Friday, March 03, 2017 - Updated: 7:00 am
QUESTION: Do the traditional Lenten fast and abstinence rules still apply? And I wonder how that all got started and what’s its purpose?
ANSWER: It is important to distinguish between abstinence and fasting. Abstinence refers to not eating meat or meat products. Fasting usually implies not eating food for a certain period of time.
The Catholic Church requires abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all the Fridays of Lent. This law applies to those 14 years of age and older (this applies for life, there is no upper age limit). The norms on fasting are obligatory from ages 18 until 59.
When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal. Liquids — i.e. water and even milk and fruit juices — are permitted. It has always been understood that one’s health or ability to work should be considered in regard to the force of this obligation.
Fasting is a very ancient practice that frequently accompanied prayer or mourning. The law of Moses required only one day of fasting (the Day of Atonement). However, after the exile four additional days were added. Following the example of Christ (Matthew 6:16 and Mark 2:20, 9:29) and the apostles (Acts 13:2, 14:23 and 2 Corinthians 2:27), the early Christians fasted. Some ancient texts (e.g. Didiche) indicate that they did so on Wednesdays and Fridays.
For many reasons over the years local and universal customs altered this ancient practice. While Wednesdays were not universally observed in this country, some Catholics did so as a voluntary form of penance.
The changes that have taken place in the church regarding these matters were not intended to make things easier but to make these practices more personally meaningful. It was judged that the customs that had grown up over centuries had often become more external obligation than personal commitment.
The church has now established a set of “outside limits” for abstinence and fasting. However, each of us is also under a personal obligation. Jesus challenged us to take up the cross and follow him. Each one of us will have to account for the way in which we respond to that challenge. Fasting is one traditional way in which Christians have done so. Each one of us must accept that challenge and apply it to our own lives. Perhaps in applying it to our own lives we will need to add more than what is generally required.
For the Christian, carrying a cross is not an option. Choice as to which cross is a luxury given to some. Many do not need to ask questions about fasting and abstinence. They do not choose their crosses; such things are simply part of their daily existence. Perhaps alleviating that burden (and helping them carry that cross) might be an excellent place for us to begin thinking about the penance and fasting we do. Abstaining from certain foods is only the beginning. We must also look to how we use what we save from our fasting.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.