On Fasting and Abstinence

Do you wish your prayer to fly toward God? Give it two wings: fasting and almsgiving.--St Augustine

The Lord God ordained a single fast for the Hebrew nation. Apparently working from the idea that if one fast was good then multiple fasts would be better, the Jews added more and more fasts to their religious practice. Somewhere along the way, they lost the reason for fasting that God had intended. Has the Roman Catholic Church fallen into the same errors that caused Jehovah to send His prophets to address Jewish religiosity? This study will first examine Jewish fasting and then take a look at how some of the RCC ideas on fasting and abstinence compare to Scripture.

Fasting is frequently mentioned in Scripture, yet it doesn't seem to be a popular topic of conversation when Christians gather. When is the last time you heard a sermon on the subject? I suppose a lot of folks believe fasting to be a Jewish thing that is of no use to Christians. Some people may reject fasting because of their distaste for the excessive ascetic practices of certain Catholic organizations during the Middle Ages -- some of which continue to this day in that church. Certainly, our culture has had an effect on our attitude toward fasting and abstinence. After all, we are subjected to an unending barrage of advertising designed to convince us that we must eat three huge meals every day, along with plenty of between meals snacks. To fast or abstain from such gourmandizing would appear to be almost unpatriotic.

Fasting seems to be an integral part of just about every religion -- with the exception of Zoroastrianism. Proponents claim that fasting is not done to chastise the body, but simply to concentrate the mind on the occasion. However, fasting has been and still is being used for purification, mourning, penance, merit (for reward or power) or discipline (to develop moral control). The Roman Catholic Church is big on fasting and abstinence.

So, where did all this stuff about fasting come from? For that matter, what is fasting?

A fast is a deliberate self-denial of food and drink, usually for religious or ethical reasons.

A public fast is a great way to get attention. Mahatma Ghandi fasted 17 times in his struggle for India's independence from Great Britain. Every one of those fasts put him and his cause on newspaper front pages around the world.

In the United States, during the 1960s, civil rights workers and anti-Vietnam war protesters used public fasts to gain support and to advance their causes.

In 1981, the Irish Republican Army's Bobby Sands decided to make a political statement. He did not eat anything for 66 days. Bobby likely would have fasted longer, but he died.

Public fasts, popularly referred to as hunger strikes, sometimes work. People might begin to identify with the striker as a victim of oppression. This can result in a lot of really bad press for the target of the hunger strike and could even lead him to feel some responsibility for the harm the fast might be doing to the person fasting.

Hunger strikes are not the most common forms of fasting. A lot of people who fast do it for religious reasons. A religious person may fast to gain control over his body and its appetites, or to make a sacrifice to a deity in penance for some offense, or to focus his mind on God or prayer. Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and other religions have established dates or seasons for fasting.

Animists and followers of other primitive religions use fasting as a method for entreating spirits; out of fear that some foods are either dangerous or holy. Tribal priests may fast to create a physical state conducive to producing visions.

There are no prescribed fasts in the orthodox Protestant expression of faith. Protestant churches generally leave fasting to individual choice.

Over the years, religious fasting has become increasingly less common and the number of occasions to practice fasting have diminished.

Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and all Muslims must abstain from food and drink between sunup and sundown during the month of Ramadan.

"O you who believe, fasting has been prescribed for you as it has been prescribed for people before you so that you will (learn how to) attain Taqwa" (Qur'an, al-Baqarah, 2:183) (taqwa : to cleanse or purify the heart and the soul.}

Jews fast for many reasons. Most branches of Judaism still observe a Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) fast. This is the only one of their fasts that was commanded by the Law. Jews point to passages in Scripture as the bases for the Yom Kippur fast. None of these verses specifically refer to fasting, but the references to afflicting one's soul are understood to have that meaning.

