Now and forever. Amen.
Okay here we go. I'll be honest with you, I'm feeling pretty tired tonight. It was a long day at work, and I feel like I'm on the verge of a full blown head cold. So, please forgive me if I don't make any sense at times.
Continuing with the Lenten theme, and having said I would talk about prayer, fasting and resisting temptation, I will be talking a bit about fasting tonight, as indicated in the entry title. In particular, I will be looking at what fasting is, the different kinds of fasts we can engage in, a little bit about what we see about fasting in Scripture, and what the Church teaches about fasting, and what our obligations are under Canon Law.
Fasting and its types.
So what is fasting? On a basic level, to fast is to refrain from food and drink. This, naturally, leads to questions like, "how much do we refrain from?" and "for how long?" etc.. And in answering such questions, we'd be discussing the different types of fasts one can perform. And I'll do that, but first, I'd to speak a bit about why we fast.
A couple months ago, I picked up a great little book called "A Hunger for God: The Sacred Discipline of Fasting in the Orthodox Church," by Fr. Peter A. Chamberas (I tried to make this available through my sidebar bookstore, but apparently AddLibra doesn't carry it. If you're interested, you can purchase it here.) I'm just going to quote a portion of the back, because I think it's really smart:
- "Through Fasting the body is given the opportunity to participate directly in the process of purification, restoration and perfection of the human person... A bodily act of humility is the way to humility. A respectful and reverent bow of the body is a participation in the art of prayer and communion with God. It is not only the spirit of man that expresses the supplication of prayer, but also the shape and the external ethic of the body. As long as man is not yet in the state of perfection he will need the support of the soul and of the body to communicate with God. And here is where the long and difficult process of a spiritual and a physical struggle comes into play -- as an expression of our profound thirst and hunger for communion with God."
We see here that fasting is a participation in our own purification, restoration and perfection as human persons because it is both a spiritual and physical struggle undertaken in order to express and enter into a deep desire for God. Because it is a struggle and a discipline, it aids in our purification, as gold is purified through fire, by strengthening our wills against temptation to sin. Because it is painful, it may be offered as a penitential act, and as such it helps restore our relationship with God by participating in the redemptive act of Jesus' suffering on the Cross. And because it is an act which denies the natural desires of the flesh, it aids in the perfection of our natures wherein the spiritual principle has right authority over the material principle: an order that is disrupted by sin.
But this perfection isn't brought about simply through denial. Nature abhors a vacuum, as the saying goes. So, when you deny the flesh, you must replace that natural desire with something else. What else should replace it but a properly ordered desire for God? We endure physical hunger and thirst in order that we may express and enter into a deep hunger and thirst for God. It is in this rightly ordered desire that our desire for physical sustenance may be properly understood. Our bodies desire food and water because our souls desire communion with God. The gluttonous person is so because he is trying to fill a gap in his heart left by a lack of communion with God. But a person who is filled with God eats to keep his Temple healthy, for God's glory, not for his own satiation.
So we fast in order to arrive at this perfected state, and to make atonement for our sins, and to stave off temptation.
So how can we fast? There are different kinds of fasts. One kind that we are familiar with, but usually call it "abstinence" is to refrain from eating meat on certain days of the year. That's right, fasting may simply consist in refraining from certain types of food, rather than refraining from food altogether.
You may also refrain from all food for certain portions of the day, whether than means simply not snacking, and eating only at designated times of the day, or to refrain from whole meals, or even to refrain from all meals in a day, until a certain time, or from all meals altogether. Some fasts may consist in a certain set of days (i.e., a seven day fast), wherein you would refrain from certain amounts or kinds of foods for the set of days. In Islam, for example, the month of Ramadan is a period of fasting wherein one refrains from all food and drink until (I believe) 9pm.
So, guess what? If you gave up chocolate (or soda, or candy, etc.) for Lent, you're participating in a certain kind of Lenten fast! I myself have been practicing a Lenten fast this year, whereby I eat only a small breakfast, then refrain from food and drink (except for water) all day until supper time, when I have a regular meal. That, by they way, is the minimum requirement defined by the Church for certain fasting days during the year.
Fasting in Scripture.
I'm going to be honest with you, the occasions of fasting in the Bible are way too numerous for me to list here, that's how common a practice it was with the people of God. So, instead I'm just going to point to a few key passages.
First: Genesis 2:. You may be surprised to hear of an account of fasting so early on in Scripture. It's the second chapter for crying out loud! But it's true. It's actually the second command that God gives to Adam. The first is in Genesis 1:, when God commands man to be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth. It may even be argued that, though it appears second in Scripture, it is actually the very first command, and not the second. This is because in the first creation account (Gen. 1 basically), God creates man, both male and female, and commands them. However, in the second creation account, God gives this command to Adam before He creates Eve.
So what is the command? "But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat. For in what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death." It's a command to refrain from eating a certain kind of food. That's a command to fast! Indeed, God's very first (arguably) command to us is to fast! What does that say about fasting? I think it says a lot about its importance.
Second: Mark 1:. This is the account of Jesus' time in the wilderness in preparation for His ministry, when He fasted for forty days and forty nights. Because we spoke earlier about how fasting is an expression of our inner longing for God, I feel comfortable suggesting that when Scripture is using this formula of a forty day fast (like when Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights, twice, on the Mount of the Commandments), it is way of indicating deep communion with God. So, this is both a model for us to follow, and a statement about Jesus' deep union with the Father.
I would like to take this opportunity to correct myself. In my "Into the Desert" entry, I said that all four Gospels recounted Jesus' sojourn into the desert. This is, in fact, not true. Only the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) tell this story. John's Gospel does not mention this episode of Jesus' life. I apologize, please forgive me.
Third: Matthew 9:. This story, likewise, is also only recounted in the Synoptic Gospels, and absent in John's. Jesus is asked why Jesus' disciples do not fast, while the Pharisees fast often. Jesus responds that because the Bridegroom is present they do not fast. He attaches fasting to mourning, in this passage (how can they mourn when the Bridegroom is with them?). I haven't spoken of this, but fasting is an aspect of healthy mourning, but I don't want to focus on this. What I want to focus on is what Jesus says next: "But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast."
This is very important. Jesus doesn't question whether or not His disciples will fast. It's a given. This should, once again, point us to the importance of fasting. As a good Catholic, a good Christian, we must fast. Jesus expects it.
So what are our obligations?
Canon law prescribes the following Canons 1249-1253:
Days of Penance
- Can. 1249 The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.
- Can. 1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.
- Can. 1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
- Can. 1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.
- Can. 1253 The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.
So, penitential days are every Friday throughout the year (except Solemnities), and every day during Lent. During these days, a penitential act must be performed in accordance with the norms set forth by the local Episcopal Conference (conference of bishops). The two fasting days that must be observed by the universal Church, regardless of locality, are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, on which days you must both fast, according to Canon 1252, and abstain from meat.
In Canada, the Episcopal Conference holds only these two days (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) to be fasting days, but even if you don't fast or abstain on any Fridays, you must still perform some other penitential act. The United States Conference of Bishops have different rules, as do all the other nations throughout the world. If you aren't sure what your obligations are, ask your Parish priest, or if your conference of bishops has a website, you should be able to find the rules they have set forth there.