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Fasting & Abstinence
Next Wednesday, 17th February, is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is one of two days of fast and abstinence set down by the Church, the other being Good Friday.
The practice of fasting was recommended by Christ’s example and by his teaching. The Didache, a church order dating from the late first or early second century, mentions Wednesdays and Fridays as being regular fast days. Originally, fasting meant going without food completely for whole or part of the fast day.
In current Catholic practice, fasting means having only one full meal on a day. Smaller quantities of food may be eaten at two other meals but no food should be consumed at any other time during the day.
Abstinence is the practice of abstaining from the use of certain kinds of food. From early Christian times hermits practised abstinence. St Anthony and his followers, for example, abstained from all food except bread, salt and water. The Eastern Church continues the strict ancient rule of abstinence from meat, eggs, dairy products, oil and wine during the whole of Lent. Catholics were once well known for their practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays.
After the Second Vatican Council the often complicated rules concerning fasting and abstinence were simplified while the continuing need for such practices was re-emphasised. The use of other forms of penance, particularly works of charity or piety, was also encouraged.
The present laws took effect in 1966. The law of fasting applies to people from 18 to 59 years old. Everyone aged 14 years and older is bound by the law of abstinence from meat.
The spirit of the law may invite us to extend the fast to things other than food – text messaging, surfing the net, gambling or gossiping. The minimum fasting requirements make most sense when they are combined with prayer and almsgiving. These age-old disciplines reflect our most fundamental concerns: our relationship with God (prayer), with our bodies (fasting) and with others (almsgiving).
The Christian practice of fasting and almsgiving is not an ascetical performance or some form of self-imposed penitential punishment but aims at leading us to interior conversion. Turning our hearts more toward God and less toward food helps make us more disciplined and more charitable. Fasting at certain times helps us to keep, or to rediscover, mastery over our instincts. We fast in order to share our time and our treasure with an attitude of love towards God and others.
In addition, the practice helps us imitate the example of Jesus who fasted for 40 days in the desert in preparation for his ministry and provides a means of expressing our common repentance.
The season of Lent is our annual invitation to grow in awareness of our spiritual hungers. Together with those preparing for baptism, we join in outward signs of our inner conversion.
The sixth-century Rule of Benedict still holds true: "During these days of Lent ….. let us all deny ourselves some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing" (Chapter 49).