"And [this] shall be a statute for ever unto you: [that] in the seventh month, on the tenth [day] of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, [whether it be] one of your own country, or a stranger that sojourneth among you: For on that day shall [the priest] make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, [that] ye may be clean from all your sins before the LORD. It [shall be] a sabbath of rest unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls, by a statute for ever." (Leviticus 16:29-31)

In addition to Yom Kippur, the Biblical Sabbath of Sabbaths, some Jews also observe four historic Public Fast Days. These commemorate stages in the destruction of the first and second Temples, and Israel's expulsion from their homeland. Though these fasts are not commanded in the Law, they are mentioned in Scripture.

Thus saith the LORD of hosts; The fast of the fourth [month], and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts; therefore love the truth and peace. (Zechariah 8:19)

Jews also customarily observed the Fast of Esther, commemorating the Jewish response to persecution -- fasting, prayer, lobbying, and self-defense. In addition to these fixed fasts, individuals and communities fasted for various religious reasons. They fasted when seeking God's forgiveness, when a loved one was ill or had died. They fasted when faced with impending danger and in time of war and they fasted to mark certain calamities.

The normal Jewish fast involved abstaining from all food, but not water. The occasional partial fasts required a restricted diet, not total abstinence (Daniel 10:2-3). During an absolute fast (e.g. Esther 4:16, Acts 9:9), which was a rare event, nothing was ingested. Extended absolute fasts, such as those of Moses and Elijah (Deuteronomy 9:9; 1 Kings 19:8), surely must have had divine assistance.

Most fasts lasted but a single day, from sunrise to sunset. After the sun went down, it was okay to eat (e.g. Judges 20:26; 1Samuel 14:24). Daniel fasted for one night (Daniel 6:18). Fasts could be longer, of course. Esther fasted three days and nights (Esther 4:16). David fasted seven days when his child was ill (2 Samuel 12:16-18), as did all of Jabesh-Gilead when Saul was buried (1 Chronicals 10:12). The 40 day fasts of Moses, Elijah and Jesus are the longest mentioned in Scripture (Exodus 34:28; 1 Kings 19:8; Matthew 4:2).

Judaism teaches that repentance is in no way synonymous with fasting for a sin one has committed. Repentance merely requires abandoning the sin for all time. Even in the case of the most serious transgressions -- those punishable by excision or by execution and whose atonement becomes complete through suffering -- the suffering is not intended to be self-inflicted through fasting, but is brought on from God. The offender is pardoned completely for having violated the command of the Lord once he has repented fully.

Fasting is one of those things which quite easily can be corrupted into an external show and a ceremonial rite. Among the OT Jews, that happened more than once. When it did, God's prophets spoke against it.

"Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God: they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God. Wherefore have we fasted, [say they], and thou seest not? [wherefore] have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours. Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as [ye do this] day, to make your voice to be heard on high. Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? [is it] to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes [under him]? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? [Is] not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? [Is it] not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rereward. Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I [am]. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; And [if] thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness [be] as the noonday:" (Isaiah 58:1-10)

When a toddler doesn't get its way, he might throw a temper tantrum or, perhaps, hold his breath until he turns blue in his attempt to compel his parents to give him what he wants. Some people look on fasting or abstinence as a means for putting God on the spot and somehow obligating Him to give them their desires. Just as a good parent will not yield to his child's extortion, Almighty God likely will not be moved by a hungry man's efforts at coercion.

Fasting without true repentance defeats the purpose of fasting, which is to have your prayers heard by the Lord! In Isaiah 58 we see the arrogance of the Hebrew nation. They complain to God because He has not responded to their fasting as they expected. They had not been fasting for the right reasons and, as the Pharisees were wont to do, they had made a public spectacle of their fasting -- to impress men with their religiousity and self-righteousness. God was not impressed. He would rather they abandon such vain display and instead do works of charity. Were they to do that, He would hear their prayers.

For the Jews, fasting was always combined either with prayer and/or alms. For them, fasting represented the negative while prayer and alms was the positive in the forgiveness of sins. Over time, the Jews perverted the concept of fasting. No longer their fasts represented mourning for having sinned, which showed humiliation, acknowledgement of their sin and repentance. They came to believe that their own mortification and self-punishment would turn aside God's anger and avert any threatening calamity such as drought, pestilence or national danger. Mondays and Thursdays were declared days of public fasting (had to do with Moses' return trip up the mountain to get the second Tables of the Law). Not a few Jews, caught up in the introspective nature of Pharisaism, fasted on these two days all year long.

