Required fasting is almost non-existent in the Catholic Church today. Even the two days where fasting is required for those over 18 and under 60, it is really a mitigated fast of two small “snack-like” meals and one regular sized meal (no snacks in between now!). Not really a fast at all. A truer fast (going without food for the whole day) is practiced by some today as a personal discipline and it is laudable if a person is able.

Yet, even the mitigated fast is “hard” for many as are most bodily disciplines in our soft western world. We may think we just have to learn to be “tougher” and, by the power of our own flesh pull it off. I have no doubt that simple will power can in fact pull off a fast, especially the mitigated one. But even a non-believer can diet and fast. What we must seek is true fasting, spiritual fasting that is far richer than merely abstaining from food.

In the Gospel for Friday of this week, Jesus gives an important key to true spiritual fasting. Let’s read:

The disciples of John [the Baptist] approached Jesus and said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?” 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.” (Matt 9:14-15)

Notice the pattern. First comes the (wedding) feast, then comes the fast. What does this mean? Well, consider the wedding feasts of Jesus’ time. They often went on for several days, even a week. During this time there was food, feasting, family, fellowship, and did I mention food? Lots of it, with wine too! It was a time of satiation. But eventually this time of feasting ended and by that time, people were filled. They’d had enough food for a while, and now fasting of a sort made sense, it happened naturally without a lot of effort. What does this teach us and why does Jesus use this image regarding fasting?

Simply put, if you want to have the capacity to fast spiritually and truly you have to experience the wedding feast of the Lamb of God. In this great wedding feast which we are to experience through prayer, scripture and especially the Liturgy we are to be filled with Christ. We are to encounter him and feast abundantly on his Word, his Body and Blood and to rejoice with him exceedingly. And when this happens we are authentically equipped to fast.

At some point the “groom is taken” from us. That is to say, the Mass ends and we’re back to dealing with the world and its demands. Or perhaps we enter a penitential season, or perhaps we go through a difficult time where God seems distant, or we struggle with temptation. And times like that, a fast of sorts is before us. But we are able to do so and are spiritually equipped to do it since we have been to the Wedding feast and feasted with the Groom. Having done this the world and its charms mean less. We are filled with Christ now and we simply need less of the world. This is true fasting.

But let me ask you, Have you met Christ and been to the wedding feast with him? One of the sad realities in parish life and in the Church is that there are many people who have never really met Jesus Christ. They have heard about him and know about him, but they’ve never really encountered him powerfully in prayer or the Mass. They are faithful to be sure. They are sacramentalized but unevangelized. They know about Jesus, but they don’t know him. The liturgy to them can be, and often is, lifeless, a ritual to be endured rather than an encounter with Jesus Christ. Instead of being at a wedding feast, the Mass is more like a visit to the doctor’s office. The majority of the Mass for them is a “waiting room” experience. Finally, up to get the medicine (Holy Communion), which is great, because now it means the Mass is almost over!

Personal prayer from many isn’t much better. Another ritual, say some prayers, and be done with it. God is really more of a stranger and fasting is just another rule to follow, more out of obedience to avoid punishment, than out of love which seeks purification.

The disciples of John seem to have been of this sort. They were tough and self-disciplined. They knew how to fast! But it was a fasting of the flesh not the Spirit. The only way to truly fast in a spiritual way is to have been to the wedding feast and feasted with the Jesus the great bridegroom of the Church. Then having been filled with every good and perfect gift true fasting can begin.

And what is true fasting? It is a fasting that no longer needs what the world offers in large amounts. We need less of the world for we have found a better prize: Jesus and his Kingdom. Who needs all that food, booze, power, money, baubles, bangles and beads? In the words of an old song: “I’d rather have Jesus than silver and gold. You may have all this world! Just give me Jesus! “

We can only say this if we have really met the Lord and been satisfied by him. Only then can true fasting ensue. As you my expect, meeting Jesus is more than an event. It is a gradual and deepening awareness of him and his power in my life and in the liturgy. Make sure you don’t miss the wedding feast for it is the key to the truest fasting of all.

14 Responses

  1. Bender says:

    two small “snack-like” meals and one regular sized meal

    Which would be a veritable feast for most people in human history. Even today, for many (such as me most days), that is pretty much a normal day’s intake of food.

  2. JC Desormeaux, OSF says:

    Mon Seigneur Pope,

    What is the fasting guildeline for the infirmed during Lent ?

    The Code of Cannon Law (Cann. 919) indicated that the infirmed are exempted from the 1 hour fast prior to taking Holy Communion. But Cann. 1252 makes no exemption for the infirmed for fasting on Ash Wednesday or Fridays during Lent. I believe diabetics are considered infirmed with this chronic desease. By the very nature of this desease, a diabetic cannot fast. Can you comment ?

