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Catholic Culture Overview

Catholic Activity: Value of Fasting, The



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This explanation of the value of fasting is taken from the first volume of The Church's Year of Grace by Dr. Pius Parsch.


Is fasting really worthwhile? Whenever I consider the value of a religious practice, I always look into the earthly life of our Savior. He is our model. He dwelt with us in order to teach us how to form our lives inwardly and outwardly. Christ Himself fasted often and accorded it high praise in His teaching. Recall how He fasted forty days before entering upon His work of teaching. At the beginning of Lent the Church wishes to stamp this fact deep in our hearts: our fasting must be in union with and in imitation of Christ's.

I call to mind the mystery-laden, pregnant words spoken by our Savior when the disciples, unable to cure a possessed boy, asked, "Why could we not cast him out?," and Jesus answered, "This kind can be driven out in no way except by prayer and fasting" (Mark 9:29). This reply has always made the deepest impression on me. Prayer and fasting are extraordinary means (we may call them violent means) when other simpler ways are of no avail against the powers of hell.

Now another saying of Jesus comes to mind. When John's disciples began to reproach Him, "Why do Your disciples not fast?" He replied: "Can you make the wedding guests fast as long as the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them; in those days they will fast" (Luke 5:35). There is a hidden depth of meaning in these words. The coming of Christ among men was a wedding feast. Fasting had no place. But it is most proper to fast when the divine Bridegroom is taken away. Fasting on Fridays and during Holy Week, then, is in accord with Christ's own wishes.

I should like to cite one further passage from the Gospel, one which casts light on fasting from another direction. Once our Savior compared Himself with the Baptist in these words, "John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a devil!' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Behold a glutton and a wine drinker."' John was a man devoted to penance, an ascetic, who fasted throughout his life. Not so Christ. His way of living was not based exclusively upon self-denial and mortification, but upon an ordered enjoyment of life. So we learn from the Savior that fasting should be the exception, not the rule, in Christian morality.

To complete the lesson let us consider for a moment the passage in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus speaks of the three important pious exercises of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. He highly recommends all three, but warns against practicing these virtues in a pharisaical manner.

The main points in Jesus' doctrine on fasting, then, are:

  1. Fasting is an extremely important means of resisting the inroads of hell (hence Lent).
  2. Fasting should be practiced as a memorial of Christ's death (Friday, Holy Week).
  3. Fast days occur by way of exception in Christian life, they are not the normal practice.
  4. Fasting holds a place alongside prayer and almsgiving as a pious exercise.
And now the question, how was fasting practiced in the ancient Church? Before me lies a venerable document from the first Christian century, the "Teaching of the Twelve Apostles" or the Didache. It says, "You should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays," in contrast to the Jews "who fast on Mondays and Thursdays." And in another place, "Before baptism he who baptizes and he who is baptized should fast, and some others also if possible; be sure to instruct the catechumen to fast one or two days before his baptism." Here we have a clear statement on the practice of fasting in the Church about 90 A.D. Fasting was then understood to imply—unlike our ideas on the matter—not merely abstinence from meat or limitation to one meal, but complete abstinence from all food.

I could now quote from individual Fathers of the Church; there is hardly one who does not strongly recommend fasting. In the Office, for example, we read a sermon by St. Basil the Great (d. 379) on fasting. He scans the whole religious history and shows what mighty deeds were accomplished through fasting and what dire misfortunes were due to immoderation.

And if, finally, we analyze the liturgical texts on the subject of fasting, we find nothing but the highest praise. The finest and briefest summary is found in the Lenten Preface-three short, pregnant statements—"Through bodily fasting You suppress our vices, elevate our minds, bestow strength and merit." A whole philosophy of fasting in one sentence!

Activity Source: Church's Year of Grace, Volumes 1-5 by Dr. Pius Parsch, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1964