Lent and Fasting
Someone asked me with a question about why we have Lent and also why we do not fast for the entire forty days. Could you please explain the message behind Lent and why we do not fast every single day of the forty days?
As Christians, in everything we do, we should have as our model Jesus Christ. Scripture tells us that "Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil and he fasted forty days and forty nights" (Matthew 4:1-2). The season of Lent is a commemoration of Our Lord’s fast, which He undertook before entering into His public ministry. It was a time of preparation for the tremendous mission that lay before Him. To do this, He denied Himself food and water during those forty days and nights, relying instead only on God (with whom He was One) to sustain Him.
In the history of the Church, Lent has undergone much development and change, both in duration and in practice. In other words, it was not always forty days in length and the fast was not always observed the same way. For example, during the late second century, the season of penance before Easter was much shorter and some people fasted for one day, others for two days, and others for a greater number of days. The first clear mention and observance of the forty days does not come to us until the fourth century in the decrees of the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.
What we see from some of the earliest references is that originally the season of Lent was meant as a preparation for baptism or as a time in which people sought absolution from God for their sins. Even though fasting and abstinence were part of the practice, there was no uniform manner in which this was done. That came later. It was observed differently in various countries, and in Rome (where it had been customarily three weeks), it was eventually extended to six weeks, but always leaving out the Sundays. Because this made the Lenten season only thirty-six days in duration, with time it was lengthened by adding four more days, making it forty, in remembrance of Jesus’ fast in the desert.
You ask in your letter why we do not fast the entire forty days of Lent. In reality, although Catholics are left to decide for themselves, the Church strongly recommends that we fast all forty days. On November 18, 1966, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in keeping with the letter and spirit of Pope Paul VI's constitution Pænitemini, published some norms on penitential observance. In one part of the document, they specifically wrote about what is expected and recommended for all Catholics during the entire season of Lent. They stated: “We ask, urgently and prayerfully, that we, as people of God, make of the entire Lenten season a period of special penitential observance.”
In addition to making it clear that we are bound by obligation to fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and to abstain from meat on every Friday of Lent, they also added the following: “For all other weekdays of Lent, we strongly recommend participation in daily Mass and a self-imposed observance of fasting.”
Remembering that fasting is a form of penance and self-denial, we must keep in mind that we are urged to do this during the entire season of Lent, but it does not have to be a fast from food on all those forty days. For example, those Catholics whose health would be compromised, such as the sick, are not bound to observe the Church's laws of fast and abstinence. But there are many other ways in which we can show God how sorry we are for our sins. Among them are the following: being generous with others, visiting the sick and lonely, feeding the poor, studying Scripture, making the Stations of the Cross, praying the rosary, practicing self-control, and many others.
Even when the US Bishops made it no longer required to abstain from meat on all the other Fridays of the year, they never intended that the Catholic faithful should discontinue this practice. What they hoped was that people would continue to do it out of their love for God and not because they had to, and also to give us an opportunity to deny ourselves in other ways. Friday has never ceased to be a day of penance and self-denial, and abstaining from meat on that day is given first place, because it was on a Friday that our Lord died for our sins. Every Friday is a day to prepare for Sunday – the day that, for us who believe, is Easter every week of the year. And Sunday is never a day of fasting (not even during Lent). It is the glorious Day of the Lord!
© Copyright 2003 Grace D. MacKinnon
Grace MacKinnon is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine. She is the author of Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith published by Our Sunday Visitor. Order online by e-mail at email@example.com or call 1-800-348-2440.
Readers are welcome to submit questions about the Catholic faith to: Grace MacKinnon, P.O. Box 5375, Brownsville, Texas 78520. Questions also may be sent by e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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