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The Meaning of Fasting and Abstinence

In Born Again, Catholicism, Christianity, Faith, Food, God, Holidays, Jesus, Liturgy, Prayer, Religion, Sacraments, Spirituality, Tradition on February 6, 2012 at 21:52

We deny ourselves food that we may be filled with the Bread of Life; so that, being hungry, we may be filled with good things…

In less than two weeks, Ash Wednesday (February 22) and Clean Monday (February 27) will have come, on which days Latin and Eastern Catholics will begin the commemoration of Great Lent, when we prepare to commemorate the suffering and death of Christ our Lord and to celebrate His glorious resurrection. Alongside prayer and almsgiving, the members of the one true Church practice are enjoined to observe the mortification appropriate to their condition and state of life. Among the various forms of mortification, the laws of the Church both command and commend the practice of fasting, the reduced intake of food, and abstinence, the avoidance on certain days of certain categories of food.

But why should believers in Christ practice fasting and abstinence? What do these customs mean?

Fasting and abstinence 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 voluntarily 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 (see I Corinthians 12:12-14); so that, 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 I Corinthians 10:17) as St. Paul points out (see again I Corinthians 12:12-14).  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)

In recognition of the Real Presence of our Lord, St. Paul warned the Corinthians against defiling 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” (I Corinthians 11:29).

This served as the foundation for the law against receiving communion with unabsolved mortal sin (see I St. John 5:16-17). The Church also required 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). 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 good2, 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 Church that fasting and other devotions are to be practiced together with works of justice and mercy3:

“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 as one whole, 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 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).

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 ordained fasting and abstinence for Christians.

May God bless us all.


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.

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  1. The orthodox tradition mentions the purpose of fasting with the image of the condition of paradise. Man should fast as to come closer to the original state for which God created man. According to tradition Adam and Eve didnt eat meat. True fasting is to come closer to God through the attempt to live in this original state of innocense.

  2. Thank you for the comment, sir, I’ll look into that position on fasting. And I wonder if it may cohere with the position of the 13th century disciples of Augustine, who postulated that the primal state was authentic human nature.

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