For thousands of years people of all cultures and religions have embraced fasting as a discipline to atone for sin, ward off evil, or obtain spiritual favors. During Lent Catholics are encouraged to embrace some or all of these customs such as fasting, extra prayer and almsgiving as part of our tradition. Where did these ideas come from and how are they relevant to modern Christians?
In his book Perfectly Yourself: 9 Lessons for Enduring Happiness, author Matthew Kelly writes, “Our level of discipline and self-control significantly affects the level of happiness we experience in this life.” Judaism, our spiritual ancestor, embraced fasting from its earliest days. Moses fasted for 40 days and 40 nights on Mt. Sinai before receiving the 10 commandments. Similar fasts are noted throughout the Old Testament. So it is no surprise that the earliest Christians embraced fasting as a means of ridding themselves of unhealthy attachments to earthly things, and as a preparation for baptism, which, from the earliest days, was included as an integral part of the Easter liturgies.
Fasting, while it may seem to be restrictive, is actually a path to freedom. “(Fasting) reverses self-destructive behaviors in the past which weakens our ability to choose what is good, true and right,” writes Kelly. Fasting is not just about food. Fasting is how we can jettison materialism, self-indulgence, selfishness, hedonism and all the other trappings of modern life that distance and distract us from God.
Fr. Troy Schneider of Holy Family Cathedral in Orange says fasting can mean many things. For someone who enjoys shopping, it might mean staying away from the mall, or not driving as much, avoiding television or the Internet. “The Friday fast from meat forces our consciousness to a higher level. With food so abundant in our culture, to start the day resolving to not eat meat as a small sacrifice for God reminds us that God is our real sustenance. Without Him we are nothing,” says Schneider. And what does God get out of it? “God gets our attention through the fast and other traditions that put our focus, heart and soul in front of him.”
In the year 325, the Council of Nicaea established a 40-day Lenten season of fasting beginning on a Sunday. However, some say to straighten out the math for the 40-day fast, 6th century Pope Gregory I established the first day of Lent on a Wednesday, now known as Ash Wednesday. Sundays have always been excluded from the 40-day count as they celebrate the Resurrection and therefore are not a day for fasting — a reference to MT 9:15 “Jesus answered them, ‘Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.’”
Since Vatican II, the fast and abstinence laws have been simplified to include only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, plus abstention from meat on Fridays during Lent. As to why Catholics abstain from meat, there are several explanations. One is that abstaining from meat is in reverence for the “Blood of the Lamb” shed for our sins, so we abstain from eating warm-blooded mammals. This explains the fish on Friday tradition. Fish have always been symbols of Jesus, recalling the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
“Giving up something isn’t the point. Why we fast is what is important. When we do something specifically for God, we turn towards Him,” says Schneider. Since the time of the Apostles, that is where the grace and the blessings of the Lenten season reside.