Fasting and Abstinence
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Matthew 4:1-2: Then Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards he was hungry.
Matthew 17:17-20: And Jesus rebuked him, and the devil went out of him, and the child was cured from that hour. Then came the disciples to Jesus secretly, and said: Why could not we cast him out? Jesus said to them: Because of your unbelief. For, amen I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain: Remove from hence hither, and it shall remove: and nothing shall be impossible to you. But this kind is not cast out but by prayer and fasting.
In the time of Christ’s Incarnation, practitioners of the Old Testament religion fasted or abstained on Mondays and Thursdays, but Christians opted to take Wednesdays (the day Our Lord was betrayed) and Fridays (the day Our Lord was crucified) as their penitential days.
Wednesdays and Fridays are still days of penance in most Eastern Catholic Churches (and among the Orthodox), but in the Roman Church, only Fridays, as memorials to the day our Lord was crucified, remain as weekly penitential days on which abstinence from meat and other forms of penance are expected as the norm. From the 1983 Code of Canon Law:
Can. 1249 All Christ’s faithful are obliged by divine law, each in his or her own way, to do penance. However, so that all may be joined together in a certain common practice of penance, days of penance are prescribed. On these days the faithful are in a special manner to devote themselves to prayer, to engage in works of piety and charity, and to deny themselves, by fulfilling their obligations more faithfully and especially by observing the fast and abstinence which the following canons prescribe.
Can. 1250 The days and times of penance for the universal Church are each 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 Wednesday and 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 Episcopal Conference can determine more particular ways in which fasting and abstinence are to be observed. In place of abstinence or fasting it can substitute, in whole or in part, other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.
Check with your local Bishops to see what you are bound to in your area. (Most traditional Catholics keep the Friday abstinence whether bound to by their local Bishops or not).
Other penitential days are listed in the table below. In this table, I give the fasting and abstinence practices for those who, out of personal devotion, want to keep the older practices given for the Universal Church in 1962. I also give the requirements for the Universal Church according to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which is what we are bound to.
Note that if any of the Fasting and/or Abstinence Days falls on a Sunday or a first class Feast outside of Lent, the requirements (except for the Eucharistic Fast) are totally abrogated. Those who need to be excused from the obligations of fasting and abstaining for medical reasons (pregnancy, the demands of extraordinarily hard labor, hypoglycemia, etc.) should speak with their priests for a dispensation. True charity trumps all law, and law exists to serve true charity.
To follow the traditional path, it might be easier to follow through on these disciplines if one just decides to fast and abstain on all the days mentioned. Remembering simply “one regular meatless meal, two small meatless meals, no snacks” is a lot easier than trying to memorize that chart.
Note that in following these disciplines designed to make one mindful of Christ’s sacrifice, to put the world into perspective, and to discipline the body, Catholics are not Pharisees, and true charity trumps every other laws. For example, if you are asked to a sit-down dinner at a Protestant’s house on Friday, and the host, unaware of Catholic practices, has worked hard to prepare a huge roast beef, eat the beef and shut up unless you believe this person, upon learning of the discipline, would, say, see your having eaten the meat as a sign of Catholic weakness or hypocrisy and it would cause scandal or something. In other words, weigh the situation and show the Love of Christ.
This same charity applies to yourself: if you truly forget that it’s “Fish Friday” and you find yourself eating a big, juicy steak, stop eating the steak and don’t beat yourself up over what you’ve already eaten. If the will isn’t involved, there is no culpability (though one should pay better attention next week).
Why should we fast?
