Lent originated from the intense preparation of catechumens on the days preceding the Easter Vigil, as they prepared to receive Baptism:
They who are to be baptized shall fast on Friday, and on Saturday the bishop shall assemble them and command them to kneel in prayer. And laying his hand upon them, he shall exorcise all evil spirits to flee away and never to return; when he has done this he shall breathe in their faces, seal their foreheads, ears and noses, and then raise them up. They shall spend all that night in vigil, listening to reading and instruction.
Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition
This time of prayer and fasting was extended to the entire Church as a means of renewing one’s baptismal promises, entering into the symbolic period of a forty day fast in imitation of Christ’s time in the desert. Ironically, Ramadan is the most faithful continuation of the original Christian fast (arising in imitation of it), as in the early Lent no food was permitted during the day and in the evening no meat, animal products, oil, or wine could be consumed.
Even in the Middle Ages no animal products could be consumed throughout the entirety of Lent and only one meal was allowed, although a small collation earlier in the day began to be permitted (see my earlier post on how this originated the word “noon”). Needless to say, Lent has become a shadow of what it once was, at least in terms of what is required by the Church. Only two fast days remain in the Latin Church and even on those days three meals are still allowed (even if two of them are very small). No true fasting remains.
Is a Forty Day Fast Reasonable?
I often hear people say that we are no longer strong enough to fast as they did in past ages. I would counter that we need fasting much more than they did in the past. We have much more need of purging our senses and pulling back from the luxury of our culture. Although it is common to abstain from something we like (chocolate, TV, etc.), I would urge Catholics voluntarily to return to a true fast throughout Lent. What I mean is that we should eat less each day, perhaps skipping breakfast, giving up meat entirely, or embracing the Church’s light fasting requirement for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday throughout the whole season.
Although abstaining from other things is good and helpful, it is important to return to the true nature of Lent as a forty day fast. That is what Lent is. This should help us also to enter more deeply into prayer, seeing the fruit that Jesus spoke of in combining prayer and fasting to remove the most serious spiritual obstacles: “This kind [of demon] cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29). Making Lent of time of more serious prayer and fasting can help drive out obstinate demons from our life and can lead to deeper renewal in the Church.
What the Church Teaches
This kind of fast is still implicitly recommended by the Church, as we see in the Catechism (CCC) and the Code of Canon Law, which lists the entire season of Lent as penitential days and encourages fasting as one form of observing them:. Fasting is not required by one way of doing the penance enjoined during Lent.
CCC 1438 The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).
Code of Canon Law, Canon 1249 The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.
Can. 1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.
Can. 1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Although no longer mandated by the Church, embracing a forty day fast for Lent will bear fruit in our lives. It will help us to take Lent more seriously, strengthen our prayer, and grow in spiritual discipline.
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