omnibus omnia

Fasting and Abstinence in the Christian Life

In Catholicism, Christianity, Church, Food, God, Holidays, Law, Philippines, Prayer, Spirituality on February 12, 2013 at 21:00

When we pray, we must do so with our bodies as well as our souls, making our bodies “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God”… (As is our yearly custom, we are re-posting mutatis mutandis our post “Reminders for Lent: Fasting and Abstinence“)

Tomorrow, February 13, 2013, is Ash Wednesday, on which day the season of Lent will begin for Catholics of the Latin church.  (For most Catholics of the Eastern Catholic churches, the season of Great Lent will begin on Clean Monday.)  The two lungs of the Church, as Blessed Pope John Paul II had called western and eastern Christendom, consider Lent a penitential season, a time to repent of our sins, to prepare to renew the vows of our baptism, to meditate on the sufferings and death of Christ our Lord, and to prepare to celebrate the festival of His Resurrection.

In the devotional tradition of the Church, fasting (and abstinence) constitute one of the three pillars of Lenten observance, alongside prayer and almsgiving.  (For more, please see also our post on prayer.)  Thus, fasting and abstinence are mandated for Catholics of the Latin church on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstinence is generally mandated on other Fridays of the year.  (See our summary of the underlined norms on Part II below.)  But what is the purpose of these practices?  What is their relevance to our lives as Christians of the one true Church?

I. Understanding fasting and abstinence

Fasting, the reduced intake of food and drink, and abstinence, the avoidance on certain days of certain categories of food, are the most frequently used modes of mortification in Christianity.  (For more, please see our post on mortification.) And with good reason, for they are the bodily bass that makes tangible the soaring sopranos of prayer. For human beings are meant to be creatures of both spirit and body, both in this world and in the world to be ushered in when Christ returns. Therefore, when we pray, we must do so with our bodies as well as our souls, making our bodies “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God” (Romans 12:1), filling up in our flesh “that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ” (Colossians 1:24). We kneel and bow with our bodies, even as our souls acknowledge the kingship of God; we raise our hands, even as we lift up our hearts. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas,

“Man’s good is threefold. There is first his soul’s good which is offered to God in a certain inward sacrifice by devotion, prayer and other like interior acts: and this is the principal sacrifice. The second is his body’s good, which is, so to speak, offered to God in martyrdom, and abstinence or continency…”[1]

Hence the aptness of accompanying prayer with fasting and abstinence; for as food is one of our most basic bodily needs, to deny ourselves of nourishment is to express our fundamental allegiance to God. It shows that He is more important to us than even our earthly lives, that we would gladly sacrifice all to follow Him (see St. Matthew 16:24). Also, to deny ourselves of the food that God gave to us allows us to physically experience our emptiness without Him, reminding us of our total dependence on His goodness.

“[F]eed me with food convenient for me: Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the LORD?” (Proverbs 30:8-9)

As Moses reminded the people of Israel:

“And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Fasting and abstinence have especial import for Christians, because by grace we have a new and higher life, which is the life of Christ in His Church (1 Corinthians 12:13); and in some mysterious way, perhaps somewhat as we are human by having both soul and flesh, to partake of Christ’s life requires that we be baptized by water and the Spirit (St. John 3:5), and that we eat Him in the Blessed Eucharist (see 1 Corinthians 10:17).  In the frank words of our Lord that scandalized His listeners and gave His Apostles a chance to prove their faith:

“Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.” (St. John 6:53-56)

For these reasons, St. Paul warned the Corinthians against unduly indulging in, and otherwise abusing, the agape feast that, in antiquity, accompanied the Eucharist or, as the early Church called it, the Breaking of the Bread;

“For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Corinthians 11:29).

Over the centuries this led to the rule against receiving communion with unabsolved mortal sin (see 1 St. John 5:16-17), as well as the observance of the communion fast before receiving Christ in the Divine Liturgy of the Mass.

In the Scriptures, therefore, we see fasting being practiced to accompany solemn prayer (Ezra 8:23), to express sorrow (Psalm 35:13), to express repentance (Joel 2:12), and to prepare for a holy work (Acts 13:2); as indeed, our Lord Himself fasted for 40 days before starting His public ministry (St. Matthew 4:2), and He commended fasting as being necessary for spiritual warfare (St. Mark 9:29).  For we deny ourselves food to physically express our desire to be filled with the Bread of Life, and we empty ourselves so that, being hungry, we may be worthy to be filled with good things (see St. Luke 1:53).

Likewise, it may be noted, Christians were commanded to abstain even from foods that are morally lawful (i.e., food offered to idols, see Romans 14:14) in order to signify their allegiance to Christ and their abandonment of false gods (Acts 15:29) and as a necessary sacrifice for love of others (I Corinthians 8:13); for we practice abstinence not to condemn the nature of some foods, but because we acknowledge them to be good[2], and it is precisely their goodness that makes their sacrifice for the sake of God and others an act of devotion.

We should remember, of course, the command of the Christ and His Church that fasting and other devotions are to be practiced together with works of justice and mercy[3]:

“But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone” (St. Luke 11:42).

