Fasting and Abstinence: The Season of Lent

"We adore you O Christ and we praise you because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world!" -- St. Francis

"Dust you came to dust you will return," "reject sin and receive the Gospel" -- Ash Wednesday

Lent is a season of preparation for the coming and remembrance of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus on Easter Sunday. We begin this season of Lent, forty days prior to Holy Week and Easter, in remembrance of our Lord's fasting for forty days in the desert, the forty days of the flood, and the forty years of the Hebrews wandering in the desert to the promised land. This is a special time of deep inner repentance of our sins and inner renewal as well as our acknowledgment of our utter dependence on God our Creator and his love for us (John 4:9-10). This is a time to realize that apart from Jesus we can do nothing because he is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). We realize how much Jesus loves each and every one of us, a love that went to the cross for our sin, that destroyed our death by rising on Easter morning. He has given us redemption and made possible our eternal salvation to those who follow Him. We share in his suffering and those of the whole world who are oppressed, poor, hungry, sick and in need, by self-denial and by charity (Matthew 16:24; 25:31-46).

We begin the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday and receive blessed ashes on our forehead in the sign of the cross (Jeremiah 6:26). As the priest places the ashes on your forehead he says, "Dust you came and to dust you will return" or "reject sin and receive the Gospel." This is to remind us that life is short and temporary in this world and that our time spent here should be used in following God's will for us so that we may receive everlasting life with him in heaven (Matthew 11:21; John 3:16). They also remind us that we will soon be renewing our baptismal promises at Easter. The ashes come from burnt palm leaves from the previous years Palm Sunday Mass which takes place the Sunday before Easter as a remembrance of our Lord Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11). The ashes are also an outward sign of our inner conversion of our hearts to our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Church in her wisdom has given us a way of sharing in this wonderful season through prayer, fasting, repentance, renewal, alms-giving as well as special days of remembrance of our Lord's Passion, Death and Resurrection. She gives us Holy week which starts on Palm Sunday in remembrance of our Lord's triumphant entry into Jerusalem followed by Holy Thursday to reflect on our Lord's Last Supper and institution of the Holy Eucharist as well as his agony in the garden and betrayal of Judas (Matthew 26). Then we participate in Good Friday in remembrance of our Lord's crucifixion and death on the cross for our sins (Matthew 27). Followed by Holy Saturday, a day to remember and reflect upon our Lord's death. Later on that Saturday evening at the Easter vigil Mass after sundown we celebrate Jesus' victory over death by his resurrection and welcome the newly instructed into full communion with Jesus' Church and the body of Christ. The new faithful are baptized (if not already) and confirmed by the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4, 8:14-17; Luke 24:49) during this special and most holy Mass on Saturday night. We continue to celebrate our Lord's victory over death on Easter Sunday (Matthew 28). What a beautiful way to remember our Lord Jesus and enter into the mystery of his Passion, Death and Resurrection.

In preparation of these events the Church -- by her authority of the keys given to Peter (the first Pope and Vicar of Christ) to permit or forbid and lead Jesus' one Church (Matthew 16:18-19, 17:21, 18:17-18; Acts 15:28-29) -- obligates us to practice Abstinence and Fasting. Abstinence from meat is to be observed by all Catholic Christians age 14 years old and older on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and on all the Fridays of Lent. In addition, by special permission from the holy Father, the Catholics in the United States are to either abstain from meat or do some other form of penance on all other Fridays of the year outside of Lent since Fridays are recognized as penitential days (1983 Canon 1250). Fasting is to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday by all Catholic Christians who are 18 years of age but not yet 59. Those who are bound by this may take only one full meal. Two smaller meals are permitted if necessary to maintain strength according to one's needs, but eating solid foods between meals is not permitted.

The Biblical and Spiritual Understanding of Prayerful Fasting and Abstinence

Fasting and abstinence is a prayerful form of self-denial and discipline. It is another means to union with God. Catholics deny themselves food, drink, sleep or comfort, not because the body is evil or demands punishment but:

(1) Fasting and Abstinence is a form of prayer of petition to God.

"Now I rejoice in what I suffered for you, and fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's affliction, for the sake of his body which is the church" (Colossians 1:24). This is not to say that Jesus' sacrifice was not complete or that we add to his cross. This passage means that because of the cross we can unite our sufferings to the cross of Christ for the sake of others in the world who reject Jesus or do not know him, that his grace may help them to have a relationship with him and be freed from enslavement to sin, self and worldly ways. "Some demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting" (Matthew 17:21).

(2) Fasting and Abstinence helps to remind us of God's goodness and of our utter dependence on him.

(3) To detach ourselves temporarily from some good things of the world in order to focus more fully on God and to hear him speak to us more clearly and to unite our will with God's will for us.

(4) Additional Scriptures for Fasting and Abstinence are Mark 2:18-19; Acts 13:2, 14:23; 2 Corinthians 11:27; Matthew 17:21; 1 Corinthians 9:27; 1 Samuel 7:7-16; 1 Kings 21:25-29; Joel 2:12-13.

Preparation for Easter, Jesus' Passion, Death and Resurrection includes a time of inner-renewal, penance, and turning away from sin. We do this during Lent in a special way but also throughout the whole of the year. During Lent we renew our baptismal promises at the Easter Vigil Mass and re-live the experience of dying and rising with Christ (Romans 6:3-4). We also welcome new members into full communion with Jesus' Church.

Finally, acts of penance without true inner spirit of renewal are lifeless. True sorrow for sin is necessary for true conversion and an individual assent to having a living faith-filled relationship with Jesus. To share Christ's cross is to be freed by him ever more fully from the consequences of the fall of man (Adam and Eve's original sin). To share in Jesus' suffering is to share in his glory (Romans 8:17; Matthew 16:24). Prayer, charity, giving alms or money to those in need is also involved in penance.

All acts of Penance are part of the total conversion called for by Baptism and the total renewal in Christ. God is more important than food and other earthly things. We fast to share in the pain of those who do not have enough to eat. On Friday, the day Christ sacrificed his life for us sinners, we make this small sacrifice to discipline ourselves (1 Corinthians 9:27) and to overcome our sinful tendencies, that we might be more fully joined to Jesus and to the world's hungry and deprived all for His Glory. 

"I have decided to follow Jesus. Though none go with me still I will follow. The cross before me, the world behind me. Will you come now and follow Jesus?" -- Stations of the Cross

Marco A. Fallon

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