What Ever Became of Advent Fasting And Penance?

By Nheyob (Own work) Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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 Advent was a time we would, like Lent take part in penitential practices such as fasting and abstinence.

Of course, in recent decades Advent has almost wholly lost any real penitential practices. There is no fasting or abstinence required, they are not really even mentioned. Confession is encouraged and the readings still retain a kind of focus on repentance and a focus on the Last Judgment.

But long gone are the days of a forty day fast beginning on Nov 12. The observances in the period of the Middle Ages 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 (Rejoice Sunday) 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 (and only in Lent) 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 all 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. And 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 from those times, that the mean nasty Church imposed fasting and abstinence in Advent and Lent. (Though certainly there were exceptions for the very young, the old the sick, and also pregnant women). Neither 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 did give up all wine for this Advent. Last Lent I banished radio and TV. 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!

50 Replies to “What Ever Became of Advent Fasting And Penance?”

  1. Wonderful insights as always Monsignor. Is it just a coincidence that when the bishops started treating as Christian incapable of the cross, that we became so lukewarm in our faith? Could changing the way approach the following of Christ affect our evangelical efforts?

  2. I gave up iced coffee. That doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice, but I like it so much that I really miss it.

  3. During Lent one year, I tried to emulate my Russian Orthodox friend and gave up all meat/dairy products. I lasted about 2 weeks. The deprivation and discipline was enormous; I realized then what a weakling I was. He continued the full length of Lent in abstaining from those products.

    1. In the Orthodox Church, fasting remains normative for 40 days prior to Christmas. It’s not as austere as Lent; fish generally permitted until 2 weeks prior to the feast of the Nativity.

    2. I agree Marguerite. We have grown so weak and incapable of self-control. It seems to me that fasting might be just what we need to start following the exhortations of Pope Francis to take care of the poor. Particularly, because if we felt the pain of hunger more ourselves, maybe we could empathize more with the poor. Also, maybe we would learn to eat less and waste less–which in turn would allow us to give more to the poor. Fasting might also be the solution to the burgeoning national problems of gluttony and obesity.

  4. Thank you, Monsignor! Excellent points to make, and well made. After a certain major ecclesial event in the early 1960s, a number of noted theologians and liturgists promoted the idea that it was wrong to sully the eager anticipation of Our Lord’s coming with archaic notions of penance and gloom. Advent, they said, should be a period of joyful expectation. Unfortunately, this approach was perfectly congruent with the secular society’s take on the time leading up to Christmas, and many folks bought right into it (pun intended). Dare we hope that the Catholic faithful can re-learn our constant need for penance and cleansing, and abandon the seductive idea that we’re already home free? Thank you again for reminding us of the real meaning of the season!

  5. I’m glad I read this post because I had never read or heard before that Catholics traditionally fasted or practiced penances during Advent.

    I agree with Marguerite – every time I try to fast or do penance, I realize what a weakling I am.

  6. When it comes to penence, think of the very short days and very long nights of winter. Often very cold with the possible reality of getting a snow storm or two. That is why I use midnight blue for my Advent candles and a much warmer pink.

    As someone who is dealing with bad knees, that is my PENENCE right there in regards to the COLD weather.

  7. I think we have lost the belief that penance–mortification of the flesh–makes any difference at all. Last year, I fasted from meat and strong drink for the entire academic year (10 months) for a seminarian friend whose last year was very hard for him. He told me later that when he thought about his own difficulty, jusk knowing I was there in solidarity helped. I think that’s true even when there is not a specific individual for whom penance is done–to do penance is in some minor way to unite to Christ on the cross and that is always powerful. This is not just a matter of weak flesh opn our parts but weak faith.

  8. Ha,ha, but we are doing great penance. Our music director has decided that it would be an act of penance to do the Kyriae in Greek and the Sanctus and Angus Dei in Latin. ( smile ). You see, we used to do this kind of penance only during Lent ( smile again ).


  9. Thank you, thank you. I couldn’t agree more; we are indeed well fed and complacent in the 21st century West. We are so driven by what the advertisements tell us we need to have, ESPECIALLY at this time of year.

  10. It should be noted that the Orthodox (are supposed to) fast from meat and dairy products for the forty days prior to Christmas. Fish is permitted on the weekends and major feast days within that time.

  11. “Of course, in recent decades Advent has almost wholly lost any real penitential practices.”

