Sunday, February 19, 2012

Lent, Fasting, and Abstinence

It seems like it was only just the other day that we were celebrating Christmas, and now all of a sudden Lent is upon us – beginning with Ash Wednesday this week.
Lent is a forty day period of purification and penance in which we imitate our Lord Jesus Christ who, by fasting in the wilderness for forty days and overcoming the temptations of Satan, showed Himself to be the New Adam who remains faithful to the commandments of God, and so He ensures our salvation if we unite ourselves to Him and follow Him in the same obedience. The Catechism reminds us that “by the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert” – CCC # 540.
Catholics are bound by the precepts of the Church to observe the Lenten season as a time of penance and purification in preparation for the great celebration of Easter. This penance, to be real and meritorious, must first of all be interior; which then is expressed outwardly “in many and various ways.  Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others.” (CCC # 1434).
Broadly speaking, this means that during Lent, as we repent inwardly and grow closer to God, we should be showing this outwardly by things such as spending more time in prayer and Scripture. We should be more generous in giving of our time, talents, and possessions to others in need. And we must be prepared to sacrifice things that we enjoy, or even sometimes need, for the purpose of teaching us to rely more fully on God. How this looks will vary from person to person, depending on their own circumstances and commitments to God.
In addition to the above, the season of Lent itself begins and ends with a more specific and explicit kind of fasting. The beginning of Lent is marked by Ash Wednesday, which is a day of fasting and abstinence. Then, towards the end of Lent, we observe another day of fasting and abstinence on Good Friday. The season of Lent is drawn to a close with the Easter Vigil on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday, when we celebrate the glorious Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The observation of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as days of fasting and abstinence are also precepts of the Church, which means that as Catholics we are bound to observe them. So, in this regard, I thought that it would be a good idea to touch on what the Church means by the terms “fasting” and “abstinence” to remind us of our obligations as Catholics.

Fasting: To fulfil this obligation, Catholics are required to take in no more than one full meal and two small meals (which together make up less than the one full meal) on the relevant day of fasting. Only those aged between 18 and 59 years are required to fast. Obviously, this is a minimum requirement. Catholics who want to offer up a greater fast can observe a “bread and water” fast; or even an “absolute fast” where no food or fluid is taken in.
Abstinence: This refers to a complete refraining from eating of any meat. This requirement extends to those older than 14 years.

This means that on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, we are required to observe at least the minimum fast, and we are also to abstain completely from meat in any of the meals that we may eat during the course of the day.
One particular detail that many Catholics aren’t aware of is that Sundays are not included in the observation of Lent. This is because it is the celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection – which means that every Sunday is in effect “Easter Sunday”. Because it is the Feast of feasts, it trumps all fasts. Moreover, a simple calculation shows that the number of days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, minus the Sundays in between, equals forty days.
As a side note, many Catholics are probably not aware that ALL Fridays in the year are days of penance, in memory of the death of our Lord Jesus on Good Friday. In the past, this was strictly observed by each Friday also being a day of abstinence – or what was commonly called “fish Fridays”. Following Vatican II, the Church lifted the requirement for strict abstinence on Fridays; but she never lifted the requirement to observe every Friday as a day of penance. For this reason, the Church still recommends the practice of abstinence on Fridays; but where people choose not to abstain from meat, they are still required to perform another form of outward penance in keeping with the overall nature of Friday as a day of penance.
Another fast that all Catholics are required to observe is the Eucharistic fast – which means that Catholics are obligated to abstain from all food and drink (except for water and medicine) for at least one hour before receiving Holy Communion.

I know that there is a bit of information to digest here, especially for those Catholics who might not be aware of the Church’s precepts in this regard – and for some it might even appear “burdensome”. But I think that if we remember that this is something that we are doing out of love for our Lord in preparation for Easter, then we start to realise that everything we offer is but a drop in the ocean compared with the great price that Christ paid in offering Himself to us on Calvary as the once-for-all Sacrifice for our sins.

[Postscript: It was recently pointed out to me that, despite the Church's lifting of the strict requirement for abstinence on all Fridays of the year, Catholics are still obligated to abstinence on ALL Fridays during Lent.]

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