We fast for many reasons: to imitate Christ, for penance, and to conquer ourselves among them. And we fast out of obedience: Our Lord and His Apostles tell us to. This last reason is described well by Pope Clement XIII in his “Appetente Sacro,” written in 1759. In this document, he exhorts his Bishops to explain to their flocks the reasons for fasting:
You will begin most appropriately, and with hope of the greatest profit, to recall men to the observance of the holy law of fasting, if you teach the people this: penance for the Christian man is not satisfied by withdrawing from sin, by detesting a past life badly lived, or by the sacramental confession of these same sins. Rather, penance also demands that we satisfy divine justice with fasting, almsgiving, prayer, and other works of the spiritual life. Every wrongdoing — be it large or small — is fittingly punished, either by the penitent or by a vengeful God. Therefore we cannot avoid God’s punishment in any other way than by punishing ourselves. If this teaching is constantly implanted in the minds of the faithful, and if they drink deeply of it, there will be very little cause to fear that those who have discarded their degraded habits and washed their sins clean through sacramental confession would not want to expiate the same sins through fasting, to eliminate the concupiscence of the flesh. Besides, consider the man who is convinced that he repents of his sins more firmly when he toes not allow himself to go unpunished. That man, already consumed with the love of penance, will rejoice during the season of Lent and on certain other days, when the Church declares that the faithful should fast and gives them the opportunity to bring forth worthy fruits of penance.
The Proper attitude when fasting
St. John Chrysostom, in this excerpt from Homily III of his “Homilies on the Statues,” summed it up well:
7. …We have this fast too as an ally, and as an assistant in this good intercession. Therefore, as when the winter is over and the summer is appearing, the sailor draws his vessel to the deep; and the soldier burnishes his arms, and makes ready his steed for the battle; and the husbandman sharpens his sickle; and the traveller boldly undertakes a long journey, and the wrestler strips and bares himself for the contest. So too, when the fast makes its appearance, like a kind of spiritual summer, let us as soldiers burnish our weapons; and as husbandmen let us sharpen our sickle; and as sailors let us order our thoughts against the waves of extravagant desires; and as travellers let us set out on the journey towards heaven; and as wrestlers let us strip for the contest. For the believer is at once a husbandman, and a sailor, and a soldier, a wrestler, and a traveller. Hence St. Paul saith, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers. Put on therefore the whole armour of God.” Hast thou observed the wrestler? Hast thou observed the soldier? If thou art a wrestler, it is necessary for thee to engage in the conflict naked. If a soldier, it behoves thee to stand in the battle line armed at all points. How then are both these things possible, to be naked, and yet not naked; to be clothed, and yet not clothed! How? I will tell thee. Divest thyself of worldly business, and thou hast become a wrestler. Put on the spiritual armour, and thou hast become a soldier. Strip thyself of worldly cares, for the season is one of wrestling. Clothe thyself with the spiritual armour, for we have a heavy warfare to wage with demons. Therefore also it is needful we should be naked, so as to offer nothing that the devil may take hold of, while he is wrestling with us; and to be fully armed at all points, so as on no side to receive a deadly blow. Cultivate thy soul. Cut away the thorns. Sow the word of godliness. Propagate and nurse with much care the fair plants of divine wisdom, and thou hast become a husbandman. And Paul will say to thee, “The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits. He too himself practised this art. Therefore writing to the Corinthians, he said, “I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” Sharpen thy sickle, which thou hast blunted through gluttony–sharpen it by fasting. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven; rugged and narrow as it is, lay hold of it, and journey on. And how mayest thou be able to do these things? By subduing thy body, and bringing it into subjection. For when the way grows narrow, the corpulence that comes of gluttony is a great hindrance. Keep down the waves of inordinate desires. Repel the tempest of evil thoughts. Preserve the bark; display much skill, and thou hast become a pilot. But we shall have the fast for a groundwork and instructor in all these things.