When the destruction of the Second Temple made it impossible for Jews to make offerings to call forth God's pleasure, fasting replaced the offering. As the Talmud says, the prayer of one who is fasting is:

"May my loss of fat and blood brought about through fasting be regarded as though I had offered it to You [as a sacrifice on the altar]." Cf. Berachot 17a

The purpose of fasting for Jews was that one become acceptable to God, as he was before the sin. This is why there are many cases of Talmudic Sages, who for some trivial fault endured a great many fasts. These fasts were not undertaken for the sake of repentance, nor as self-inflicted suffering in order to complete a process of atonement; these were not sins of the kind that required this. The sole purpose of these fasts was to restore the bonds of love between the former sinner and his Maker.

On this basis, [that fasting substitutes for an offering, and as such has a place even when an individual does not need to undergo suffering in order to attain complete atonement], the AriZal (Rabbi Isaac Luria--kabbalistic teacher) taught his disciples, according to the principles of the Kabbalah, the number of fasts to be undertaken for many transgressions, even though they entail neither excision, nor death by divine agency - in which case suffering would be necessary. A set number of fasts were required for each class of transgression.

The Mussar (adherents of a Jewish movement that encourages individual cultivation of ethics and the emulation of Divine qualities). were divided in their opinions about one who repeated a sin many times. Some contend that he must fast the number of fasts appropriate to that sin according to the number of transgressions. For example, the number of fasts prescribed in the penances of the AriZal for a display of anger is 151. If someone commits this sin 10 or 20 times, say, he must fast 10 or 20 times 151, and so on in all instances. And it just keeps getting more and more complicated.

While it may appear that the Jews got carried away with fasting and self-mortification, they did show a practical side. Fasting was for the strong and robust, for folks whose physical health would not be harmed at all by repeated fasts. Anyone who might be harmed by multiple fasts, and who might therefore suffer illness or pain, was forbidden to undertake numerous fasts. Instead the measure of fasting was the personal estimate of what will not harm him at all. Whoever cannot fast yet does so, is called a "sinner" in Tractate Ta'anit. Such a person should redeem his sin with charity.

As fasting is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, so is it one of the Precepts of the Roman Catholic Church, which means that for Catholics fasting and abstinence on set occasions is not optional.

2041 The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor: Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 2nd Ed., (C) 1994/1997 United States Catholic Conference, Inc.)

2043…. The fifth precept ("You shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence.") ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts; they help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart…. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Op. cit.

Catholics point to Genesis 2:16,17 as the first time abstinence was ordained by law.

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.--Genesis 2:16-17

They argue that the obvious purpose of God's order was to lead Adam to recognize his dependence upon God. When Adam sinned, his disobedience marked all his descendents as sinners liable for God's just punishment. Catholicism likes to talk about natural law, which they claim demands penance. Of course, there was no shortage of folks, in Rome or earlier, ready and willing to write legislation concerning ways this penance might be fulfilled. Fasting and abstinence were ideas they hit upon. Generally speaking, the laws of fasting deal with the quantity of food allowed on fast days, while those pertaining to abstinence address specific foods that may or may not be permitted.

Rome finds additional support for its legislated fasting and abstinence in the New Testament account of Christ's 40-day fast in the desert. This quote from the 1913 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia (which I fully acknowledge is not an official source of RCC doctrine) underscores the Roman proclivity for adding to, twisting or in some other way modifying God's Word in order to conform what it supposedly says to the doctrine and will of the Roman Catholic Church.

