I don’t imagine many people enjoy fasting. I’ll bet you don’t wake up on Ash Wednesday and say, ” How great that I get to eat a lot less food today!”
Although fasting isn’t easy, its spiritual benefits are available to Catholics all year, not just when it’s required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Even though Ash Wednesday is months away, I’m bringing this up now because earlier this month Jews fasted from food and drink for 25 hours in observance of Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, the most important day in the Jewish liturgical year. This fast, which is noted in the Bible is the climax of 10 days of penitence starting with Rosh Hashanah. In biblical days, Jews also weren’t supposed to wash or wear shoes during this fast.
Fasting from wearing shoes?
Shoes don’t enter into the Catholic definition of fasting, which is the “complete or partial abstention from food.” Another root of the word means to hold, to keep, to observe or to restrain one’s self. The Latin root word is of an animal intestine which is always empty.
Fasting has been practiced since ancient times for a variety of reasons, including deliverance from calamity and mourning.
The Church considers fasting, along with prayer and almsgiving, as one of the acts of religion through which Catholics express interior penance. (CCC 1434, 1969) Fasting is part of the Fourth Precept of the Church: “You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.” (CCC 2043)
The Church’s fasting rules are pretty clear: Catholics from their 18th birthday to their 59th birthday (the beginning of their 60th year) are to reduce the amount of food eaten from normal. The Church defines this as one meal a day, and two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal in quantity. This fasting is required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The fast is broken by eating between meals and by drinks which could be considered food (milkshakes, but not milk). Alcoholic beverages technically don’t break the fast but they don’t quite fit with the spirit of doing penance.
(Catholics also fast from food and drink, except water and medicine, for at least the period of one hour before receiving Holy Communion. (Canon 919)
In her wisdom, the Church gives us a good reason to fast: to make us stronger. Natural law shows us we need to fast to overcome our concupiscence. Or as the Catechism puts it, the required fasts are times of “ascesis and penance which prepare us for liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.” (CCC 2043)
Fasting makes sense all year long. Not that we have to do it year round but the Church encourages us to do some kind of penance. It could be fasting or giving up something else we enjoy to grow in holiness, for a special intention or in thanksgiving.
Other benefits of fasting
As the early Church writer Tertullian put it, there are even more advantages to any weight loss resulting from fasting:
“More easily, it may be, through the strait gate of salvation will slenderer flesh enter; more speedily will lighter flesh rise; longer in the sepulcher will drier flesh retain its firmness.”
He gave the early Christians another good reason to fast:
“…an over-fed Christian will be more necessary to bears and lions perchance, than to God; only that, even to encounter beasts, it will be his duty to practice emaciation.”
I’m not sure that’s what Jesus meant when he said we should try not to look like we’re fasting. (Matt. 6:16-18) He does say we will be rewarded if we fast the right way: “Your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”