    I’m sorry but this doesn’t correspond to my experiences with Advent. I’m 60 years old and attended Catholic schools from pre-school through high school (late 1950s-1967). The sisters and priests taught Advent preparation but I don’t remember any penitential nature that was emphasized. All the students did our choir and caroling at public venues starting in early December, the Christmas decorations went up in the school and neighborhood at the same time, etc. We counted down the Advent calendar and lit the Advent Candle for the week but, candidly, it was Christmas!

    I’ve talked with my mother and older relatives about their experiences and theirs’ was the same. Preparation for Christmas but fastings and penance were never emphasized. Time-wise, that takes it back enough 60-70 years.

    A final point: The Code of Canon Law for the Church lists all penitential seasons and times for the universal Church (all Fridays and Lent). Advent is not one of them.

    1. I wonder if you read the article? The article covers a period of several hundred years. And while i used the recent decades the article covers a longer period. Why the hostility?

      1. Msgr Pope, You are absolutely correct. I read the first couple of paragraphs, scanned the rest and then replied. After reading the entire article, you specifically talk about practices hundreds of years ago (Middle Ages) so I feel very foolish about my comment. No hostility was implied and I apologize for my hasty response.

        I am still wondering though that there is a reason why the Church today (as specified by the Code of Canon Law 1250) does not list Advent as an official penitential time. You state that moderns probably couldn’t deal with it (which is true) but there may be a more theological basis for it. Thank you.

        1. Thanks. not sure why on the code. I suspect that it is because we have been through at least 2 generations of leaders who were loath to place any burdens on the faithful.

        2. Actually, in the Middle Ages (ca. 700-1500 AD), regulations on Fasting and Abstinence varied. The common people did not eat meat much anyway. The Church exempted certain kinds of animals from the meat category-waterfowl, beavers, etc. People ate grains and vegetables mostly. Meat was for feasting. Today, it is harder to give up meat, especially by products, and eggs since they are everywhere.

          1. I’m Orthodox and we are called to veganism during Advent – some for forty-three days, most for forty, some for as few as ten – but even in our churches, which maintain the fast, it is very poorly kept in the West. But that is due I think more to our weakness than to any fundamental difficulty in finding vegan foods. That is very much possible these days, especially as veganism becomes better known and more widespread in the West.

    2. Kurt, I am almost 60 years old, and clearly remember a former pastor’s explanation from the pulpit, of Advent as “Little Lent”. The emphasis was not so pronounced as the pre-paschal preparation, but it was clearly understood that Advent should be a season of sobriety and restraint. And of course it used to be seen as extremely bad taste, if not impossible, for Catholics to marry in Advent — as in Lent.

      I have been entirely negligent in terms of any physical mortifications for Advent this year. I do however find myself able to observe a fairly strict Lenten fast. The hunger is probably easier to manage than the mental discipline and force of habit.

      1. Romulus, you are absolutely right. I’m 71, and growing up in Catholic parochial school and my local parish in benighted, redneck Florida in the 1950s we were clearly taught, both in school and from the pulpit, that Advent was a time of fasting, mortification and penance in preparation for Easter. Must have been the impact of all our Maynooth-training Irish priests, and the School Sisters of Notre Dame whom they employed in our parochial school. Can anybody on this site recall, or even imagine, the S. S. N. D.s advocating mortification of the flesh today?

  12. Members of the Confraternity of Penitents do, in fact, observe the Advent fast from Nov. 12 until Christmas. They restrict themselves to a little less than two full meals a day.

    The Confraternity (www.penitents.org) is an international private lay association of the faithful with commendation under the Bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne/South Bend IN USA. It seeks to faithfully observe the Rule given to St. Francis for his lay followers in 1221. A summary of its spirituality can be found here: http://penitents.org/whydopenance/handout1.html

  13. I think watering down the days of fast and abstinence to virtually nothing has really hurt us. This was something that gave Catholics a definite identity and provided a constant reminder of who we were and what were were about.

    Friday abstinance has been lifted, but who even remembers that we are supposed to undertake some other form of penance on Fridays in its place? A while back, I decided to just go ahead and abstain from meat on all Fridays and for the entire 40 days of Lent. It’s really not hard that hard at all. I wish the Church would bring it back, but I know it is unrealistic to think that could ever happen. Too many Catholics would wail and nash their teeth and stomp their feet until it was lifted again. Or else they would just ignore it. I’ll just continue to do it on my own and to encourage other Catholics to do it because of how wonderful it is!

