As we approach the middle of Lent, I know many of you are asking, “Does Lent really have to end? But I have been loving my Lenten fasting!” Do I have great news for you!
I was born and raised Catholic and attended thirteen years of Catholic school, and it took me over thirty years to learn that fasting was a practice not reserved for Lent and, for the extra holy, Advent. Thanks to Catholic influences like Fr. Mike Schmitz, Fr. Josh Johnson, and Kendra Tierney, I have learned about the importance of (and tried to embrace) fasting and abstinence throughout the year.
Abstinence refers to the practice of giving up something good but not sinful; historically, that “good thing” has been meat. On Ash Wednesday and Fridays in Lent, Catholics are asked to abstain—hence the rise of the Lenten fish fry. Fasting, on the other hand, refers to restricting one’s intake of something, usually food. Today, Catholics typically fast only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, eating one regular meal and two smaller meals which together do not equal a full meal.
Throughout Church history, fasting and abstinence were regular practices. At one point, fasting was required on as many as seventy days a year—including every weekday in Lent and on the vigils of certain feast days. Still, Fridays throughout the year are supposed to be penitential days. According to Canon Law, “the penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent. Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episocopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday” (Can. 1250–1251). Thus, penance and abstinence of some sort are meant to be year-round Friday practices.
Similarly, we are called to fast throughout the year, not just during Lent. In Matthew 6, Jesus gives instructions on when—not if—we pray, fast, and give alms. While fasting need not be a daily occurrence, it should be a planned part of our lives and has many benefits. We practice detachment and, as we experience these small sufferings, are reminded of our reliance on God and to turn to Him in prayer. We can use fasting as offerings for our intentions. If, for example, we do not have time to pray daily for every single item on our prayer lists, we can instead offer a weekly fast for them. Many also fast to grow in a particular virtue or to accompany prayer for a loved one’s conversion or healing. In Matthew 17, when the disciples unsuccessfully cast out a demon, Jesus even indicates that some demons come out only through prayer and fasting.
A common misconception is that fasting must be food-related. Pregnant and nursing women, people younger than fourteen or older than sixty, or those who have struggled with disordered eating in the past may choose a different and more suitable fast. Similarly, while Canon Law recommends abstaining from meat because it is rooted in Church history and unites us with other Catholics who choose the same practice, those who do not find abstaining from meat to be challenging can abstain from something else in addition to or in place of meat. Giving up social media, screen time, or music and podcasts are options that anyone can do. In her beauty, the Church has given us the freedom to discern where and how Jesus is calling us to detach ourselves from the world and cling more purposefully to Him.
We should be cautious if our choices actually cause us to sin (by being excessively grumpy, for example). We should also start small and work our way up to more challenging fasts. If we struggle with overindulgence, we can give up snacks, our second cup of coffee, desserts, or drinks other than water once a week. Those who struggle with technology use can fast from using screens while waiting in line or at times they busy themselves with scrolling. Those who are physically able can even fast from using the kneelers at Mass. Over time, as we feel more comfortable and confident, we may feel called to take on more challenging fasts.
To be clear, not fasting or abstaining outside of Church requirements is not sinful. However, it is a highly useful practice to help us combat sin. In addition, you cannot sin if you do not know it is a sin (so don’t run to Confession if this is all news to you). But regardless of the manner we choose, we should try to offer these penances throughout the year, especially on Wednesdays (the day Jesus was betrayed) and Fridays (the day He died). (Note: This excludes the octaves of Christmas and Easter, as well as solemnities; these are always feast days.) Abstinence, usually from meat, is recommended on Fridays, and fasting in some way should be a regular part of our lives. And of course, we are a Resurrection people. While we remember our Lord’s crucifixion and death on Fridays, Sundays are for feasting. How much more heightened is that celebration when we regularly experience mini-Good Fridays!
So as Lent continues, we can pray and reflect on how fasting has been beneficial to our prayer, to our family time, or to our practice of virtue. How have we felt the absence of our favorite foods, podcasts, or purchases and thus remembered to offer that extra prayer or donate to the needy? How is the Lord asking us to rely less on ourselves or this world and more on Him?
But in the meantime, we can also look forward to Easter and that chocolate bunny. After a long Lent of resisting temptation, falling and recommitting ourselves, and growing in detachment, we will have certainly earned it.