“We keep from wines and meats, which we have enjoyed the whole year, so that at least for these few days we may live more in the Lord.”
When the Catholic faithful participate in the Lenten practices of fasting and abstinence, they’re not merely performing rote rituals that were dreamed up at some long-ago conference of cardinals and bishops. They’re entering into significant and deeply meaningful penitential traditions that predate Christianity, and that are as vital today as they were when Moses fasted for 40 days and nights at the time he was given the Ten Commandments.
Fasting—eating only one full meal a day—and abstinence—refraining from eating meat—are time-honored ways to do penance. They are a tangible method of asking forgiveness for sins and for demonstrating devotion to God. Even Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert after he was baptized.
Fasting is not a religious practice that is exclusively Catholic, or even Christian. Fasting “of some sort is observed by adherents of nearly every religion in the world,” writes Father Eugene Hemrick, an author of several books and the Director of Research for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “[It] is above all a religious act that puts people in better touch with God. It is a unique way of expressing praise, love, hope and faith in God, of keeping ourselves open to the Lord’s continual desire to fashion us in the image of Jesus Christ, into the complete human beings we were created to become.
“It is a way of responding to God’s persistent flirting to get our attention, of telling God we’re really serious about what we pray for.”
Catholics are called on to fast for only two days during Lent: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. However, they are called to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and every Friday during Lent. This practice also predates Christianity.
“We find evidence of this in several biblical passages such as the story of Daniel and his friend, who rejected meat offered to them by the king and chose to stick with vegetables,” wrote the late Father John Dietzen, a former board member and secretary of the Catholic Press Association. “From the beginning, it seems, Christians embraced some forms of abstinence, along with fasting as an ascetical practice. It was not that meat, or any other creature, was bad and to be avoided. Rather, the purpose was, among other intentions, to do penance, to share voluntarily in the sufferings of Christ and to assure control over the use of these good things so they would not begin to control us.”
That voluntary entrance (albeit on a much smaller scale) into the suffering of Christ is the overarching idea behind Lenten fasting and abstinence, but it should go beyond the simple ritualistic action of eating only one full meal and eschewing meat, says Pope Francis. True fasting, said the pontiff last March on the first Friday of Lent, means sharing goods with the needy.
“This is the charity of fasting that our Lord wants,” he said. “This is the mystery of the body and blood of Christ. It means sharing our bread with the hungry, taking care of the sick, the elderly, those who can’t give us anything in return.
“When I give alms, do I look into the eyes of my brother, my sister? Am I capable of giving a caress or a hug to the sick, the elderly, the children?”
Fasting makes sense, said Francis, “if it really chips away at our security and, as a consequence, benefits someone else, if it helps us cultivate the style of the Good Samaritan, who bent down to his brother in need and took care of him.”