    Maybe I will add Advent abstinance to my Friday and Lenten practice!

    1. I agree with Don and he is not the only one who keeps the traditional fasting and abstinence. I make every Friday a day of fasting and abstinence and have done so for at least the last five years. Although my sons do not keep this practice they do know that if they come here on a Friday they too will face the same regime. They don’t complain either.

    2. “A while back, I decided to just go ahead and abstain from meat on all Fridays and for the entire 40 days of Lent. It’s really not hard that hard at all. I wish the Church would bring it back”

      Did you realize that McDonald’s invented the Filet-o-Fish sandwich in the early ’60s because there was significant demand for no meat sandwiches from Catholic customers on Fridays? It’s sad that those days are mostly gone.

      Abstaining from meat on each Friday of the year is indeed not much of a sacrifice, but I think the observance is important for two reasons:

      1. It’s a weekly reminder of the fact that our Lord died for our sins on Good Friday.

      2. It’s a significant mark of Catholic identity, not unlike Jewish dietary laws being a major mark of identity for the Jews.

      1. I try to go without meat on Fridays. While it isn’t hard it does require some thought and preparation. I need to do more with replacing meat eating time with prayer. I agree with your comments 1 and 2.

        If Father had a good recipe for bread I would bake it and consider having a go at taking just bread and water for a day or two.

  14. Yes, it is true that the Orthodox fasting discipline has not changed. The winter Lent or Nativity Fast (also called St. Philip’s Fast) is not quite as severe as Great Lent but it is very much “on the books” as they say. Alas though, in my experience few Orthodox keep the fast with any degree of strictness anymore. I wonder what the rules are among the Greek Rite Catholics.

    1. Fasting among the Eastern Churches are identical to their Orthodox counterparts.

      1. “Fasting among the Eastern Churches are identical to their Orthodox counterparts.”

        Ideally yes, but in terms of Canon Law, not anymore. (I take it you mean “Eastern Catholics”).

        For the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest Eastern Catholic Church, the laws of fasting and abstinence are listed here: http://www.stnicholaschurch.ca/content_pages/ourfaith/art_faith010.FAQ.htm

        The laws are virtually identical to the Latin Rite. Fasting is reduced to two days (First Day of Lent and Good Friday) and abstinence is reduced to the Fridays of the year and four “penitential” feast days.

  15. Thank you, Msgr., for another wonderful post!! As a dear friend once said to me, who might have been quoting someone else, “if you don’t fast well, you can’t feast well…and if you don’t feast well, you can’t fast well!”

    We could certainly use more encouragement to fast. The USCCB has had an ongoing request for the faithful to abstain and fast every Friday for life, marriage, and religious freedom: http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/new-evangelization/year-of-faith/life-marriage-liberty.cfm
    Three cheers for that!!! But I’d love to see us encouraged to fast liturgically more often too.

    You mention the Ember Days…wow, I would LOVE to see a return of these. It’s merely four times a year, and we pray for a fruitful upcoming season and for priests. What a glorious way to simultaneously support priests and to stay in tune with the changes of nature and where one’s food comes from. Indeed, it’s praying for our “daily bread,” spiritually and materially. Here in CA, we’re facing the possibility of a drought. If you all like your fruits, veggies, nuts, wine, and the like that come from CA, then please join in the Ember Day prayers and fasting that God please sends us some water! Fasting can bring such solidarity, like another commenter mentioned for a friend, but also in other ways – like fasting for a fruitful harvest or fasting from wasting food, as our Holy Father has mentioned? What beautiful solidarity and respect you can show to those who slaved all day picking and raising your food by not wasting it. (I’m guilty here, but I’m trying to change little by little.)

    Also, I like how the Eastern Church approaches fasting. It’s much more strict (as you note, basically vegan – even sometimes no oil), but not under penalty of sin if they don’t adhere to it. I find it quite liberating…as the whole point is not to be super rigid and show others that you are fasting, but to ultimately lead to a fast from sin. So, when you’re alone or among others adhering to the fast, be strict…but if someone really wants you to try their homemade treat, take it out of charity! Or when you’re out at a restaurant, discretely choose the item that is closest to the fast like the meatless pasta instead of the filet. The East also warns against fasting from meat while gossiping about (or engaging in any other sinful indulgence). And one of our priests a while back made a somewhat humorous warning against fasting from things that become more penitential for those around you…like, if you need your coffee, you might not want to fast from that if you’re going to be awful to your neighbor!