No doubt this penance of the God-man was not only expiatory, but also exemplary. True, Christ did not explicitly define the days nor the weeks wherein his followers would be obliged to fast and abstain. At the same time his example, coupled with his reply to the disciples of the Baptist, is an evidence that the future would find his followers subjected to regulations whereby they would fast "after the bridegroom had been taken away". The only piece of clearly defined legislation concerning abstinence embodied in the New Testament was framed by the Council of Jerusalem, prescribing "abstinence from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled" (Acts, xv, 29). Nevertheless the Acts of the Apostles give evidence of a tendency on the part of the Church, as an organized body, to prepare the way for important events by abstinence and fasting (Acts, xiii, 3; xiv; 22). In fine, St. Paul sets forth the necessity of abstinence when he says that "everyone striving for the mastery must abstain from all things (I Cor., ix, 25); and "let us exhibit ourselves as the ministers of Christ in labours, watchings, and fastings " (II Cor., vi, 5), which he had often practiced (II Cor., xi, 27).

"Not only expiatory….?" Expiation has to do with making amends or reparation, for atoning for sin. This is interesting, for the Bible quite clearly tells us Christ was without sin. For what transgressions was Christ atoning? His? He had no sin. Ours? That would come later, at Golgotha. This is, quite simply, but another example of Roman invention.

"Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast [our] profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as [we are, yet] without sin. " (Hebrews 4:14-15)

Then why did He go out into the wilderness for so long a time? Harken back to the days of the Exodus. Moses spent 40 days and nights in absolute fasting atop Mt. Sinai when he was receiving the Law from God's own hand. This was a very special event, accomplished at a very special time.

"And the LORD said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel. And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments." (Exodus 34:27-28)

Jesus' 40 day wilderness fast surely is a type of Moses' fasting. Moses, the lawgiver, delivered the Law to the Hebrew peoples. Jesus, as the new Lawgiver, also fasted before delivering the new law of the Kingdom of God. This also was a very special event accomplished at a very special time.

And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people. (Matthew 4:23)

"but also exemplary." The idea here, I expect, is that the same God Who sent His prophets to the Jews again and again to tell them He was displeased with their ritualized fasting and self-abasement is here establishing an implied obligation to fast. Are we to believe that the same Jesus Catholicism tells us modeled God's expectations of us as concerns fasting while He was in the wilderness will later slam Pharisees for their ritualized fasting and self-abasement?

"Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. " (Matthew 6:16-18)

Messiah here was addressing Jews, and remonstrating with them for their ostentatious way of fasting, or appearing to be fasting. In Israel during that period, people tended to do their fasting and praying in the public eye. Sometimes, they would tear their clothes, put on sackcloth and toss ashes or dirt on their heads. This made for quite a public display and was viewed as an indicator of the penitent's religiosity. Jesus was not impressed by such behavior. He taught that fasting should not be done to impress people but should be a private matter between man and his God. The fact that Jesus spoke to Jews concerning Jewish practices against a backdrop of Judaism should not be viewed as a commandment to fast. The issue He was addressing was the hollow religiousity of the Pharisees, not fasting per se. As the Catholic Encyclopedia says,

True, Christ did not explicitly define the days nor the weeks wherein his followers would be obliged to fast and abstain.

The Catholic Encyclopedia also points to Christ's response to the disciples of John the Baptist as "an evidence" that regulatory fasting would be required of Jesus' followers "after the Bridegroom had been taken away."

"Then came to him the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast. (Matthew 9:14,15)

Luke's account of this encounter (Luke 5:33) implies the Pharisees asked this question. It seems likely a few Pharisees were still hanging around when John's disciples showed up. Perhaps the question was the result of the combined interest of both groups. In any event, there is no implied command to fast. Jesus here surely is telling them, using the analogy of a wedding party, that so long as He was present there should be too much joy for fasting, which was appropriate to seasons of sorrow and intense prayer. Later, when He is taken from them, will be the time for sorrow and prayer. He goes on to illustrate that the New Covenant cannot be patched onto the old Mosaic ceremonial forms.

No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse. (Matthew 9:15)

Our Lord continued His teaching, drawing on another local custom. Animal skins were used as fermentation vessels for wine because they stretched as pressure increased, due to fermentation. Once a skin had been used to such purpose, it was no longer usable for fermenting wine. It could not stretch and so, when the pressure built up high enough, it would split and ruin both the wineskin and the wine. Once again, Jesus was telling His audience that the ceremonial fastings and other old rituals practiced by the Pharisees and John's disciples were not suitable for the new wine of the New Covenant.

Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved. " (Matthew 9:16,17)

Christ used these two analogies to illustrate that what the Pharisees did in fasting or any other ritual had no part with the Gospel.

In the earliest days of the Church, while the Apostles were still ministering, fasting apparently was not a big thing. When the church at Antioch was considering sending out missionaries, only five of the prophets and teachers fasted (Acts 13:1-3). Paul and Barnabas were the only ones who fasted when they ordained the elders in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch,. Given they were Jews, it was a natural part of their upbringing to fast.

It seems quite unlikely Jesus or the Apostles taught or implied obligatory fasting or abstinence. Certainly, they did not proclaim the labyrinthine system of rules and regulations which today supposedly regulate fasting and abstinence within the RCC.

The Roman law of abstinence prohibits all responsible Catholics from indulging in a meat diet on specified days. In addition to the flesh, blood and marrow of animals and birds, "meat diet" also includes eggs, butter, milk and lard. Rome determines how her subjects are to satisfy the obligation of doing the penance demanded by natural law, and the disciplinary canons of various councils clearly illustrate she takes this authority seriously. The Trullan Synod (692 A.D.), for example, confirmed the Apostolic Canons penalty of deposition on clergy and excommunication on laymen who failed to observe the law of abstinence. Catholic theologians assert that a grievous sin is committed every time meat is consumed in any quantity on abstinence days. They argue that, because the law is negative and binds "semper et pro semper," the Church's prohibition is absolute. There are those who argue that if only a small amount of proscribed meat is taken, the sin is but venial. The argument as to the minimum amount of meat to be consumed to constitute a grievous sin seems to me akin to the dispute over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The actual observance of the law is similar to the Jewish understanding. Only those for whom compliance would not constitute an insupportable burden are required to keep the law. Laborers, soldiers, those who are ill or infirm, beggars, etc., are not bound to keep the law for so long as their conditions obtain.

Like the Jews before them, the powers that be in the Roman church got carried away with the idea of fasting and abstinence. Some folks decided that if fasting and abstaining on Fridays all year long was a good thing, then extending the penance to include Saturdays would be even better. By the end of the 3rd century, such extended fasts were pretty common. Tertullian (De jejunio, xiv) called this practice continuare jejunium. The Council of Elvira (can. xxvi) established the requirement that believers observe one extended fast during every month but July and August. Gregory VII (1073-85 declared that all Christians are bound to abstain from meat on Saturdays, so long as no major solemnity falls on that day and one's health does not preclude fasting (cap. Quia dies, d. 5, de consecrat., ap. Joannes, Azor. Inst. Moral. I, Bk. VII, c. xii).

Now, why in the world would the RCC add another day to the ritual Friday fast? Catholic writers have come up with a variety of explanations. Some say it was to commemorate the Jesus' burial. Others argue the practice imitates the action of the Apostles, Jesus' disciples and the Holy Women, who mourned Jesus' death even on Shabbat. By far the most fanciful argument comes from those who suggest the Saturday fast was originated by Peter, who spent Shabbat in prayer and fasting to prepare himself to meet with Simon Magus the next day. Those who hold to this last idea point to the account of Peter's encounter with Simon Magus recorded in Acts 8:18-25.

"And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles' hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost. But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee. For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and [in] the bond of iniquity. Then answered Simon, and said, Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me. And they, when they had testified and preached the word of the Lord, returned to Jerusalem, and preached the gospel in many villages of the Samaritans. " (Acts 8:18-25)

As often as I read this story, I find no indication of what day Peter had his encounter with Simon Magus. Further, I can find no indication that Peter spent any time in prayer and fasting to prepare himself for this meeting. Actually, all I see is but another indication of the Magisterium's not unusual custom of establishing a position, and then searching for a Scripture which they might point to as biblical support. That the selected passage must be vigorously manipulated and it's clear message twisted in order to fulfil Rome's need never seems to bother the RCC Teaching Authority.