8. I speak not, indeed, of such a fast as most persons keep, but of real fasting; not merely an abstinence from meats; but from sins too. For the nature of a fast is such, that it does not suffice to deliver those who practice it, unless it be done according to a suitable law. “For the wrestler,” it is said, “is not crowned unless he strive lawfully.” To the end then, that when we have gone through the labour of fasting, we forfeit not the crown of fasting, we should understand how, and after what manner, it is necessary to conduct this business; since that Pharisee also fasted, but afterwards when down empty, and destitute of the fruit of fasting. The Publican fasted not; and yet he was accepted in preference to him who had fasted; in order that thou mayest learn that fasting is unprofitable, except all other duties follow with it. The Ninevites fasted, and won the favour of God. The Jews fasted too, and profited nothing, nay they departed with blame. Since then the danger in fasting is so great to those who do not know how they ought to fast, we should learn the laws of this exercise, in order that we may not “run uncertainly,” nor “beat the air,” nor while we are fighting contend with a shadow. Fasting is a medicine; but a medicine, though it be never so profitable, becomes frequently useless owing to the unskillfulness of him who employs it. For it is necessary to know, moreover, the time when it should be applied, and the requisite quantity of it; and the temperament of body that admits it; and the nature of the country, and the season of the year; and the corresponding diet; as well as varous other particulars; any of which, if one overlooks, he will mar all the rest that have been named. Now if, when the body needs healing, such exactness is required on our part, much more ought we, when our care is about the soul, and we seek to heal the distempers of the mind, to look, and to search into every particular with the utmost accuracy.
11. I have said these things, not that we may disparage fasting, but that we may honour fasting; for the honour of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices; since he who limits his fasting only to an abstinence from meats, is one who especially disparages it. Dost thou fast? Give me proof of it by thy works! Is it said by what kind of works? If thou seest a poor man, take pity on him! If thou seest an enemy, be reconciled to him! If thou seest a friend gaining honour, envy him not! If thou seest a handsome woman, pass her by! For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being pure from rapine and avarice. Let the feet fast, but ceasing from running to the unlawful spectacles. Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome countenances, or to busy themselves with strange beauties. For looking is the food of the eyes, but if this be such as is unlawful or forbidden, it mars the fast; and upsets the whole safety of the soul; but if it be lawful and safe, it adorns fasting. For it would be among things the most absurd to abstain from lawful food because of the fast, but with the eyes to touch even what is forbidden. Dost thou not eat flesh? Feed not upon lasciviousness by means of the eyes. Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speakings and calumnies. “Thou shalt not receive a false report,” it says.
1 During Embertides, the traditional practice is to revert to the older pattern of abstaining and fasting on Wednesdays in addition to Fridays. Saturdays are added, too, during these times.
2. Fridays are often called “Fish Fridays” not because Catholics must eat fish on those days, but because it’s permissible to eat fish, and eating fish has become a small-T tradition. It’s because of the Catholic practice of abstaining from meat that McDonalds restaurants sell fish fillet sandwiches. From a Standpoint magazine article, “Dechristianity by the numbers,” written by Damian Thompson:
In 1959, Lou Groen, president of the Cincinnati Restaurant Association, opened the first branch of McDonald’s in the area. Immediately he ran into a problem: sales of hamburgers dropped sharply every Friday. That was because the restaurant was in Montfort Heights, a suburb full of Catholics. Sixty years ago, no Mass-goer would have dreamt of eating meat on Fridays. So Groen, himself a practising Catholic, approached Ray Kroc, the control-freak founder of the McDonald’s franchise, who flew into a rage if unused ketchup sachets were thrown away and spent his last years spying on his local McDonald’s with a telescope.
Groen suggested that his branch should sell a non-meat sandwich, with fish instead of beef in the middle. That was a brave thing to do. Old Ray had an almost religious devotion to McDonald’s hamburgers, finding “grace in the texture and softly curved silhouette of a bun”. He didn’t want “my stores stunk up with the smell of fish”, but he agreed to an experiment. On Good Friday, 1962, Groen sold his fish sandwich alongside an alternative of Kroc’s own devising: the Hula Burger, which substituted a slice of pineapple for the beef. The Catholics of Montfort Heights chose fish over pineapple by an enormous margin. And so the Filet-O-Fish was born, and survives today—unlike the Hula Burger, which Kroc launched nationally and then had to kill off quietly.