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There are generally two types of fasting. First, the total fast, which is the denial of food or drink prior to the receiving of a sacrament, for example, Holy Communion. The second type of fast is of abstinence, a more general and personal fast to help one become more disciplined and self-controlled.
How did fasting become such an important means of preparing for the Eucharist and learning virtue? Christian fasting is revealed in interdependence (depend on each other) between two events in the Bible: the 'breaking of the fast' by Adam and Eve; and the 'keeping of the fast' by Christ during the beginning of his ministry. Adam and Eve, rejected a life dependent on God alone for one that was dependent rather on "bread alone."
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. In addition, Fridays during Lent are obligatory days of abstinence. For members of the Latin Catholic Church, the norms of fasting are obligatory from age 18 until age 59. When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal. Two smaller meals may also be taken, but not to equal a full meal. The norms concerning abstinence from meat are binding upon members of the Latin Catholic Church from age 14 onward. Members of the Eastern Catholic Churches are to observe the particular law of their own sui iuris Church.
A Reflection on Lenten Fasting:
If possible, the fast of Good Friday is continued until the Easter Vigil (Holy Saturday night) as the "paschal fast" to honor the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus, as well as to prepare ourselves to share more fully in his Resurrection. Christ is the new Adam. At the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel of Matthew, we read, "When He had fasted 40 days and 40 nights, He became hungry." Hunger is that state in which we realize our dependence on something else. It is during this hunger that we all face the ultimate question, "On what does my life depend?"
Satan tempted both Adam and Christ, saying, "Eat, for your hunger is proof that you depend entirely on food that your life is in food. " Adam believed, ate and died. Christ said, "Man does NOT live by bread alone" (Mt. 4:4; Lk. 4:4). This liberates us from total dependence on food, on matter, on the world. Thus, for the Christian, fasting is the only means by which man recovers his / her true spiritual fortitude. In order for fasting to be effective, then, the spirit must be a part of it. Christian fasting is not concerned with losing weight. It is a matter of prayer and spirit, and because of that, true fasting may lead to temptation, weakness, doubt and irritation. In other words, it will be a real fight between good and evil. At times, we may find ourselves loosing this fights; however, the very discovery of the Christian life as "fight" and "effort" is an essential aspect of fasting.
Christian tradition can name at least seven reasons for fasting:
1. From the beginning, God commanded some fasting, because Adam and Eve broke the 'fast.'
2. For Christians, fasting is ultimately about fasting from sin.
3. Fasting reveals our dependence on God and not on the resources of this world.
4. Fasting is an ancient way of preparing for the Eucharist—the truest of foods.
5. Fasting is preparation for baptism (and all the sacraments)—for the reception of grace.
6. Fasting is a means of saving resources to give to the poor.
7. Fasting is a means of self-discipline, chastity, and the restraining of the appetites.
Q. Why do we say that there are forty days of Lent? When you count all the days from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, there are 46.
A. It might be more accurate to say that there is the "forty day fast within Lent." Historically, Lent has varied from a week to three weeks to the present configuration of 46 days. The forty day fast, however, has been more stable. The Sundays of Lent are certainly part of the Time of Lent, but they are not prescribed days of fast and abstinence.
Q. So does that mean that when we give something up for Lent, such as candy, we can have it on Sundays?
A. Apart from the prescribed days of fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and the days of abstinence every Friday of Lent, Catholics have traditionally chosen additional penitential practices for the whole Time of Lent. These practices are disciplinary in nature and often more effective if they are continuous, i.e., kept on Sundays as well. That being said, such practices are not regulated by the Church, but by individual conscience.
Q. I've noticed that restaurants and grocery stores advertise specials on expensive types of fish and seafood on Fridays during Lent. Some of my Catholic friends take advantage of these deals, but somehow I don't feel right treating myself to the lobster special on Fridays during Lent.
A. While fish, lobster and other shellfish are not considered meat and can be consumed on days of abstinence, indulging in the lavish buffet at your favorite seafood place sort of misses the point. Abstaining from meat and other indulgences during Lent is a penitential practice. On the Fridays of Lent, we remember the sacrifice of Christ on Good Friday and unite ourselves with that sacrifice through abstinence and prayer.
Q. I understand that Catholics ages 18 to 59 should fast on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday, but what exactly are the rules for these fasts?
A. Fasting on these days means we can have only one full, meatless meal. Some food can be taken at the other regular meal times if necessary, but combined they should be less than a full meal. Liquids are allowed at any time, but no solid food should be consumed between meals.