I don't know of any Roman Catholics who routinely fast on Saturdays. So far as I have been able to determine, the obligation to abstain on Saturdays is still in effect, but the popes seemingly are not reluctant to pass out indults -- kinda like Get Out of Jail Free cards -- excusing folks from this requirement.

Fasting and abstinence are important to Roman Catholics during the 40 days of the Lenten season which precede Easter. Christians did not always observe such a long season of penance. Back in Irenaeus' time (177-202 A.D.), the pre-Easter fast was kind of an individual thing. Some pious people abstained from meat for just one day, others for two days and some for longer periods. We know that a Lenten period existed in 325, when the very first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicea, convened. Lent is mentioned in that council's fifth canon, but there is no mention of a time frame involved. After Nicea I, we begin to see references to 40 day periods of preparation for baptism, for the absolution of repentant sinners, or for retreat. These activities involved fasting and abstinence, but there really was no uniformity of observance. Different countries had different rules for the Lenten season. In Rome, the devout at first spent the three weeks before Easter in abstinence, fasting and prayer. Over time, that was increased to six weeks. This caused a little confusion, because while Romans were expected to abstain from the meat diet throughout all the days of the Lenten observance, they were not required to fast on Sundays. This meant the Lenten season was but 36 days in duration , using the Roman way of counting, so someone (Either Gregory I or Gregory II) decided to add four more days to round it out to an even 40. Some suggest this was done to commemorate Christ's 40 day fast in the wilderness, but whatever the reason, the season of Lent has number 40 days -- not counting Sundays -- since the 7th century.

Let's see now. What have we got? The Roman Catholic Church requires the faithful who are healthy or not excused to fast and/or abstain from a meat diet on Fridays and Saturdays and the 40 days of Lent plus the Sundays which fall during Lent (abstain only). I think that works out to 136 days of the year when Catholic faithful are required to fast and/or abstain from the meat diet. Sorta reminds one of those latter Jewish fasting zealots, doesn't it? But that isn't all. Rome was really getting into this fasting thing, and came up with more days when fasting and abstinence were to be observed.

The Roman church picked up a lot of things from the various pagan religions which were all around it. Perhaps the observance of Ember Days was one of those accommodations intended to make the RCC more amenable to pagans. In his commentary on the 8th Chapter of Zechariah, St. Jerome ) suggests the Ember Days follow the example of the Jews who fasted four times during the year. Of course, we now know the Jews fasted more than four times a year, but who's counting? Leo I believed the purpose of penance during Ember Week is to impel the faithful to special efforts in the cause of continency (Sermo vii, De jej. sept. mensis)

An Ember Week marks the beginning of each of the four yearly seasons. During Ember Week, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday are days of fasting and abstinence. One of the Ember Weeks occurs during Lent, so this adds no new days to the list. Since Fridays and Saturdays already are supposed to be observed with fasting and abstinence, only the Wednesdays of the other Ember Weeks count, bringing our total number of mandated days of fasting and abstinence within the Roman Church to 139.

For a time, there was a period of fasting and abstinence to help prepare for Christmas. Though this Advent fast seems to have passed out of fashion, it bears noting that the Roman Breviary still includes ferial prayers during Advent, just like those recited on days of fasting and abstinence. Since the Advent fast is no longer practiced, no new days are added to out total days of obligatory fasting and abstinence, which remains at 139.

Then there are the vigils. These hark back to the old custom of gathering in church on the eve of great festivals and chanting or watching and praying. There were vigils of Christmas, the Assumption and the Apostles. Later, came the obligation to abstain on the vigils of Pentecost, St. John Baptist, St. Lawrence and All Saints. This practice continues, so we pick up four more obligatory days of fasting and abstinences. Our total now is 143.

At some time before the year 474, Mamertus, the Bishop of Vienne, prescribed fasting and abstinence on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday preceding Ascension Sunday. These days are known as Rogation Days. By Canon 27, the first Council of Orleans extended the practice to all of Frankish Gaul in the year 511 A.D. Early in the 9th century, Leo III brought the practice to Rome. From about the year 589 A.D., we see the same custom in the feast of St. Mark. This gives us six more days of fasting and abstinence, bringing the total to 149.

