submit to the presbyters and be chastened to repentance, bending your knees in a spirit of humility (Letter to the Corinthians 57 [A.D. 80]).
The Shepherd of Hermas
“[The old woman told me:] “Every prayer should be accompanied with humility: fast, therefore, and you will obtain from the Lord what you beg.” I fasted therefore for one day” – (The Shepherd 1:3:10 [A.D. 80]).
Ignatius of Antioch
“For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of penance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ” – (Letter to the Philadelphians 3 [A.D. 110]).
Polycarp of Smyrna
“Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning; staying awake in prayer, and persevering in fasting; beseeching in our supplications the all-seeing God “not to lead us into temptation,” as the Lord has said: “The spirit truly is willing, but the flesh is weak” [Matt. 26:41] (Letter to the Philippians 7 [A.D. 135]).
“I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we are praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us to where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (First Apology 61 [A.D. 151]).
Irenaeus of Lyons
“Some consider themselves bound to fast one day [during Lent], others two days, others still more, while others [do so during] forty; the diurnal and the nocturnal hours they measure out together as their [fasting] day. And this variety among the observers [of the fasts] had not its origin in our time, but long before in that of our predecessors” (Letter to Pope Victor [A.D. 190]).
Tertullian of Carthage
“Confession is a discipline for man’s prostration and humiliation…It commands one to lie in sackcloth and ashes, to cover the body with mourning, to cast the spirit down in sorrow, to exchange the sins which have been committed for a demeanor of sorrow; to take no food or drink except what is plain, not, of course, for the sake of the stomach, but for the sake of the soul; and most of all, to feed prayers on fasting; to groan, to weep and wail day and night to the Lord your God; to bow before the presbyters, to kneel before God’s refuge places [altars], and to beseech all the brethren for the embassy of their own supplication” (Repentance 9:3-5 [A.D. 203]).
Origen of Alexandria
“There is also a seventh, albeit hard and laborious [method of forgiveness] – the remission of sins through penance, when the sinner washes his pillow in tears, when his tears are day and night his nourishment, and when he does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord” (Homilies on Leviticus 2:4 [A.D. 248]).
Cyprian of Carthage
“Sinners may do penance for a set time, and according to the rules of discipline come to public confession, and by imposition of the hand of the bishop and clergy receive the right of communion” (Letters 9:2).
“Weeping is done outside the gate of the oratory, and the sinner standing there ought to implore the faithful, as they enter, to pray for him. Hearing is in the narthex inside the gate, where the sinner ought to stand while the catechumens are there, and afterward he should depart. For let him hear the Scriptures and the teachings…and then be cast out and not be reckoned as worthy of [the penitential] prayer. Submission allows one to stand within the gate of the temple, but he must go out with the catechumens. Assembly allows one to be associated with the faithful, without the necessity of going out with the catechumens. Last of all is participation in the consecrated elements” (Canonical Letter, canon 11 [A.D. 256]).
Eusebius of Caesarea
“[The Emperor Philip,] being a Christian desired, on the day of the last paschal vigil, to share with the multitude in the prayers of the Church, but that he was not permitted to enter, by him who then presided, until he had made confession and had numbered himself among those who were reckoned as transgressors and who occupied the place of penance. For if he had not done this, he would never have been received by him, on account of the many crimes which he had committed. It is said that he obeyed readily, manifesting in his conduct a genuine and pious fear of God” (Church History 6:34 [A.D. 312]).
First Council of Nicaea
“It is decided by the council, even though they [those who apostatized without coercion during the persecution of Licinius] are unworthy of mercy, to treat them, nevertheless, with kindness. Those, then, who are truly repentant shall, as already baptized [people], spend three years among the hearers, and seven years among the kneelers, and for two years they shall participate with the people in prayers, but without taking part in the offering” (canon 11 [A.D. 325]).
Jerome of Stridon
“If the serpent, the devil, bites someone secretly, he infects that person with the venom of sin. And if the one who has been bitten keeps silence and does not do penance, and does not want to confess his wound…then his brother and his master, who have the word [of absolution] that will cure him, cannot very well assist him” (Commentary on Ecclesiastes 10:11 [A.D. 388]).
Basil the Great
“Let him who has [committed incest]…[a]fter coming to an awareness of that dread sin, let him be a weeper for three years, standing at the door of the houses of prayer and begging the people entering there for the purpose of praying to offer in sympathy for him, each one, earnest petitions to the Lord. After this, let him be admitted for another three years among the hearers only; and when he has heard the Scriptures and the teachings, let him be put out and not be deemed worthy of the prayer. Then, if he has sought it with tears and has cast himself down before the Lord with a contrite heart and with great humility, let him be given admission for another three years. And thus, when he has exhibited fruits worthy of repentance, let him be admitted in the tenth year to the prayer of the faithful without communion. And when he has assembled for two years in prayer with the faithful, then let him finally be deemed worthy of the communion of the good” – (Letters217:75 [A.D. 367]).
Martin Luther, key figure in the Protestant Reformation:
“Fasting is a wonderful outward discipline to preserve the body, but it should not be seen as a way to earn God’s favor.” – “Sermons on the Gospel of St. John,” Sermon 30.
“Fasting is a good outward discipline, but of itself is not sufficient to make a Christian before God. It must be joined to prayer, reading, meditation, and the exercise of other virtues.” – “Table Talk” (Tischreden), a collection of informal conversations and writings of Martin Luther.
John Calvin, key figure in the Protestant Reformation:
“As we are restrained by fasting from the use of lawful meats, so we ought to be instructed by it to temperance and sobriety.” – “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” Book 4, Chapter 12, Section 17.
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement:
“Some degree of fasting is a kind of guard against the indulgence of the flesh and the mind.” – Sermon 27, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount: Discourse Nine.”
John Knox, Scottish Reformer:
“True fasting, then, may be defined to be an earnest and sincere seeking of God, by which the individual, under the guidance of the Spirit of God, humbles himself before Him.” – “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.”
Ulrich Zwingli, key figure in the Protestant Reformation:
“Fasting is a help toward humility and raising the mind to spiritual things.” – “A Christian Exhortation” (Ein christlich exhortacion).
Thomas Cranmer, English Reformer:
“Let us fast with our body that we may feed with our soul.” – A Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Our Savior Christ.”
Heinrich Bullinger, Swiss Reformer:
“Fasting, if it is done rightly, will make a man more receptive to the Holy Spirit, and it will discipline the flesh and bring the body into subjection.” – “The Decades,” Fourth Decade, Sermon 3.