By the second commandment of the Church the precept of fasting is laid upon us.
Fasting is as ancient as the human race itself. Even in paradise it was enjoined upon man to abstain from the fruit of one tree: moreover, certain meats were forbidden to the Jews; pork, for instance (Lev. xi.). On the Day of Propitiation the Jews wore not permitted to taste food for twenty-four hours. Our Lord fasted forty days; so did Moses and Elias before Him; and St. John Baptist, the Precursor, fasted most rigorously. The Church has good reasons for laying the obligation of fasting upon the faithful.
The laws of the Church in regard to fasting are in reality very strict; they have, however, been largely relaxed by the bishops to suit the exigencies of time and place.
The rule of fasting was originally so stringent that on the fast days not only was abstinence from flesh-meat enjoined, but milk, eggs, and butter were also prohibited; and no food was to be taken before sundown. But owing to the increase of constitutional weakness, and still more because of the spread of religious indifference in the course of centuries, the rule has been more and more relaxed. Bishops are empowered to prescribe, each for his own diocese, on what days meat is permitted. Hence the rule varies in different dioceses, and it is well, on going into another diocese, to ascertain what the rule is in that part.
There are three kinds of fasting at present: (1), Abstinence from flesh-meat; (2), Taking one full meal only in the day; (3), Strict fasting, in which both of these are enjoined.
In the second commandment of the Church we are ordered to abstain on all Fridays of the year; and to fast during the forty days of Lent, on the Ember days, and on the vigils of certain feasts.
1. We are forbidden to eat meat on Friday, because on that day Our Lord died for us.
Not only is meat prohibited, but all dishes in the preparation of which it enters. Fish, turtle, and shell-fish may be eaten, also eggs, milk, and butter, in almost all countries. The Church has forbidden the use of meat because Christ sacrificed His flesh for us; also because meat is an article of food easily dispensed with, and yet what men generally like best. Another reason is to remind us that the lusts of the flesh are to be resisted (Gal. v. 19), and these are fostered by eating meat. Some people quote Our Lord’s words: “Not those things which go into the mouth defile the man” (Matt. xv. 11), as opposed to this prohibition; but He also said: “The things that come from the heart, those things defile the man” (Matt. xv. 18). Disobedience to the Church comes from the heart, and this it is which defiles, not the actual meat. If Christmas Day falls on a Friday, meat is allowed, because Our Lord would not have us fast at a season of rejoicing (Matt. ix. 15).
In early ages the use of meat was also forbidden on Saturdays.
The original object of this prohibition was to suppress the observance of the Sabbath day, which still lingered among Christian converts. It is now done away with; yet Christians often impose some restriction upon their amusements on Saturday, in view of better sanctifying the morrow.
2. During the forty days of Lent only one full meal is to be taken, as a partial imitation of Our Lord’s fast of forty days, and as a suitable preparation for celebrating the festival of Easter.
The forty days of Lent begin on Ash Wednesday, and last until Easter Day; the Sundays alone are not fasting days.
The Lenten fast was instituted by the apostles in commemoration of Our Lord’s fast in the wilderness (Matt. iv.). It is a time of penance and of sorrow for sin; hence violet vestments are worn at the altar. It is natural to fast when we are in grief (Matt. ix. 15). We ought also during Lent to meditate upon Our Lord’s Passion, which is commemorated in Holy Week, and which usually forms the theme of the Lenten sermons. By fasting and meditation upon Our Lord’s Passion we most readily awake within ourselves the grace of contrition and consciousness of sin. The forty days of Lent are also a preparation for the Easter festival. In early times the fast was much more rigorous; the primitive Christians ate no meat all the time, and did not break their fast until the evening. Even in the Middle Ages meat was prohibited; those who ate it were not admitted to the paschal communion (Council of Toledo, 653). Those who broke this law were punished by the secular authority on the ground of contempt for religion. The rule of fasting is made very easy nowadays. All that the Church requires of us is to take only one full meal in the course of the day; a slight refection is permitted in the morning, besides the evening collation. Drinking does not break the fast; yet we must only drink to quench our thirst, not in order to compensate for privations in the way of solid food. No one is required to keep the fast of Lent who has not attained the age of twenty-one years.
3. We ought to keep the fast of the Ember days strictly, in order to implore almighty God to send us good priests, and to thank Him for the benefits received during the past quarter.
