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What Ever Became of Advent Fasting and Penance?

December 13, 2016

december13blogI was explaining to a new Catholic recently that the reason the color purple (violet) is used during Advent is that Advent, like Lent, is considered a penitential season. During these times we are to give special attention to our sins and our need for salvation. Traditionally, Advent was a time when would take part in penitential practices such as fasting and abstinence, just as is done during Lent.

In recent times, though, Advent has become almost devoid of any real penitential practices. Neither fasting nor abstinence is required; they are not really even mentioned. There is nothing in the Missal or other liturgical sources that refers to Advent as a penitential season. While confession is encouraged and the readings of early Advent still retain a focus on repentance and the Last Judgment, the era of the forty-day fast beginning on November 12th is long gone.

During the Middle Ages, Advent observances were every bit as strict as those of Lent. St. Martin’s Feast Day was a day of carnival (meaning “farewell to meat” (carnis + vale)). In those days, the rose vestments of Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday were a real indication of something to celebrate: the fast was relaxed for a day. Then it was back to fasting until Christmas. Lent began with Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), when the last of the fat was used up before the Lenten fast would begin the next day.

The fasting and abstinence practiced in those days were far more strict than the token observances we have today. There were regional differences in the details. In many places all meat was strictly forbidden during both Advent and Lent, but some areas permitted fowl. Most regions allowed the consumption of fish. Some areas prohibited fruit and eggs. In monasteries, little more than bread was consumed. On the Fridays of Lent and Advent, some believers abstained from food for the entire day; others ate only one meal. In most places, however, the Friday practice was to refrain from eating until the evening, when a small meal without vegetables or alcohol was eaten.

Yes, those were the days of the giants, when fasting and abstinence were real sacrifices.

Today’s token fast (required only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) isn’t much of a burden: one full meal and two smaller meals. Is that really a fast at all? And we are only obligated to abstain from meat on the Fridays of Lent rather than the entire forty days.

What is most remarkable to me is that such fasts of old were undertaken by people who had a lot less to eat than we do today. Not only was there less food overall, but is was far more seasonal and its supply less predictable. Further, famines and food shortages were relatively common. Yet despite all this, they were able to fast twice a year for forty days at a stretch, eighty days in total. There were also “ember days” sporadically throughout the year at the change of seasons, when a daylong fast was enjoined.

Frankly, I doubt that we moderns could pull off the fast of the ancients, or even the elders of more recent centuries. Can you imagine all the belly-aching (pun intended) that would ensue if the Church called us to follow the strict norms of even 200 years ago? We would hear complaints that such demands were unrealistic and even unhealthy.

Perhaps this is a good illustration of how enslaved we are by our abundance. The more we have, the more we want; and the more we want, the more we think we can’t survive without. We are so easily owned by what we claim to own, enslaved by our abundance.

When I ponder the Catholics of 100+ years ago, they seem like giants compared to us. They had so much less that we do today, yet they seem to have been so much freer. They were able to fast. Though poor, they built grand Churches and had large families. They fit so many more people into their homes. They lived and worked in conditions few of us would be able to tolerate. Sacrifice seemed more “normal” to them. I have not read that there were any huge outcries during those times, complaints that the “mean, nasty Church” imposed fasting and abstinence during Advent and Lent. (There have always been exceptions for the very young, the elderly, the sick, and pregnant women.) Neither have I read that fasting from midnight until receiving Communion the next day was considered too onerous. Somehow they accepted these sacrifices and were able to undertake them. They had a freedom that I think many of us lack.

Imagine the joy when, for a brief time, the fast was lifted: the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Gaudete Sunday, the Feast of the Annunciation, the Feast of St. Joseph, and Laetare Sunday. For us, Gaudete Sunday just means a pink candle, and wondering what we are rejoicing about. For Catholics of old, these were literally feast days.

I fully admit to being a modern man. I find the fasting and abstinence described above nearly “impossible.” I did give up wine this Advent, and during Lent, I swore off radio and television. But something makes me look back to the giants of old, who, though having far less than I, did such things as a matter of course.

There were giants in those days!

