There are few practices that seem as distinctively Catholic as fasting and, in particular, abstinence. Fasting may be broadly defined as partially or completely refraining from eating, while abstinence means more strictly refraining from particular types of foods altogether (e.g., meat and meat products). Fish on Fridays was, for many years, very much a part of the fabric of Catholic life. It is important to remember that the church, in the wake of the conciliar reforms of the 1960s, while allowing a relaxation of the abstinence laws on Fridays throughout the year, intended nevertheless that every Friday of the year be marked by some form of sacrifice or penance. The incipient season of Lent prompts some remarks on the history and theological significance of fasting and abstinence.
Perhaps the earliest post-biblical reference to fasting comes from the Didache, (c. 110 A.D.), a very early summary of Christian moral life and liturgical practice. In a very conscious effort to distinguish Christians from their Jewish roots, the Didache advised believers to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays (Monday and Thursday being days of fast in Judaism) — this is probably at the origins of the later practice of ember days and rogations days (days of fasting particularly associated with the time of harvest). Further, the Didache urges candidates for baptism, as well as the baptizer and any other member of the community who can, to fast for at least a couple of days prior to the celebration. This is remote origin of the Lenten fast, and this practice is advocated as well by Justin Martyr, (c. 155 A.D.), and Hippolytus of Rome (c. 220 A.D.). Each year during the season of Lent, the entire church is in solidarity with those preparing for Easter sacraments, and one of the most common expressions of this solidarity is the practice of fasting.
While fasting clearly can become a means of strengthening one’s will through self-discipline, it has always been something more than a mere solipsistic exercise in self-denial. An obscure second-century text entitled “The Shepherd of Hermas” makes fasting purposeful: in fasting, one is to deny oneself in order to become more generous to those in need. When fasting, the author suggests, it is appropriate to calculate what one would have spent on food and offer it to “a widow, an orphan, or one in need,” echoing the Old Testament idiom for the most vulnerable in society. Ideally, fasting places us in solidarity with those in need and prompts us to act on their behalf from our surplus. The slight annoyance we might feel at not enjoying some treat or in foregoing a meal is but a small twinge that reminds us from the inside out that there are many each day who would gladly feast of what we so blithely throw away. Fasting is fruitless if it simply makes us irritable or self-absorbed. It is a concrete means both of self-discipline (it’s always dangerous to see this as a demonstration of our moral or spiritual prowess) and a tangible reliance upon God’s grace and the growth in charity that it engenders, rather than as an end in itself.
John Chrysostom (+ c. 407), priest of Antioch and later patriarch of Constantinople, was deeply committed to what we would call today “social justice” — he had a vivid sense of the enormous disparity between rich and poor that existed in his day, and, living an austere life himself, preached continually on the moral responsibility of the “haves” to assist the “have nots.” Chrysostom saw fasting as part of a larger process, expressed in almsgiving but rooted in eucharistic communion. He repeatedly criticizes his congregations for their failure to reverence “Christ” as He lay in the gutters of Antioch — their respect for the eucharistic presence of Christ on the altar was not carried over to see Him in the poor. Fasting, issuing in almsgiving, was a practical extension of eucharistic communion. Fasting, then, is purposeful not only as a means of personal development, but also permits us more effectively to reverence Christ in the poor and needy, and as the natural expression and fruit of eucharistic communion. Pope Benedict, in his first encyclical, made it clear that the entire social mission of the church is rooted in Christ’s sacrifice, and any attempt at social activism dislocated from that source becomes fruitless and feckless.
It was not until relatively modern times, perhaps as late as the eighteenth century, that fasting and abstinence came to be distinguished. Before that time, fasting had always implied abstinence. In some places and at some times in the history of the church, abstinence involved more than simply refraining from meats: It often was understood to mean abstaining from wine, eggs, milk and other milk products (called lacticinia) as well. Today, the church’s fast days (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) are days of abstinence, though other days of abstinence (Fridays of Lent) are not necessarily fast days.
As we begin our Lenten observance, it is important to see the value and purpose of fasting and abstinence. They are means: means of heightening our awareness of those who go hungry, as well as our own sense of gratitude for what we so often take for granted, in addition to assisting us as we grow in discipleship, for it is not “by bread alone” that believers “live and move and have their being.” Further, particular days of fast should be seen as a way of sanctifying time, in much the same way that the Lord’s Day, Sunday, is treated as a special day in the course of the week dedicated in particular to praise of God for what He has done through Christ, His Son. As Christians, we profess that Christ is the Alpha and the Omega of human history, and so our sense of time should consequently be transformed; that is why we celebrate particular days as feasts, fasts, commemorations, etc. As believers, our sense of time and our pace of daily life are better formed by the church’s liturgical life than by Hallmark or the Wall Street Journal.
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