What's the point of fasting, anyway?
God commanded it, Jesus practiced it, Church Fathers have preached the importance of it– fasting is a powerful and fundamental part of the Christian life.
But for many Catholics today, it’s more of an afterthought: something we grudgingly do on Good Friday, perhaps on Ash Wednesday if we remember it. Would we fast more, especially during Lent, if we understood how helpful it is for our lives?
The answer to this, say both saints of the past and experts today, is a resounding “yes.”
“Let us take for our standard and for our example those that have run the race, and have won,” said Deacon Sabatino Carnazzo, founding executive director of the Institute of Catholic Culture and a deacon at Holy Transfiguration Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Mclean, Va., of the saints.
“And…those that have run the race and won have been men and women of prayer and fasting.”
So what, in essence, is fasting?
It’s “the deprivation of the good, in order to make a decision for a greater good,” explained Deacon Carnazzo. It is most commonly associated with abstention from food, although it can also take the form of giving up other goods like comforts and entertainment.
The current fasting obligation for Latin Catholics in the United States is this: all over the age of 14 must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all Fridays in Lent. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, adults age 18 to 59 must fast – eating no more than one full meal and two smaller meals that together do not add up in quantity to the full meal.
Catholics, “if possible,” can continue the Good Friday fast through Holy Saturday until the Easter Vigil, the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference adds.
Other Fridays throughout the year (aside from Friday within the Octave of Easter) “are penitential days and times throughout the entire Church,” according to Canon Law 1250. Catholics once abstained from meat on all Fridays, but the U.S. bishops received permission from the Holy See for Catholics to substitute another sacrifice or perform an act of charity instead.
Eastern Rite Catholics, meanwhile, follow the fasting laws of their own particular church.
In their 1966 “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence,” the National Conference of Catholic Bishops exhorted the faithful, on other days of Lent where fasting is not required, to “participation in daily Mass and a self-imposed observance of fasting.”
Aside from the stipulations, though, what’s the point of fasting?
“The whole purpose of fasting is to put the created order and our spiritual life in a proper balance,” Deacon Carnazzo said.
As “bodily creatures in a post-fallen state,” it’s easy to let our “lower passions” for physical goods supersede our higher intellect, he explained. We take good things for granted and reach for them whenever we feel like it, “without thinking, without reference to the One Who gives us the food, and without reference to the question of whether it’s good for us or not,” he added.
Thus, fasting helps “make more room for God in our life,” Monsignor Charles Pope, pastor of Holy Comforter/St. Cyprian Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. said.
“And the Lord said at the well, with the (Samaritan) woman, He said that ‘everyone that drinks from this well is going to be thirsty again. Why don’t you let me go to work in your life and I’ll give you a fountain welling up to Eternal Life.’”
While fasting can take many forms, is abstaining from food especially important?
“The reason why 2000 years of Christianity has said food (for fasting), because food’s like air. It’s like water, it’s the most fundamental,” Deacon Carnazzo said. “And that’s where the Church says ‘stop right here, this fundamental level, and gain control there.’ It’s like the first step in the spiritual life.”