Fasting has taken on a life of its own, with fasting and cleanses being offered in conjunction with various diets and body purification programs. However, this type of abstaining is still practiced by various religions for numerous reasons. Catholics are one of the biggest groups to still embrace this practice.
So why do Catholics fast? There are multiple reasons why modern-day Catholics fast. These reasons include purifying oneself physically, improving one’s spirituality, humbling oneself before the Lord and others, or simply a sense of religious obligation.
Romans 14:17 ESV
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Fasting is a little understood part of the Catholic religion that a lot of individuals have questions about.
What is fasting, really?
Fasting is normally a reference to abstaining from food or drink, but it may also include abstinence of other things as well.
The behavior of abstaining from pleasant things may be paired with prayers and devotional time in an effort to draw closer to the Lord, or to separate oneself from things that are taking up time and interest outside of a relationship with God.
Christians sometimes fast not from food, but abstain from things they enjoy such as television, social media, or even sex. Fasting should be connected to something that it is difficult to live without, or at least something you FEEL you cannot live without for an extended period of time.
Many of us feel like we cannot start out the day without watching the news or checking our social media accounts- so “fasting” those things can cause as much, or more, discomfort that missing a few meals.
Some people may go a step farther- for example, if secular music is your norm- you may decide to abstain from your normal radio stations and listen only to Christian stations for your fasting period to show your commitment to cleansing your palette- your body- of secular things and focus more fully on your religious journey.
The word “Fast” is derived from roots that mean to restrain, observe, keep or hold. In today’s society, fasting has become common place outside of religion because of its physical benefits. Fasting can help an individual to remove toxins from the body if done in the correct manner. However, if you fast for too long, it can have opposite effect- causing damage to your system.
The bible does not outline how long we should fast, and this is probably because what He is asking of us is not a physical cleansing, but something more. Though purification is something that is discussed within biblical teaching, He is not asking us to harm ourselves through fasting- only to refocus our physical, spiritual and mental energy.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
Catholics feel that the act of fasting can improve a believer’s spirituality. When we face physical hunger, and even pain, we begin to realize that our spirituality is more important than our physical discomfort. By removing something as pleasurable as a good meal or the feeling of a full belly, we draw closer to God. Even embracing the actual feeling of hunger can remind us of the pain faced by Jesus.
Fasting allows us to humble ourselves before the Lord. Denying ourselves the physical comfort from food allows us to submit to the will of God, showing our dependence on Him. For, without the Lord, we would not have the food that fills our bodies- the nourishment that keeps us healthy. Fasting is a reminder that without His love and grace, we would have nothing.
“Then I proclaimed a fast . . . that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a straight way for ourselves, our children, and all our goods” (Ezra 8:21).
When you are raised as a Catholic, fasting can become an obligation, or even a tradition, and -in our fast-paced lives- we may not stop to think about the reasons WHY we are fasting. A reminder call from mom or grandma may be the only reasoning behind our fasting. However, it is important to stop and remember the REAL reason behind the act.
Seeking Biblical Guidance on the subject can help to ground us- help us to remember the WHY. Matthew 6:16-18 reminds us of this sentiment in this way:
16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
This tells us that Fasting is not something that should be obligatory or used to garner attention for ourselves- but it should be an extension of your prayers and conversations with the Lord. As in prayer, fasting is another way to petition God, to speak to Him of our thanks and our needs.
When should we fast?
Catholics in the US fast on all of the days of Lent, the Fridays of Advent, the Ember Days, the vigils of Christmas and Pentecost as well as days of the Assumption and All Saints Day.
Outside of these holy days, individual fasting may take place at any time. When faced with a difficult decision or a need for guidance, Catholics will sometimes fast in anticipation of answers to their prayers. This fasting is normally paired with increased prayers or acts of contrition.
Fasting and prayer may also be included in penance for sins, normally given by a priest after confession.
“David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground” (2 Samuel 12:16)
What does fasting consist of?
When fasting, individuals eat only one meal within a 24-hour period, normally at lunch time, or the mid-day meal as defined in scripture. During this time, there is also abstaining from meat. The mid-day meal should be a full meal that will help with feeling somewhat satisfied during the fasting period to come.
For because He himself has suffered when tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted.
At one point, fasting as a Catholic practice was done on every Friday as well as the entire Lent period. This was intended for the purpose of self-denial and a form of abstinence for spiritual discipline and to commemorate the 40 days that Jesus fasted in the desert.
Though some individuals give up other items for Lent, this is not mandatory and is also not included in specific Biblical verses.
The practice of abstaining from meat on the Friday’s during Lent is meant to commemorate the sacrifice made by Jesus on the cross. Because Jesus sacrificed His flesh, our sacrifice is not eating “flesh meat” during this time.
The type of meat included in this ban is the meat of warm-blooded animals. This normally includes beef, pork and poultry. Fish is not included in this ban and is normally substituted for red meat during this period. Catholics are also allowed to eat meat byproducts such as eggs and dairy products.
When looking into the reasons why Catholics fast, there are varied reasons, with some being biblically based, some based on church mandates, and others are self imposed. Whatever the reason for the fast, the overall purpose is to allow us to grow in our faith as we grow closer to God and try to live a Christ like existence.
If you are interested in learning about other Religions in the world, then check out this book on World’s Religions on Amazon.