The Ember days are three in number, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, at the commencement of each quarter (quatuor tempora); of old these were the appointed seasons for ordination to the priesthood.
The Ember days of the winter season fall in the third week of Advent, of the spring quarter in the second week of Lent; in summer in Whitsunweek and in autumn in the third week in September. The Jews were accustomed to fast four times a year (Zach. viii. 19). Christ enjoined upon us the duty of praying for good priests, in the words: “The harvest indeed is great, but the laborers are few. Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest that He send forth laborers into His harvest” (Matt. ix. 37, 38).
4. We are also bound to fast on the vigils of certain feasts, in order the better to prepare ourselves for celebrating those feasts.
The better our preparation, the more abundant are the graces we obtain on the feast itself. The early Christians were accustomed to assemble together on the eves of great festivals, to pass the night in watching and prayer, and in assisting at the holy sacrifice of the Mass. This they did because had they held the services in the day time, they would have been liable to disturbance on the part of the pagans. Our Lord Himself used often to pass whole nights in prayer (Luke vi. 12). When at a later period the attendance at the nightly services fell off, and inconveniences arose, the Popes judged it advisable to transfer the celebration of the vigil to the daytime. The vigil of Christmas is the only one in which the nightly celebration has been retained up to the present time; of all the others nothing survives but the past.
These vigils are the days preceding the four great festivals of Christmas, Pentecost, the Assumption, and All Saints’ Day.
[Ed. NOTE: the seventh edition had this text: These vigils are the days preceding the three great festivals: that is, Christmas Eve, Holy Saturday, and the Saturday before Pentecost. The eve of the Assumption is also kept in most dioceses, but the rule respecting the fast varies.]
5. It is by no means the desire of the Church that we should fast to the injury of our health, or that we should thereby be hindered from performing the duties of our station.
1. Consequently persons whose health is weak are permitted to eat meat on Friday.
The sick, those who are recovering from an illness, very aged people, and children under seven come within this rule. Children under seven, being incapable of sin, have no need for penance. persons who have to exert themselves very much, either physically or mentally, are in some dioceses dispensed from the Friday abstinence; this however does not depend upon the nature of their calling, so much as on the constitution of each individual, and the amount of work he has to get through daily. A dispensation is granted by some bishops to those who have to travel on Friday, as well as to those whose meals are provided for them, e.g., servants, students, soldiers; to those also who have to take their meals as best they can, such as railway guards, and to those who are staying for their health at some health resort. The poor may eat meat which is given them as an alms, otherwise they would have to go hungry. Yet all classes of people ought to endeavor to abstain on the strictest fasts, such as Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Above all, those who eat meat on abstinence days must beware lest they give scandal to others. St. Paul warns the faithful against this: “Take heed lest perhaps this your liberty become a stumbling-block to the weak” (1 Cor. viii. 9), and for his own part he says: “If meat scandalize my brother I will never eat flesh” (v. 13).
2. The following persons are dispensed from fasting (i.e., from taking only one meal in the twenty-four hours):
1. The sick, the weak, and those who are recovering from illness; 2. those who do hard work and cannot, if they fast, fulfill the duties of their state of life; 3. those who are too poor to buy strengthening food for their chief meal; and, 4. those who are under twenty one or who have passed their fifty-ninth year.
[ed. note: the seventh edition had this text instead of the prior list: … those who are under twenty-one years of age, or who are constitutionally delicate, or who have continued, strenuous exertion, whether physical or mental.]
Young people who have not done growing require more than one full meal a day; of invalids we have already spoken. In the class who are engaged in active and laborious work, we include those who exert themselves for the temporal or spiritual welfare of their fellow-men, such as confessors, preachers, catechists, schoolmasters, nurses, physicians, magistrates, etc., who frequently require to take something to sustain their strength. When the influenza was so prevalent, a general dispensation from fasting was granted. The command to keep ourselves in health is given by God, and is a law of our nature; whereas the precept of fasting is laid on us by the Church; and the law of God is paramount above the law of the Church. Those who cannot fast should substitute for it some other good work. Confessors have ordinarily power to dispense from fasting, and impose some other good work, prayers or alms, in its place.
