Days of Fast and Abstinence

Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fast and abstinence.
The practice of fasting was recommended by Christ, both by example and by teaching. The Didache, a church order dating from the late first or early second century, mentions Wednesday and Friday as being regular fast days. Originally, fasting meant entire abstinence from food 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 - television or computer games, 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 purpose of fasting and abstinence is not to punish but to teach us a detachment from whatever may keep us from God. Turning our hearts more toward God and less toward food helps make us more disciplined and more charitable. In addition, the practice helps us imitate the example of Jesus who fasted for 40 days 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).

Elizabeth Harrington