I wanted to start out not just “deaconstructing” Lent but more so with a reflection on Lent, in order to help us understand the meaning of Lent. But in the last week I’ve had so many questions about fasting and abstinence and about what we can do and can’t do in Lent that I would like to address some of these issues first.
Lent seems to be the one time of the year when Catholics get legalistic about our faith. “Can I eat meat today?” is a question I get all the time. A friend who just moved to Canada asked me if in Canada it was required to not eat meat on Fridays. Another person asked me if pork was considered red meat. Add to that the confusion between the difference between fasting and abstinence ("isn't fasting a kind of abstinence?" is another question I get asked).
To my knowledge, the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not say anything about fasting or abstinence as it pertains to the Lenten season except in the context of “the Precepts of the Church” (what the Baltimore Catechism called “the Commandments of the Church.”)
“The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbour.” (CCC#2041 emphasis my own)
The fourth precept has to do with fasting and abstinence. The Catechism says that this precept, “ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart." (CCC#2043)
The “rule” regarding fasting and abstinence is in Canon Law (again, all emphasis is my own):
Canon 1249 - The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.
Can. 1250 - The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.
Can. 1251 - Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesdayand Good Friday.
Can. 1252 - The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.
Can. 1253 - The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.
Canon Law is very clear that each Episcopal Conference has the final word on the practice that is to be observed in a particular country. In Canada, the obligation is that we should fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and that every Friday in Lent is a day of fasting. On top of that, Fridays are days of abstinence from meat, but Catholics may substitute special acts of charity of piety on this day. (From the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops)
It’s clear to me, first, that from these paragraphs, there is no distinction or definition of what “abstinence” and “fasting are.” (I’ll get back to this later)
A few other things that I take from these paragraphs from the Catechism and the Code of Canon Law (and let me make clear that I am not a Canonist, I am a Deacon and so I tend to take the Pastoral bend on all these issues):
- The Catechism calls these Precepts “positive laws." In my book we shouldn't look at them as “laws”; that’s why they are “positive laws.” It may not be completely appropriate to call them suggestions or guidelines, but the bottom line is that we shouldn't follow them because they are laws; we follow them because of love. You can’t legislate love. The point of these precepts is “to grow in love of God and neighbour.”
- Because of love, we are bound to do penance each in our own way. That is key. As with the Liturgy, the Church has us do certain things at the same time or in the same way “in order for all to be united (…) by some common observance…” This is why in every Church we have the same readings at Mass; why we all stand and sit and kneel at the same times during Mass; why there are Liturgical Seasons; and why the Church suggests that every Friday of the year is to be considered a day of penance.
- Abstaining from meat (not just red meat) is a suggestion. We can abstain from any other food, if appropriate. If you are a vegetarian or live somewhere where all you eat is fish; giving up meat doesn’t make sense.
- Children can learn the meaning of penance by participating in the discipline of fasting and abstinence; the tradition of giving up something for Lent comes out of the need to teach children the importance of penance.
And now to the difference between fasting and abstinence: Canon 1251 defines abstinence as “abstinence from meat or some other food.” Abstaining means not eating that particular food. I have not however, found a definition of “fasting”anywhere in the Catechism or in the Code of Canon Law (maybe someone can help me out). The idea that the Church defines fasting as “one meal a day, and two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal in quantity” is from the Third Baltimore Catechism
Baltimore Catechism #3
Q. 1337 What do you mean by fast-days?
A. By fast-days I mean days on which we are allowed but one full meal.
Q. 1338. Is it permitted on fast days to take any food besides the one full meal?
A. It is permitted on fast days, besides the one full meal, to take two other meatless meals, to maintain strength, according to each one's needs. But together these two meatless meals should not equal another full meal.)
[Maybe someone who knows more can clarify if this definition of fasting comes from anywhere else in Church teaching.]
Growing up I was taught that fasting is not eating at all. Some people eat only bread and water on the days they fast. If the least you can do is one full meal and two smaller meals, then that’s the best you can do – I would suggest that if you are truly going to fast, then don’t eat anything (water is OK). Based on who you are, what your circumstances are, I suppose you can choose the appropriate balance between these two. (For a really good reflection on fasting, read or watch Fr. Rosica's Reflection for Ash Wednesday
But don't get me wrong. I am not saying that we don’t have to fast or abstain. What I am saying is that these are disciplines to help us in our spiritual journey. We don’t observe them because they are laws. Fasting and Abstinence are not ends in themselves.
If you tend to have a legalistic approach to giving up meat on Fridays of Lent (or to any aspect of our Faith), I think you’re missing the point. Lent is a time when we are supposed to get rid of the stuff that gets in the way between us and God. Fasting, prayer and alms-giving are disciplines that help us focus on what’s essential. Jesus went into the desert because in the desert is where we have the bare minimum; we get rid of the stuff we don’t need, the extras, so we can focus on the essentials (which may mean not just giving stuff up, but also doing things you don't normally do); so we can focus on our relationship with God.
Isaiah tells us:
Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? This, rather is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own." (Is 58:6-8)
It’s not about eating meat or not eating meat. You should give stuff up; and it should be a sacrifice; it should hurt a little – if you can’t come up with anything better or that is specific to where you are in your spiritual life, then the Church suggests giving up meat on Fridays (and so we can be united in our penance). But maybe you need to come up with something else that will help you specifically, get closer to God.
Besides, we should be focusing on our relationship with God all the time – this is why Canon 1250 says that every Friday
of the year is a penitential day. I would add that prayer, fasting and alms-giving is a year-round discipline. Remember Psalm 51: “You do not delight in sacrifice; The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart.”
If you’d like to explore these ideas further, take a look at a Weekly Edition of Perspectives panel we had on Fasting and Abstinence and come back next week so we can begin looking at what Lent really is.
CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review