I was explaining to a new Catholic recently that the color purple (violet) used in advent is akin to its use in Lent, in that both are considered penitential seasons. Hence we are to give special attention to our sins and our need for salvation. Traditionally we would also take part in penitential practices of fasting and abstinence.
Of course, in recent decades Advent has almost wholly lost any real penitential practices. There is no fasting or abstinence required. Confession is encouraged and the readings still retain a kind of focus on repentance.
But long gone are the days of a forty day fast beginning on Nov 12. The observances were every bit as strict as Lent. St. Martin’s Feast Day was a day of carnival (which means literally “farewell to meat” (carnis + vale)). In those days the rose vestments of Gaudete were really something to rejoice about, since the fast was relaxed for a day. Then back into the fast until Christmas. Lent too began with Mardi Gras (fat Tuesday), as the last of the fat was used used up and the fast was enjoined beginning the next day.
And the fast and abstinence were far more than the tokenary observances we have today. In most places, all animal products were strictly forbidden during Advent and Lent. There were many regional differences about the rest of the details. While most areas permitted fish, others permitted fish and fowl. Some prohibited fruit and eggs, and some places like monasteries ate little more than bread. In some places, on Fridays of Lent and Advent, believers abstained from food for an entire day; others took only one meal. In most places, however, the practice was to abstain from eating until the evening, when a small meal without vegetables or alcohol was eaten.
Yes, those were the day of the Giants! When fasting and abstinence were real things.
Our little token fast on only two days really isn’t much of a fast: two small meals + one regular meal; is that really a fast at all? And we abstain from meat only on the Fridays of Lent, instead of all forty days.
What is most remarkable to me is that such fasts of old were undertaken by men, women and children who had a lot less to eat than we do. Not only was there less food, but is was far more seasonal and its supply less predictable. Further, famines and food shortages were more a fact of life than today. Yet despite all this they were able to fast, and twice a year at that, for eighty days total. There were also ember days sporadically through the year when a day long fast was enjoined.
Frankly I doubt we moderns could pull off the fast of the ancients, and even the elders of more recent centuries. Can you imagine the belly aching (pun intended) if the Church called us to follow the strict norms of even 200 years ago? We would hear that such demands were unrealistic, even unhealthy.
Perhaps it is a good illustration of how our abundance enslaves us. The more we get the more we want. And the more we want the more we think we can’t live without. To some degree or another we are so easily owned by what we claim to own, we are enslaved by our abundance and we experience little freedom to go without.
I look back to the Catholics of 100 years and before and think of them like giants compared to us. They had so little compared to me, but they seem to have been so much freer. They could fast. Though poor, they built grand Churches and had large families. They crowded into homes and lived and worked in conditions few of us would be able to tolerate today. And sacrifice seemed more “normal” to them. I have not read of any huge outcries that the mean nasty Church imposed fasting and abstinence in Advent and Lent. Nor have I read of outcries of the fasting from midnight before receiving Communion. Somehow they accepted these sacrifices and were largely able to undertake them. They had a freedom that I think many of us lack.
And then too, imagine the joy when, for a moment the fast lifted in these times: Immaculate Conception, Gaudete, Annunciation, St. Joseph’s Feast day, Laetare Sunday. Imagine the joy. For us its just a pink candle and a pondering, “Rejoice? Over what?” For them these were actual and literal “feast days.”
I admit, I am a man of my time and I find the fasting and abstinence described above nearly “impossible.” I am thinking about going meatless for all forty days, this coming Lent and am currently discerning if that is what the Lord intends for me. But something makes me look back to the Giants of old, who, having far less than I, did such things as a matter of course.
There were giants in those days!