“There was no such thing as a fasting police force”

Nowadays one does without the cell phone, alcohol or chocolate in the Lent time. In former times it was different. Customs expert Manfred Becker-Huberti looks back into the past and explains how people used to fast in the past.

Interviewer: The tradition of fasting existed before Jesus?

Professor Dr. Manfred Becker-Huberti (theologian and expert on customs): Yes, you can see it in Jesus himself. He quotes in some place that one should not look as gloomy as the Pharisees who fast and make it out to be so by looking especially depressed.

So fasting should be done with joy and in silence.

Interviewer: Minus Sunday, we fast for 40 days, just as Jesus is said to have fasted in the desert after his baptism. Why the number 40?

Becker-Huberti: The number 40 is a symbolic number indicating vastness and greatness. I remember that the Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years. We encounter the number 40 continuously in the Old and New Testaments. For example, it rained 40 days when the ark was built. There are 40 chapters in the second book of Moses. According to Leviticus, if a woman gives birth to a boy, she is considered unclean for 40 days, and so on.

The number 40 in our context comes up with Jesus' fasting before his public ministry. Fasting for 40 days. This 40 is symbolism for this Lenten season. And not only for the Easter fast, but originally also for the Christmas fasting period. Because Advent was originally also once a 40-day period of fasting.

Interviewer: Today there are car fasts, cell phone fasts and internet fasts. What did people fast in earlier times?

Becker-Huberti: The most important thing in fasting was abstinence from food and drink. Then of course public merrymaking such as dancing or concerts, which were omitted. There were also times when abstinence from sexual intercourse played an essential role, of course also for married couples, who then restrained themselves – at least, however, during Holy Week.

Interviewer: What was with alcohol and chocolate? Also a fasting idea of modern times?

Becker-Huberti: This is an idea of modern times. You have to imagine that in ancient times – even in the Middle Ages and partly into the18. In the sixteenth century – there was nothing but thin beer to drink. Normal water did not work, because one did not know that one had to boil it. It was dangerous to health.

Juices did not go, because one did not have enough juices, and/or could not make them durable. So you could only drink thin beer or dilute wine. Total abstinence from alcohol did not work.

There was rather the opposite: strong beer was produced, for example in monasteries. If you ate less, you had to get the calories you needed to maintain your job from the stronger brewed beer.

Interviewer: It is up to each person to decide whether or not to take stimulants during Lent. No one is paying attention from the outside. How it used to be? There will not have been a fasting police force, will there??

Becker-Huberti: A fasting police certainly not. But there was some kind of social control. In a village, of course, everyone knew from the neighbor how he was doing with these things – especially since they also dealt with each other, worked or looked into each other's kitchens.

Accordingly, it was quite regimented. Incidentally, the confessor saw to that. The asked namely also whether someone kept to the fasting rules or not and admonished accordingly.

The interview was conducted by Tobias Fricke.

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