    Maybe our leaders in the 60s were reacting to the rigidity of fasting that wasn’t producing much fruit….? I’d welcome a return to more fasting encouragement from our leaders…it’s such an opportunity for grace and growth that seems to have been misunderstood and thrown out with the bathwater.

  16. In the bible, the Jews are only only required to fast on one day a year. Catholics being required to fast two days a year seems about right to me. Anyone who thinks the fasting requirements on those days are too easy is free to eat less.

    “1434 The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving,31 which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others.”–Catechism of the Catholic Church

  17. The remark from Ad Orientem is correct. A lot of Orthodox do not keep the Fasts as the “rules” require. However, the rule is still there, it is a standard to aspire to. An Orthodox who fasts does so as a member of the Church, conscious of a corporate ascetic life. When you reduce fasting to a private pious exercise, there is a loss of that corporate ascetic life. This is not good for the church. This is why, as an Orthodox, I do not want to see the rule relaxed. Even if I fail, at least the standard is there- and I know when I do fast, I do so as part of a people. It’s not a self-chosen, individual form of piety. I think the Latin church did damage to its own identity, and its life as a people, when it reduced the Eucharistic fast, got rid of the Wednesday fast (a long time ago), and ceased to see Advent as penitential. I do not say that as a “dig” against Latins. I think this column expresses the sense of loss many people in the Western church feel. I have heard many Catholics bemoaning the state of the American church, and attributing it to bad catechesis. This may be true, but I’ve always felt the loss of a corporate ascetic practice weakened it as much or more as bad teaching.

  18. \But long gone are the days of a forty day fast beginning on Nov 12.\

    For Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics, there is STILL a fasting period beginning on 15 November. While it is not as strict as Great Lent, except for the last few days, it’s still there. The non-Chalcedonian Eastern Churches, as far as I can tell, have fasting and abstinence customs similar to the Byzantine Churches.

    Remember, the Latin Church is NOT the whole of the Catholic Church.

  19. St. Augustine has written somewhere the following [Please excuse me for not perhaps remembering his exact words, but it is essentially accurate.]: “First we must overcome pleasure, and then pain.” He also wrote that for Christians to live during a time when there is no persecution is an anomaly. Because we are such marshmallows and because persecution of the Catholic Church has already started in America, I recommend the reading of The Victories of the Martyrs by St. Alphonsus. This book describes how many lay people–especially in Japan–suffered for the faith.

  20. I have a feeling it will all be making a come back in the very near future whether we like it or not. Hunger is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not not consumed..

  21. Advent is not a penitential season:
    Can. 1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.

      1. Yes Msgr. I was addressing the thread of comments that were asserting Advent is still considered a penitential season. Your historical reflection was insightful and informative.

  22. Gourmet holiday food…the pressure is relentless from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. The expectations for over the top unique table settings, home decor, appetizers, libations, complicated desserts, has become an onerous burden for many. Back in the day, a turkey, dressing, one or two side dishes and a pumpkin pie were appreciated. Not so anymore! Go to Costco the weekend before December 25th and see desperate people, hoping to please their guests, loading up their carts with expensive dips and sauces,beautiful appetizer trays, artisan cheeses, hand dipped truffles and the like.
    I long to serve soup and homemade bread and spend my time reflecting on a young expectant Mother and her husband traveling to Bethlehem with a few provisions to sustain them.
    Perhaps instead of an expensive, time consuming food fest we should have a faith fest!

  23. Forget 200 years ago, I wonder how many people could even keep the fasting and abstinence rules of 1961? These are kept by many of those who attend Extraordinary Form parishes (i.e. FSSP, etc.), and the reasons for these fasts are also taught often from the pulpit, at least from my parish.

