“Then,” says the gospel of Matthew, “Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights and afterwards he was hungry.” (4:1-2). This is one of several references to “fasting” in the Bible. Not as rigorous as the Ramadan fast, the Lenten fast for Catholics traditionally meant eating one full meal, plus two smaller meals on each of the forty days of Lent. No food is eaten between those meals. Today, the requirement to fast in this manner is limited to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Catholics are also required not to eat meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent, unless a solemn feast falls on a Friday, in which case eating meat is acceptable.
Most people understand that “fasting” is different to “dieting” and that fasting is not just, not eating, but making that choice freely. Some wouldn’t think of not eating on purpose. Among those who fast, the reasons vary. More than a few do so in order to lose weight. Others fast or diet because they believe it promotes good health. Others fast for religious reasons. Muslims, for example, fast annually during the month of Ramadan. Hindus also fast for Divali and pujas.
The only similar, Church-wide, fast for Catholics happens during Lent, the 40 days prior to Easter when we celebrate the ultimate mystery upon which our faith is based, the Resurrection of Christ. The tradition of a Lenten fast goes back to at least the fourth century, but its inspiration goes back even further. Fasting among Christians during the 40 days of Lent goes back to Jesus himself.
Jesus does not say how the Father will repay a person for fasting, but we may assume that it will be a spiritual benefit, much like the benefit of prayer itself. One thing that is certain about our Catholic tradition of fasting: We do not fast out of some hidden conviction that there is something bad about food or the pleasures of eating a good meal. On the contrary, the Lenten fast is likely to renew our appreciation for the goodness of these very things.
Fasting as a spiritual discipline has always been part of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but not for its own sake. For the scriptures, fasting is a way to cultivate a deeper intimacy with God and a more just and caring relationship with others, especially those with whom we live and work most closely. From a spiritual perspective, fasting is a way to express and strengthen our priorities and for Christians that means living for God and neighbour. If we are serious about putting others ahead of our own interests sometimes we may well have to do without satisfying ourselves for a bit. In addition to observing the regular fast and abstinence, consider the old Catholic custom of “giving up” something extra – such as sweets, coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, or television. A great alternative to the regular fast is to practice extra acts of charity and/or give more time to prayer, attend daily Mass or pray the Rosary each day of Lent.
The Church’s Code of Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church state the nuts and bolts of fasting and the Lenten requirements. Abstinence is to be observed on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent, unless a solemnity – such as the feast of the Annunciation or the feast of St Joseph – should fall on a Friday, in which case fasting isn’t required.
Fasting during Lent is required only between the ages of 18 and 59. Catholics may be excused from observing any of these rules for medical reasons such as pregnancy, hypoglycemia, etc, or the demands of doing hard physical labour. On the other hand, one may suggest, with regard to the age limit of 59, that a good many Catholics over this age are perfectly capable of observing the fast, so they may want to do so even if they are not technically obligated.
Notice that Catholics do not just fast during Lent; we also “abstain”. The details of abstinence are summarised from the Code of Canon Law: Abstinence means not eating meat from either mammals or fowl, including soup or gravy made from meat. Eating fish is allowed, however. Abstinence is to be practiced on all Fridays during Lent, including Good Friday and also Ash Wednesday. The law of abstinence is for those who have attained the age of 14, until the age of 59.
Finally, given that these rules are not ends in themselves and charity always triumphs over Lenten regulations, there is no need for a legalistic attitude to the rules of fasting and abstinence. If you are invited to a dinner at which meat is served, you should keep quiet and eat the meat. In other words, use common sense depending on the circumstances. Have a blessed Lent! – Archdiocesan Catechetical Office