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A Prayer and Fasting Devotional

Embedded within Paul’s conversion/call narrative in Acts 9 is a note that, after encountering Jesus on the way to Damascus, for three days prior to his baptism, Paul “neither ate nor drank” (9:9). Later, in vv. 18–19, Luke records that after his baptism, Paul ate and “regained his strength” (9:19).

New Testament scholars have long speculated about the precise significance of Paul’s abstaining from food and drink in this passage. Was Paul’s abstinence from food and drink symptomatic of a shock-induced state? Or was Luke highlighting a corollary in view of Jesus’ forgoing food and drink prior to his death and resurrection (Luke 22:16, 30)? Still others suggest that  Paul’s period without food and drink should be understood as a period of holistic preparation. Although discerning the definite reasoning behind Paul’s time of refusing food and drink is a multivalent task, it’s interesting to observe that the final option—preparatory fasting—came to be imitated by Christians undergoing baptism in the early church. In his comments on Paul’s lack of food and drink for three days in Acts 9:9, Luke Timothy Johnson suggests “the early practice of fasting before baptism may have found its foundation in this passage” (The Acts of the Apostles, 164).

Toward this end, consider the following directive concerning fasting in the Didache, a late first-century or early second-century Christian text addressing the life and practices of the church: “But both the one baptizing and the one being baptized should fast before the baptism, along with others if they can. But command the one being baptized to fast one or two days in advance” (Didache 7:4).

I’ve long been intrigued by the fact that this text draws attention to the practice of fasting at such a decisive moment in the Christian life, both on a personal and communal plane. Quite simply, if fasting can play such a crucial, preparatory role prior to baptism, how much more so should the practice of fasting be a sustained habit in the Christian life?

Although not binding for Christian faith and practice, reading the Didache as an ancient exemplar serves as an insightful modern placeholder within a discussion about the personal and social implications of spiritual practices in community. In sum, there will often be occasions when fasting plays a timely and integral role in preparing, focusing, and continuing a legacy of faithfulness. The Didache’s call for the person administering a baptism—and if possible the wider community—to enter into a time of holistic preparation and solidarity for the sake of another is of tremendous value.

Interestingly, the very next chapter in the Didache offers a sober warning about times of fasting that are imbued with hypocrisy—not unlike the warning issued in Matthew 6:5. The collocation of these two pericopes in the Didache (i.e., an encouragement to fast and an advisory on the potential hypocrisy of fasting) serves as a helpful guide in thinking about rightly ordered motives in regard to fasting. Jesus’ reprimand in Matthew 6, as with similar cautions in early Christian writings such as the Didache, is not advocating for an end to fasting in light of hypocrisy and abuse but rather emphasizes the serious care that must accompany this spiritual practice.

As we continue to fast, I’d encourage you to think not only about your personal hopes and expectations during this time but also about specific people and their pivotal moments. How might your time spent in prayer and fasting be functioning as a potent time of personal and/or communal preparation? In what ways are you being challenged to listen, learn, and respond?
Jared Wortman
Ministry Fellow at Harvard Law School