    Eucharist Fast: Nothing but water and medicine for three hours
    All Fridays: Abstinence from meat
    Embertides (3 days, 4x per year): Abstain and Fast
    Vigils of Christmas, Holy Saturday, Pentacost: Abstain and fast

    And Lenten fasts, no way most people could or would do this today:

    All Days of Lent but Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and 1st Class Feasts: Partially abstain and fast (i.e. meat at one meal only)
    Fridays and Saturdays of Lent: Abstain and Fast

  24. Even if the U.S. bishops adopted only a few of these penitential practices, the meaning of the Advent season might shift just a little. Such practices would certainly remind Catholics that this is essentially a holy-day season, not an excuse for unleashing our most gluttonous and greedy impulses. Since there are so many at least nominal Catholics in the country, the meaning of the season might shift ever so slightly for the entire nation. And, since the U.S. is something like the consumer capital of the world, a change here might change the attitude in other countries. At least it would raise important questions.

  25. somebody once said “Then came the disciples to Jesus secretly, and said: Why could not we cast him out? Jesus said to them: Because of your unbelief. For, amen I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, Remove from hence hither, and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible to you. But this kind is not cast out but by prayer and fasting.” (matthew 17:19-21)

    regardless of the explanation of why it is effectual, fasting makes things happen in the spiritual realm that otherwise cannot happen.

    1. It is interesting, while I do not doubt what you say about the power of fasting, that many ancient manuscripts lack verse 21 about prayer and fasting. Further, many modern bibles do not have the verse. Thus, when some readers here try to find it in their bible, they may not be able to do so. The Douay and King James had it, I don’t think the NAB does, The RSV and Jerusalem Bible do not have it. It is the case of the disappearing verse! They all go from 20 to 22

  26. Here at home we eat 1 meal a day at around 4 PM. It is not difficult if one is praying or busy contemplating or working on light tasks. Because of my numerous meds, i allow myself a few saltine crackers, if i feel queasy. The same routine is followed for Lent. Around 9 or 10 PM, a light snack of fruit, crackers or chips is allowed, with 1 glass of milk or for me ginger ale. My prayer life deepens and my closeness with Christ increases. i recommend others at least try it. I’m 66 and it hasn’t killed me yet.

  27. I have a couple questions with regards to the old practice of fasting and abstinence.

    1) My husband is allergic to mammalian products (meat, dairy, fats, etc), so my whole family typically abstains from these products all the time (he can only have fish and fowl). On days that just happen to be abstinence/fast days, should we perform some other form of abstinence?

    2) I tend to only eat 2 meals a day on a regular basis; sometimes only one. Often only one of those meals would be considered a full meal. On days that are fast/abstinence days, should I choose another form of fast/abstinence?

    3) I’ve seen some remarks that include Christmas Eve as a fast/abstinence day. My family has our big Christmas gathering prior to Midnight Mass (or 10 pm as it has been changed to). We have our own ‘liturgy’ (so-called by a priest family friend), eat, drink, open gifts, and generally have a merry time. Would this fall into the old-laws of the feast starting at nightfall the night before?

  28. I wonder if those who look back on the old days and think “ah, those people knew self-sacrifice; they must have been far better Christians than us weaklings” understand that in the old days Advent and Lent were the lean months of the calendar. There were no supermarkets, no restaurants save (for townspeople) the local inn, no farmer’s markets, and no fresh milk in the depths of winter or spring: in the absence of modern animal husbandry techniques, most milk animals dried up in the late autumn after impregnation. Most people grew their own food, and by the time winter had them in its clutches they were subsisting on a spare, monotonous diet of stored grains and root vegetables ‘enriched’ by any cheese they were able to put up in the summer and the odd egg or poached rabbit. Most people weren’t living like the Tudor kings or the Borgias or the wealthy lords shown in modern TV dramas; most people were desperately poor and living right on the edge of starvation.

    To these people Advent and Lent fasting did not make a huge change in their lives. In fact, the fasting seasons made it possible for them to stretch their food stores so they wouldn’t outright starve by the time the spring vegetables were ready to harvest. In that light, I would suggest that it’s far harder to fast *today* than it was in 1500, because every one of us in the Western world has temptations that the average medieval or Renaissance peasant – and starving peasants made up 90% of the population – couldn’t even begin to imagine.

    Many religious rituals work in sync with the calendar. I doubt the Jewish day would begin at sunset had the religion arisen at a higher latitude; the same could be said of the daily fast during Ramadan. (Can you imagine a sunrise-to-sunset fast ritual originating in a place like, say, Calgary, where the sun in summer is above the horizon for over 16 hours?) Similarly, Christianity’s roots as a religion that (at least) developed in a temperate region are obvious in its placing the fasting seasons right when food stocks are at their lowest.

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