Lenten Practices 1: Fasting and Abstinence


Fasting is an important Lenten practice–it’s one of the three pillars of Lent (the pillars are fasting, almsgiving, and prayer, all of which we will talk about over the coming week). But how many of us really understand it?

Let’s start at the top:

Fast (v): abstain from all or some kinds of food or drink, especially as a religious observance.

OK. So, as Catholics, we fast from food, in general, on two days: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Here are the directives (emphasis mine):

The law of fasting requires a Catholic from the 18th Birthday [Canon 97] to the 59th Birthday [i.e. the beginning of the 60th year, a year which will be completed on the 60th birthday] to reduce the amount of food eaten from normal. The Church defines this as one meal a day, and two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal in quantity. Such fasting is obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The fast is broken by eating between meals and by drinks which could be considered food (milk shakes, but not milk). Alcoholic beverages do not break the fast; however, they seem contrary to the spirit of doing penance.

Those who are excused from fast or abstinence Besides those outside the age limits, those of unsound mind, the sick, the frail, pregnant or nursing women according to need for meat or nourishment,  manual laborers according to need, guests at a meal who cannot excuse themselves without giving great offense or causing enmity and other situations of moral or physical impossibility to observe the penitential discipline.

So–one regular meal, two smaller meals that aren’t bigger than the main meal, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Generally, the idea is that you’re not going to feel full.

The body is not all. We fast for a few reasons:

1) It’s in Scripture:

Matthew 4:1-2: Then Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards he was hungry.

Matthew 17:17-20: And Jesus rebuked him, and the devil went out of him, and the child was cured from that hour. Then came the disciples to Jesus secretly, and said: Why could not we cast him out? Jesus said to them: Because of your unbelief. For, amen I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain: Remove from hence hither, and it shall remove: and nothing shall be impossible to you. But this kind is not cast out but by prayer and fasting.


2) It’s to train us to realize that our bodies are not all. We might want the Coke, or the hamburger, or the Twix bar, but you won’t die without it. What our body wants is not necessarily what it needs. We have to discipline our bodies.

3) It brings to mind those of us who do not have a enough to eat. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that nearly 870 million people–one in eight people–were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2010-2012. Almost all the hungry people, 852 million, live in developing countries, representing 15 percent of the population of developing counties. There are 16 million people undernourished in developed countries (FAO 2012). The 10 countries with the highest proportion of hungry people are:

  1. Burundi – 67.3%
  2. Eritrea – 61.3%
  3. Haiti – 49.8%
  4. Zambia – 43.1%
  5. Ethiopia – 37.1%
  6. Swaziland – 35.8%
  7. Democratic Republic of the Congo – 33%
  8. Tanzania – 33%
  9. Zimbabwe – 30.5%
  10. Guatemala – 30.5%

Those are heart-rending statistics. Fasting helps us be grateful for what we have–food abundance–and can help motivate us to relieve the hunger of others (we’ll talk for about this when we talk about almsgiving)

(World Vision photograph)

(World Vision photograph)

4) It reminds us to fast from other things–namely, sin. Here are some great writings about this (scroll down). This is also important to remember if you can’t physically fast for a lot of reasons (for years, pre-transplant, I couldn’t fast. People would’ve had my head, I was so undernourished). You can fast from gossip, from TV, from Facebook, from getting manicures. Whatever is a treat to you. You can also do this in addition to corporal fasting.

Abstinence means no meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all Lenten Fridays. Some dioceses have moved to reinstate abstinence from meat on all Fridays of the year. We do this as a sacrifice, although Fish Fries are awesome fun and not often a sacrifice! 🙂 And yes, lobster is fish–but that’s sort of going against the idea of simplicity and penance.

Be sure to plan some meatless Friday ideas for yourself and your family. Do you want to attend your parish fish fry? Operation Rice Bowl has some meatless recipes, one for each Lenten Friday, as well as stories and reflections from the country where the recipe originates.

Here , though, is a SUPER IMPORTANT NOTE: Don’t forget about the Eucharistic Fast! We are not supposed to eat an hour before Mass, to prepare ourselves for Holy Communion. There’s some “fudging” on what constitutes “an hour”, but I’m gonna go with an hour before Mass starts: so if it’s noon Mass, no eating after 11 AM. Medicines are permitted, of course, and food with those meds, if it’s required. So, if you aren’t doing this, or never were taught this–now you know! Fast before Mass!

2 thoughts on “Lenten Practices 1: Fasting and Abstinence

  1. Pingback: Lenten Practices 5: Almsgiving | Living Adventurously

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