For when we rightly view the whole of God’s revelation in its fullness and totality, then we shall see that the sacraments (see St. John 3:5; 6:53-56), the obedience of the understanding (see II Corinthians 10:5), prayer and devotion (see St. Matthew 17:21), and works of justice and mercy (see St. Matthew 16:27; St. James 2:26) are to be practiced together as the four pillars of that lifelong conversion that is the Christian life.

“And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42).

II. Norms for Fasting and Abstinence

In sum, because they are fitting acts of love for the Lord our God and for our neighbor, as we learn from Divine Revelation, especially the witness of Christ our Lord and His Apostles, the one true Church has made fasting and abstinence part of her law. We are obliged in conscience to obey this law, mindful of the words of Christ to His chosen shepherds:

“He that hears you hears me: and he that despises you despises me: and he that despises me despises him that sent me.” (Luke 10:16)

Therefore, these general norms are to be strictly observed by Christians of the Latin church[4]:

a) On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Christians aged 18 years and older but below 60 years old must practice fasting[5]; that is, they must eat only one full meal, and while they may take some food in the morning and evening, they must observe as to quantity and quality the approved local custom[6].

b) On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Christians aged 14 years and older must abstain from meat[7], though they are not required to abstain from eggs or the products of milk or condiments made of animal fat[8]. Some other food may be abstained from as determined by the Episcopal Conference[9].

c) On all Fridays of the year, except those on which a solemnity falls, Christians aged 14 years and older must abstain from meat, though they are not required to abstain from eggs or the products of milk or condiments made of animal fat.[10] Some other food may be abstained from as determined by the Episcopal Conference[11].

d) On any day of the year that they receive communion, Christians must fast from all food and drink, except water and medicines, for one hour before receiving our Eucharistic Lord. The elderly, the ill, and those who are caring for them are exempt from this norm, as well as priests before they celebrate their second or third Mass of the same day.[12]

The foregoing rules on the discipline of Lent do not cover Eastern Catholics, who are subject to the rules prescribed by their Patriarchs and synods in accordance with their canons and liturgical traditions.  Also, the norms under letters (a) to (c) may be modified by the legislation of Episcopal Conferences and are subject to lawful dispensations by bishops, priests, and superiors[13].  Therefore, we need to inquire with the bishops of our countries to determine if they have enacted legislation changing the obligations under (a) to (c), as well as to ask what is the approved local custom regarding the Lenten fast. If no legislation has been enacted, then the foregoing general norms apply with undiminished force. Where there is some uncertainty as to the norms, then we should seek the guidance of our bishop, parish priest, or superior.

Note that these norms are just the minimum, and we may, subject to advice from our spiritual director, observe additional times and further measures of fasting and abstinence. We may also do well to remember to follow the law in good faith.  For instance, I submit that, when practicing abstinence, we should not then feast on permitted foods or eat them richly cooked, lest we follow the letter without “the spirit that giveth life” (2 Corinthians 3:6) and be judged for lying to God with our actions (see Acts  5:1-11). For fasting and abstinence are intended to unite us to our Lord Who emptied Himself of visible majesty for our sake (Philippians 2:6-8), and so we should accompany them with the observance of simplicity and, unless stricter austerities are permitted, of moderation (see Proverbs 30:8-9).

If you’d like to read further:

May God bless us all.

(All rights reserved.)


[1] Summa Theologica, 2a 2ae, q. 85, art. 3, ad 2

[2] See Pope St. Leo I, Sermo XLII, v. ll

[3] See Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution “Paenitemini“, February 17, 1966, chap. 2

[4] That is, those subject to the jurisdiction of the Pope as Patriarch of the West as well as Supreme Pontiff. In contrast, Eastern Catholics are under the jurisdiction of their own Patriarch, Catholicos, Archbishop-Major or Metropolitan-Major, subject to the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff. The Latin church should not be misunderstood as referring to the particular churches or dioceses of culturally Latin nations in Europe and the Americas.

[5] Code of Canon Law, canon 1251 (“The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year), in relation to canon 97 §1 (“A person who has completed the eighteenth year of age has reached majority; below this age, a person is a minor”). Note that this amends Paenitemini, under which the norm of fasting started to be binding at the age of 21 years

[6] Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution “Paenitemini“, February 17, 1966, III, 2

[7] Code of Canon Law, Canon 1251

[8] Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution “Paenitemini“, February 17, 1966, III, 1

[9] Code of Canon Law, Canon 1251

[10] Code of Canon Law, Canon 1251; Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution “Paenitemini“, February 17, 1966, III, 1

[11] Code of Canon Law, Canon 1251

[12] Code of Canon Law, Canon 919

[13] Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution “Paenitemini”, February 17, 1966, VI-VII; Code of Canon Law, canon 1253

  1. Thanks for posting. There’s so much information here. I grew up in Christian church, but we didn’t do Lent. I appreciate you making it so clear! I hope you find many blessings.

  2. You’re welcome; I’ve very glad it helped. God bless you.

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