    Thank You ! God Bless.

    • Caroline says:

      Check with a knowledgeable priest on this, as I’m a lay woman who is not so educated in these matters, but I believe the proper thing to do is to get a dispensation. It sounds like you would be able to get one but I think it’s seen as an important act of obedience to go to the proper authority here.

  3. jj says:

    I am diabetic as well. I think you should use caution and pay attention to your body and always consult your doctor before changing your eating routine. After saying t his, I’M WITH YOU MSGR POPE – ALL THE WAY. 40 DAYS

  4. John Woolley says:

    The Communion fast, as practiced these days, is just about non-existent, too. An hour before Communion? You can go out for a big breakfast and then to Mass, and so long as you don’t snack during the service itself, it will have been an hour between eating and Communion.

  5. Karen says:

    It has always been my understanding that water and medicine do not break one’s fast (Cann. 919), and that that interpretation applies to Cann. 1252 as well. For a diabetic, food should be considered medicine.

  6. RichardC says:

    I was watching an espisode of The Journey Home, hosted by Marcus Grodi. In this episode, Marcus Grodi suddenly said that “fastiig is an act of hope.” He then went on to point out that fast corresponds to hope, as prayer corresponds to faith and alms-giving corresponds to charity/love.

    His saying that about fasting, that it is the an act of hope, is the most helpful statement anyone has ever said to me about fasting.

  7. RichardC says:

    Sorry if I appear to be trying to dominate the comments. Marcus Grodi went on to explain that fasting is an act of hope because we give up something good now for the sake of something better later, ie eternal life.

  8. Magistra Bona says:

    The ‘fast’ of Lent should be a feasting upon the good, healthy, whole foods which God created for our sustenance and our enjoyment. But our standard American diet (SAD) has distracted us from the good stuff. Insofar as the world does not offer the truly satisfying things for which our souls long, so too our tables do not always offer the truly satisfying, nourishing things for which our bodies long. I propose a “mitigated” fast that’s really more of a feast: Toss out the junk food, low-nutrient, and sometimes poisonous food we usually eat, and chow down on the good stuff. ‘Fast’ on garbage, feast on real food. Just sayin’.

  9. Sed Liber nos says:

    Father what was the traditional practice of fasting during Lent back in the 1400s? I think I remember reading in a biography of St Joan of Arc that stated she never ate before dusk and abstained the whole time (as required at that time). Was it much different from lets say the 1700s? At what point did the Catholic practice of fasting during Lent (and I suppose Advent) significantly change and became much softer? Thank you very much and God bless.

  10. mts1 says:

    What the Latin Rite has for fasting, Eucharistic and Lenten, is a joke. The Eastern Churches have it pretty well outlined as far as a fast that is not only on one day, and which demands more than one food group. Sure, have limited dispensation for people whose medical conditions would make fasting a hardship, but considering how many older people are in quite good shape, I’d eliminate the over 60 dispensation, too. The medical dispensation should very well cover infirm elderly.

    Insofar as the world does not offer the truly satisfying things for which our souls long, so too our tables do not always offer the truly satisfying, nourishing things for which our bodies long. I propose a “mitigated” fast that’s really more of a feast: Toss out the junk food, low-nutrient, and sometimes poisonous food we usually eat, and chow down on the good stuff. ‘Fast’ on garbage, feast on real food. Just sayin’. Exactly. Limited dispensation for those with health issues can still limit people who cannot truly fast, to unprocessed or natural foods. The diabetics here can chime in and say if that’s reasonable. Instead of a fast food fish meal deal, tilapia fried or grilled without breading, some rice or beans for carbs.

    I see people in the gym everyday who practice mortification of the flesh to make themselves sexier or whatever, I see people who line up outside of stores in brutal cold to get a Thanksgiving Black Friday deal. People are very much willing to go to great lengths – it’s not a question of asking too much, which is the false assumption leading to the relaxing of fast obligations. Get out an old prayer book from 150 years ago and see what the Latin fast used to be, and remember most people had grueling physical jobs before the Industrial Revolution. What we consider hard now was their leisure.

  11. Vincent Otim says:

    I see from the comments that there is a general longing for more rigoruous fasting rules, akin to what used be during the middle ages. The Church rules appears to emphasise the spiritual aspects, which is good. But I think that deliberate out signs are also necessary to reinforce the inward intentions. However, I also note the church prescribes that those who wish to pursue a more serious path of spriritual progress are invited to adopt the more rigorous approach. Therefore I think that such should be the popular message now, during the lenten season. And, perphaps also during the advent season. During these seasons all christians are actually called upon to pursue spiritual progress more rigoruosly.

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