Did St. Paul have anything to say about observing periods of devotion, like Forty Hours or the 40 days of Lent?
Both these practices were later developments in the life of the Church, so in this sense we shouldn’t expect him to have said anything, but, more in general, did St. Paul say anything about observing seasons of devotion, fasting and self-denial?
Returning for a moment to my past as a Calvinist Presbyterian pastor, I would have answered this question like this: “Yes, he certainly did! He would have said, ‘Don’t!’” I would have based my opinion on a carefully selected sampling of Scripture passages (which are condensed here for the purpose of this article).
I would have begun with Paul’s warning to the Galatian Christians who, in following false gospels, were falling back into observing superstitious rituals (see Gal 4:8-11). So, I would have preached that Paul was warning that observing special days as a form of religious discipline is a useless vanity. I would have added to this similar warnings in Colossians (see 2:16-23), Romans (14:1-17) and, to his understudy, the First Letter to Timothy (4:1-4).
This, at least, is what I used to believe and teach.
Then I discovered the significance of something else St. Paul taught St. Timothy: “I hope to visit you soon. But if I should be delayed, you should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tm 3:14,15).
Two things are expressed here: (1) that the trustworthy source of truth is not Scripture alone nor our individual consciences, but the Church, and (2) that Paul, as one of the highest leaders in the Church, recognized that he had the authority, from Christ, to teach Christians how they ought to “behave in the household of God.”
The early Church saw this. When the apostolic leaders were forced to decide which disciplines from their Jewish past must be imposed upon Gentile converts — that is, circumcision — they did not merely throw everything out and tell the new converts to just decide for themselves. Rather the leaders, recognizing their responsibilities under the Holy Spirit to guide the Church, gave a list of regulations which were then to be communicated to all the local churches (see Acts 15:27-29).
We know from the rest of the New Testament and the writings of the early Church Fathers that these were not literally “all” that was now required of them, but rather new regulations covering certain dietary disciplines. This demonstrates that the Church has always recognized its responsibility, under the Holy Spirit, to place boundaries on our lives, which includes moral as well as spiritual disciplines.
Actually, the foundation for seasons of devotion, like the Forty Hours or the 40 days of Lent, came from Jesus himself. In His Sermon on the Mount, He spoke long and direct about “when you give alms,” “when you pray,” “when you fast” (see Mt 6:2-18). He wasn’t saying these acts were unimportant, or vanity, but instead assumed that all of his followers would continue to practice these age-old disciplines. What he warned against was doing these things inappropriately: either to impress other people or to think that in doing them we somehow obligate God to reward us. This is vain.
The acts themselves are not what is important, but how they help us to become more fully convinced in our own minds of the truth of Jesus Christ our Lord and of His Church, His Body, in which we became full members through baptism. TCA