3. No one ought to carry fasting to an excess, for what God requires from us is our reasonable service (Rom. xii. 1).
He who overdoes fasting is like a coachman who whips his horses into a gallop, and runs the risk of upsetting the carriage; or like an overladen vessel, that is easily capsized. Even some of the saints went to an excess in fasting, and afterwards much regretted it. No one ought to venture to do more than the rule prescribes, without the advice of his confessor. Obedience is far better than self-willed piety. As a rule it is preferable to be temperate every day of the week than to fast rigorously on one or two days. Fasting is intended to destroy the evil lusts of the body, not the body itself. We must deal v with our bodies as a parent deals with his child; he does not chastise him when he is docile, but when he is disobedient. Fasting, like medicine, must be used in moderation or it becomes injurious.
6. Fasting is beneficial both for the soul and the body.
The intellectual powers are sharpened by moderation in our food. At Nabuchodonosor’s court Daniel ate pulse and drank water, and he surpassed in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom all the wise men of the kingdom (Dan. i.). By fasting the soul is fortified and enabled both to bring the body into subjection (1 Cor. ix. 27), and to overcome the temptations of the devil. The fortress surrenders when the garrison is starved out; so the body, under stress of hunger, yields to the will and the understanding. Our bodies have to be tamed like wild animals. The devil regards the flesh as his best ally; he knows that the enemy at a man’s fireside can do him the worst and the greatest harm. By fasting we put our foe in irons, so that he cannot wage war against us. The bird of prey loves a fat prize, he does not make the half-starved one his victim. The athlete who “refraineth himself in all things” (1 Cor. ix. 25), in preparation for the contest, is most likely to conquer. A high degree of virtue is also acquired by means of fasting. It inclines man to prayer; it helps him to overcome himself, to be gentle, patient, and chaste; it makes him resemble the angels, who neither eat nor drink. In the same proportion that the animal part of our nature is lessened, our spiritual nature is invigorated; like the scales of a balance, as one goes down the other rises. Our health is improved and our life prolonged by abstemiousness. It is the parent of good health. The hermits in the Theban desert fasted rigorously and they lived to be a hundred years old. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, reached the age of one hundred and forty years; this he attributed to the fact that he never fully satisfied his appetite. The Wise Man says: “He that is temperate shall prolong his life” (Ecclus. xxxvii. 34); “a moderate man also enjoys wholesome and sound sleep” (Ecclus. xxxi. 24). By fasting we obtain from God the pardon of our sins; witness the Ninivites when they fasted; by it we also work off some of our purgatory. God hears and answers the prayers of those who fast; He heard the prayers of the centurion, who fasted until the ninth hour (Acts x. 30), and sent an angel to him. When Holofernes laid siege to Bethulia, the inhabitants betook themselves to prayer and fasting, and they were delivered in a marvelous manner by Judith. St. Augustine calls fasting and almsgiving the two pinions of prayer. Fasting is a means of earning extraordinary graces, for God has ever been wont to recompense it with singular favors. After Moses had fasted, he was admitted to the honor of conversing with God upon Sinai. After Elias long fast, God appeared to him upon Mount Horeb (3 Kings xix.). He who fasts, grows more and more spiritual; he is in a measure divinized, hence God vouchsafes to hold intercourse with him (Rodriguez). Fasting is rewarded after death. Moses and Elias were present at Our Lord’s transfiguration, because they alone of all the patriarchs had fasted forty days as He did. Hence we see that glory is reserved in a future life for those who fast in this world. In the Preface for Lent the Church sings: “Who by a bodily fast restrainest vices, upliftest our minds, and grantest strength and rewards.”
7. Abstinence from food is only pleasing to God if, at the same time, we refrain from sin and perform good works.
Fasting is not in itself an excellent thing (1 Cor. viii. 8), but only as a means whereby the suppression of our vices and the practice of virtue is facilitated. How does it profit a man if he abstains from meat, and by his calumnies destroys his neighbor’s reputation? Such a one may be compared to a whited sepulchre, outwardly beautiful, but foul within (Matt. xxiii. 27). The devil does not eat, yet he is unceasingly employed in doing evil. Fasting without prayer is like a lamp without oil, because we only fast to pray better. Fasting without almsgiving is a field without seed; it fosters the weeds of avarice. He fasts for himself, not for God, who does not give to the poor what he denies to himself.
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