One hundred forty nine days of obligatory fasting and abstinence! That's an awful lot. Yet very few Catholics in America seem to fast or abstain. Well, that is the result of a series of indults and dispensations granted over the years. There are so many of these, and they can be so specific, that I simply could not figure out which of all these periods of fasting and abstinence are still binding on today's Roman Catholic. Perhaps an appeal to the most recent Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Codex Iuris Canonicis promulgated in 1983 by John Paul II will shed some light on the issue.

Can. 1249 All Christ's faithful are obliged by divine law, each in his or her own way, to do penance. However, so that all may be joined together in a certain common practice of penance, days of penance are prescribed. On these days the faithful are in a special manner to devote themselves to prayer, to engage in works of piety and charity, and to deny themselves, by fulfilling their obligations more faithfully and especially by observing the fast and abstinence which the following canons prescribe.

Can. 1250 The days and times of penance for the universal Church are each Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.

Can. 1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Can. 1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.

Can. 1253 The Episcopal Conference can determine more particular ways in which fasting and abstinence are to be observed. In place of abstinence or fasting it can substitute, in whole or in part, other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.

There you have it. Fasting and abstinence are required by RCC Canon Law. Local custom, availability of certain foods, papal indults, dispensations, health and occupational considerations, etc., all combine to modify the actual obligations of each practicing Catholic to observe any or all the mandated periods of fast and abstinence.

There also have been modifications of the nature of the fast itself. In the early days of the RCC, the Black Fast was the rule. This was a tough one, which permitted only a single austere meal a day, and that not until after sunset. During Holy Week, that meal could be nothing more than bread, salt, herbs, and water. Over time, scheduling of the meal and its nature changed. In the 10th century, meal time was advanced to 3 P.M. In the 14th Century, noontime was established as the proper hour for eating the single meal. Not too long after that, the practice of taking a light meal in the evening was introduced. In the last century, the Catholic fast was again modified to permit a bit of bread and coffee in the morning.

Are Christians required to fast?

Well, God did establish a single obligatory fast for the Jews, on the Day of Atonement. For observing Jews, the purpose of all fasts is spiritual rebirth -- critical self examination should lead to a return to oneself, God, and a higher level of living. Fasting is not an end to itself, but a means to effect this transformation. The Roman Church appears to value fasting primarily as a form of penance, but also as a means of mourning sin and of imitating Jesus. In the RCC, fasting originated, not as divine revelation, but as a cultural expression of an underlying principle (like foot washing and the holy kiss).

Nowhere in the New Testament, is fasting commanded as a binding obligation upon the Christian. For the believer, fasting is a matter of individual freedom. However, if one does elect to fast, he should take pains to ensure he is afflicting himself for the proper reasons, which surely should be nothing more nor less than drawing him nearer to God. There is a very real danger a person could get so caught up in fasting that, like the Jews, it becomes a source of pride and self-righteousness -- a stumbling block in his own faith walk. In such an event, Christ's words to the Pharisees certainly would apply to the misguided Christian faster.

Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them: else ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Matthew 6:1

This verse refers back to Mt 5:20, where the disciple is told that his righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Matthew's fifth chapter deals with the actions themselves, but this sixth chapter treats of the motives and manners of our actions.

Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; that thou be not seen of men to fast, but of thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall recompense thee. Matthew 6:16-18

The Pharisees turned the private act of fasting into a public spectacle. They would skip washing their faces and neglect to dress or anoint their beards in their attempts to project the appearance of fasting. Private fasting, as an aid to meditation and prayer, is a worthwhile practice, but announced fasts can quickly lead to hollow formality, and fasts which are endured for public praise are an abomination. Christ clearly tells us that if we are going to fast, to do it privately, and thereby avoid the temptation to be hypocritically ostentatious. Fasting is intended for self-abasement, and not to cultivate pride.

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