As we begin the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday, we hear about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18). Of these, definitely fasting gets more air time. It seems that Lent is a time when all we talk about is eating fish on Fridays.
Still, fasting in our culture is not limited to Lent. Today, people fast for all kinds of reasons, health being the main one. We also have ideological fasting when people go on hunger strikes. However, in ancient times, the only kind of fasting that existed was religious fasting.
I addressed a few questions about fasting and abstinence a few years ago in Deacon-structing Lent
. In that post, I mentioned the Baltimore Catechism’s precepts of the Church
. The fifth precept is “You shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence.”
These observances come from canon law
Canon law says that the Church gives us penitential days so that we can be united with each other in our common observance of penance. These days are given to us so that we can devote ourselves to prayer, works of piety and charity, and fasting and abstinence (Canon 1249). These penitential days are every Friday of the year and the season of Lent (Canon 1250). It goes on to say that abstinence from meat or other food, as determined by the local episcopal conference, is to be observed on all Fridays and that abstinence and fasting should be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (Can. 1251). The law of abstinence applies to everyone 14 years of age and over, and the law of fasting applies to all adults, until the age of 60 (Canon 1252). Finally, each local conference of bishops can determine more precisely these observances, including substitutions for the abstinence and fast. In Canada
, the days of fasting and abstinence are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fridays are days of abstinence, but Catholics can substitute special acts of charity or piety on this day.
In general, abstaining simply means not having/doing something. It is in the apostolic constitution Paenitemini
that the law specifically forbids eating meat (Chapter 3, III. 1.) But if not eating meat does not make sense for you (because you are a vegetarian, for example), you can make a substitution.
In the same document, the Church defines fasting as eating only “one full meal a day”, but it also allows “some food in the morning and evening, observing—as far as quantity and quality are concerned—approved local custom” (Paenitemini
Chapter 3, III. 2).
Fasting (and abstinence, which is a form of fasting) dates back to the Old Testament. There are about 40 references to fasting in the Old Testament and about 20 in the New Testament. For example, all Jews were expected to fast (and still do) once a year on Yom Kippur,
the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:27-28). Both Moses and Elijah fasted for 40 days (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9-10; 1 Kings 19:8). This year on Ash Wednesday, we hear the reading from Joel 2:12-18, where he exhorts the people to return to the Lord with “your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping and mourning”
and to “blow the trumpet; proclaim a fast”
. We also know that Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days (Matthew 4:1-2; Luke 4:1-2) and that the early followers of the Apostles dedicated themselves to prayer and fasting (Acts 12:25; 13:2-3; 14:23).
These were moments when people would go without food for spiritual reasons: to deepen their prayer, get closer to God, offer reverence and express a commitment to God, show repentance for their sins, resist the desires of the flesh, and show solidarity with the poor. Fasting has been a tradition of the Church since the time of the Apostles. Simply, it is because fasting is about self-denial and self-denial expresses our repentance. Also, self-denial makes us suffer a little allowing us to unite our suffering with that of Christ.
This is why Lent is a season of fasting.
If you are not sure what to do for this year’s Lenten penance, I see three categories of fasting and abstinence. Maybe these will give you ideas as to what you can take on:
1-Giving up things that we like but that are not generally good for us:
smoking, drinking alcohol, eating sweets, etc. These are more like “New Year’s resolutions”. Giving these things up is good for us and can be good for our spiritual life. During Lent we can also give up being extra critical, complaining too much, or being judgmental. We can also give up too much screen time or working too much. I would suggest that if this is what you do for Lent, you continue your fast after Lent as well. We shouldn’t be doing any of those things that are not good for us, even if we enjoy them.
2-Giving up things that are good for us, as an especially hard sacrifice:
Try cold showers, sleeping on the floor, not eating anything all day. These ascetic practices make us suffer a little, help us grow stronger, and help us “hunger” more for a deeper relationship with God. A monk friend of mine recently told me that it’s good to always be “a little cold, a little hungry, and a little tired”. A few years ago I wrote about doing a Eucharistic fast. I believe this would fall into this category. We deny ourselves of something good so that we can be in solidarity with others who are not as fortunate as we are: those who don't have beds, those who don’t have hot water (or any water), those who don’t have food, and yes, those who are not able to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. (Although I am not suggesting you give up receiving the Eucharist for Lent, you can read more on Eucharistic fasting in Deacon-structing Receiving Communion
3-Doing something that’s good for us that we don’t normally do and don’t feel like doing:
Volunteer at a food bank or soup kitchen; go to the Adoration Chapel every day or Holy Hour once a week; pray the Stations of the Cross weekly or the Angelus or Rosary daily; take up some spiritual reading. Donate a little extra to your favourite charity and give an amount that hurts a little. These are especially beneficial if you have to give up doing something else in order to do these things. They are especially beneficial if it’s a bit of a sacrifice to do them.
The Gospel of Matthew that we listen to on Ash Wednesday invites us to consider that self-denial is threefold: We pray; we give alms; we fast. Together with almsgiving and prayer, fasting will give your Lenten journey a deeper meaning. Make sure that your fasting is rooted in prayer and leads you to prayer; if your fasting leads you to save money, use that money to give to the poor. All three are connected.
Lastly, I can’t write about fasting without quoting the Prophet Isaiah:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
May these words put your fast into the right context: Only having bread and water for us is a huge sacrifice, but for millions of people around the world, it is an extraordinary luxury, especially if it is fresh bread and clean water! May your fasting this Lenten season be an emptying of yourself in solidarity with others, in union with Christ's suffering, in order to be filled by God.
Here are a few resources from our Canadian Bishops to help you in your Lenten journey.
Resources in Preparation for Lent
Celebrating the Season of Lent
From the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: Fast & Abstinence
And from our Archives: Perspectives Weekly: Fish on Fridays?
In every blog post, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: firstname.lastname@example.org