Filed in: Advent

Comments (17)

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  1. Sr. Dorcee Clarey says:

    Thank you for this, Msgr. Pope. Our order fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays (except during Christmas and Easter time) with a stricter fast observed during Advent and Lent, and we would be loathe to abandon the practice because of the spiritual benefits of fasting. It is indeed sad that more folks–even religious–do not practice this time-tested traditional means of prayer. Some things can only be overcome by prayer and fasting, and we are all aware of how much the world needs the power of this prayer.

  2. Kirsten says:

    I often think about this as well. I think about the fasting and mortifications that people did and realize if I did this today I would probably be put in a mental institution. To paraphrase a well know Catholic speaker I once heard say, “I hope God grades on a curve. Compared to people today I am doing great, but if I am compared to people of old, I am a pathetic excuse for a Catholic.” I know that because people long ago often went without food, they weren’t the slaves we are to it today, so in a way, fasting was easier for them. They didn’t have food that was engineered to create the most possible taste effect (so we eat more for more company profit). I don’t think that gets us off the hook though. I feel that’s more a reason not an excuse. I also often think about how we are called to be separate from today’s culture and how as Catholics we really don’t stand apart from any other religion as day to day persons. If we could all muster the will power to go back to the old ways we really would be a people set apart. There would be more reliance on God, more prayer, more rejoicing during the appropriate times of the liturgical year. Could you imagine? I think it would remake the church as we know it.

  3. Jeannie Lawrence says:

    I have found a most effective fast for Advent & Lent that really keeps me focused. I eliminate bread & butter, salt and sugar. Anything that uses these ingredients as a large part of their makeup is out. No sugar in coffee, no sweets (while doing all of the Christmas baking) no pizza, sandwiches, toast or tacos. And no salty snacks – no salt on popcorn! This turns the pizza crust into a salad with pizza toppings, tacos into a salad with meat & taco stuff. Sandwiches are made with lettuce in place of bread. It affects my food plan all day long and is a constant reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. It is also very helpful for my diabetes but that is just a bonus. Try it for a few days and see what you think.

  4. Donna says:

    This is very interesting! I believe one of the reasons we moderns don’t fast well is because we’re so addicted to sugar, which produces constant strong cravings. I gave up all sugar in October, and felt convicted to begin a long fast. The reasons? To atone for my sins and those of my children. Also, because the Lord gave us that example and the Apostle Paul wrote that he fasted “often”. Finally, Jesus said that we can only rid ourselves and others of demonic influence through prayer AND FASTING! After I gave up sugar (and alcohol), I found it possible to fast. Just wanted to share this with you and others.

  5. Joel Whitaker says:

    Members of the Confraternity of Penitents, a Roman Catholic lay group under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, observe both the pre-Christmas and Lenten fasts, in addition to Wednesdays from All Souls Day until Easter, and every Friday throughout the year. More info: http://www.penitents.org.

    I agree with Sr. Dorcee that “It is indeed sad that more folks–even religious–do not practice this time-tested traditional means of prayer. Some things can only be overcome by prayer and fasting, and we are all aware of how much the world needs the power of this prayer.”

  6. jo says:

    Having been born in the 40’s, I grew up fasting and abstaining.
    Over the years we have witnessed the ‘dumbing down’ of our Faith.
    When I mentioin ‘penance’ during Advent, Catholics say “huh”?
    Sadly, these are the times of great peril, and the Church’s Militant is weak and sorely lacking.

  7. JaaCee. says:

    Advent is a time of JOYFUL Anticipation..

  8. John R says:

    I well remember that Christmas Eve was always a day of Fasting and Abstainence. Whatever happened to that?

  9. Michelle Newcomb says:

    Thank you so much for this reality check! We are so soft! We are so saddened and frustrated by many worldly ways of some of our adult children and I just told my husband yesterday that the only way we are going to have an impact on the purity of one of our children is through prayer and fasting. Perfect timing to read this and commit to a deeper level of this most holy path. I am sad we are past so many of the mile markers for this Advent but onward we go no matter how short this time. You definitely planted a seed that will be pursued the full of next Advent!

  10. Jacqueline Fernandes says:

    I know for a fact that the young and old from the Egyptian Orthodox Rite fast 40 days in Advent and of course in Lent. I have observed them do this diligently and with great discipline each year. I feel guilty by my lack of discipline and sacrifice, during this holy season.

