“Fasting and Abstinence”
Adapted from D. D. Emmons at “Simply Catholic”
Why fast and abstain?
Pope Clement XIII in 1759 said that “penance also demands that we satisfy divine justice with fasting, almsgiving and prayer and other works of the spiritual.” The purpose of our fast is to not become physically weak or lose weight but to create a hunger, a spiritual void that only Christ can fill; in fasting from the heart, we express our love of God and acknowledge our sinfulness. Though unworthy, we pray our sacrifices will be acceptable to the one who suffered and gave his life blood for us.
Every Ash Wednesday we hear from the prophet Joel (2:12-14): “Yet even now — oracle of the Lord — return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, weeping and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.” It is not our clothes but our hearts we need to rend in reflecting our sorrow. Our fast is not for man but for God.
Fasting and abstinence are Church-imposed penitential practices that deny us food and drink during certain seasons and on certain days. These acts of self-denial dispose us to free ourselves from worldly distractions, to express our longing for Jesus, to somehow imitate his suffering.
In the Old Testament, God told Adam and Eve not to eat (abstain) from the Tree of Knowledge (Gn 2:17). Queen Esther (Est 4: 15), in a successful attempt to save the Jews, ordered a three-day fast for herself and her court. The Book of Jonah describes how the people of Nineveh fasted and were saved from God’s wrath (3:4-10).
Jesus set the example for our fasting when he went into the desert and fasted for 40 days and 40 nights (Mt 4:1-11). His entire life involved suffering and self-denial. In Mark 2:18-20, Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ accusation that his disciples do not fast: “As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.” Once Jesus was not with them, the Apostles did fast and advocated fasting to new Christians as evidenced in the books of Acts and the Epistles.
Abstinence and fasting are required on both Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On those days, one full meal is allowed along with two other smaller meals. Catholics bound by the law of abstinence include everyone age 14 and over; the law of fasting includes individuals age 18 through the beginning of their 60th year.
This week’s FORMED.org talk recommendation: Bible Study: The Gospel of Mathew