  11. Paul Mullin says:

    Great Article. Two years ago I started fasting twice a week as requested by Our Lady of Medjugorje. Wednesdays and Fridays. Although I did modify it a bit. She requested we fast on bread and water but I am too weak for that!! So what I’ve done, and I haven’t missed a day, with the exception of the week between Christmas and New Years, was to just limit myself to liquids on Wednesdays and Fridays. So coffee tea and water basically. I stop eating Tuesday evening till Thursday morning and again Thursday evening till Saturday morning. It is not easy. I spent the last year working on a garbage truck and that is a very strenuous job. But I persevered. God gave me a Grace I believe. A gift of fasting. but its still super hard. It radically changes my week. Every time I look up its Wednesday it seems! And Thursdays and Saturdays are special. Besides the spiritual side, offering the fast to Our Lord for different intentions, there are obvious physical benefits. My weight no longer yo-yo’s. It remains constant. My bowels get completely emptied twice a week. I feel good. I know what hunger feels like and I dont let it rule me. I struggled with sexual addictions in my past, but through fasting I’ve been able to control the desires. They are still there, sometimes stronger than ever, but they dont dominate me. I pray and hope that God will give me the Grace to always fast. For His greater Glory and Honor! In closing, people ask me what do I do at the end of the day when hunger seems to hit them most. 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening usually. I tell them I go to sleep! Why bother sit around if you are hungry. As well, the last year I’ve eliminated television on those days. That is easy to do because I found TV and fasting doesn’t mix. Take care

  12. Robert says:

    Hi Father. I was glad to see you write about this. I fast during advent fairly rigorously and it pays huge dividends in my spiritual life. A real relationship with Our Lord requires prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It is like a three legged stool. You will never attain the intimacy with God that is possible if you do not fast. This is a greatly neglected truth, but it is a truth found all over scripture. I hope you continue to write about fasting because I can tell you from personal experience that it is very very important.

  13. joan says:

    When i first got married my mother in law introduced me to their “Holy Supper” on Christmas Eve. It was so strange at first but now we would feel such a loss without it. It consists of a soup made from split peas and ….and … yes; sauerkraut!! Absolutely delishhhhh!! Homemade bread with honey and garlic.Symbolic for the sweetness and health of life. Dark fried crunchy onions on top of the soup and homemade perogies. The table is set and hay is placed under the tablecloth or under the table to bring to mind the nativity stable/cave our Lord was born in. Now the comment from my mother in law was after a day or two of straw under the table… grandma had had enough and cleaned it up. But…the long fast before and then the beautiful homemade foods (no meat) was such a welcoming site. It may not sound like much of a fast but it was; for its hard work putting it all together esp. after a month long fast to boot … its beautiful green color adds to the festivities ..its so very warming…enough to share with many a stranger should they come knocking or invited to your door. It’s a Ukrainian custom.

  14. Fr Paul McDonald says:

    Actually the liturgical prayers, both in the mass and in the liturgy of the hours *do* refer to penance.

  15. Peter Wolczuk says:

    Fasting would tend to make us slimmer and, that would probably make it easier ti enter by the “Narrow “Gate” or have I stretched the metaphor a bit much? ? Matthew 7:13&14.

    • Peter Wolczuk says:

      Uh oh, “to” not “ti”
      No provision for editting. My carelessness, of not proof reading, apparent to the world but, I have learned to fear transparency in less than about my imperfefections.

  16. Compare the Gospel for this year’s Fourth Sunday of Advent from the 1970 Lectionary (Matthew 1:18-24 “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about…”) with the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent—every year—in the traditional Latin Mass (Luke 3:1-6 “…the word of the Lord was made unto John…he came into all the country about the Jordan, preaching the baptism of penance for the remission of sins…”). In the Traditional Latin Mass there also are 3 Ember Days of Advent, aka Advent Embertide. So, as to your question “What ever became of Advent fasting and penance?” the answer is—they were “spirit of Vatican II-ized” out of our liturgical life—and therefore out of our home life and spiritual life.