On Fasting and Abstinence

Some may inquire (and I hope to provide) some guidance on Lenten fasting.  For many years, those of us who didn’t grow up in the fullness of the Church, we would ‘fast’ on Lent meaning we would give up chocolate or TV.  We would most likely fail because these weren’t things that were spiritually edifying us but just done because that’s what you do.  When I began my journey into the Catholic faith, I wanted to know — how does an Anglican fast?

Well, let’s look to the Church for answers, and a modern answer to that question is found in Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book.  The edition I have is from 1964, but it’s guidance can still speak for us today.  To summarize, abstinence is lowering the quality of the food you eat (i.e., meatless Fridays) and Fasting is lowering the amount of food you eat.  The normal days of Fasting & Abstinence are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  Some may both fast and abstain on Wednesday and Fridays in Lent.  Fasting, or lowering the amount of food you eat, is normally done through all 40 days of Lent (excluding Sundays). One fast that is mentioned, but not required in the Anglican Church, is the Eucharistic fast.  This fast can be from midnight up until 1 hour before you are to receive Holy Communion.

None of these are required, as per our Canon Law, but they are suggested to us to help lessen our vices and attachments and to attach ourselves further to Christ and His Church.  Another suggestion that I have is to take on a spiritual discipline during Lent.  For Anglicans, if you don’t pray the Daily Office (morning and evening prayer) on a regular basis, I would suggest taking that up during Lent.  You can also make Lent a time of giving and service.

The most important thing to remember is that we are walking with Jesus and preparing our hearts and bodies to be vessels for his worship and service.

Fasting is a Christian duty. In modern times it is customary to distinguish between abstinence (in which the quality of food is lowered, usually by not eating meat) and fasting (in which the quantity of food is reduced as well) although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably. The discipline “which the Church requires” is widely recognized to be the following:

Rules of Fasting and Abstinence

1. Abstinence from flesh meat on Fridays throughout the year (except those falling on Christmas or Epiphany or between those feasts).

2. Fasting, usually meaning not more than a light breakfast, one full meal, and one half meal, on the forty days of Lent.

3. Fasting with abstinence on Ember Days, on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent, and on Easter Even up to noon, at which time Lent is commonly held to end and Eastertide to begin.

Those who cannot choose their food (soldiers, certain employees, etc.) should eat what is set before them, although they should welcome the opportunity to observe abstinence. (It is understood, however, that in tropical countries, where meat is heard to obtain and therefore not an ordinary part of the diet, abstinence is commuted to some other form of discipline than going without flesh meat.) Illness, old age, extreme youth, and heavy manual work excuse from fasting, but the major Fast Days of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, as the American Prayer-Book indicates, are stricter in obligation, though not in observance, than the other Fast Days, and therefore should not be neglected except in cases of serious illness or other necessity of an absolute character.

The desire to imitate the stricter fasts of previous ages, or of saintly ascetics such as the Tractarians, may be a moving of divine love, or sometimes it may be a love of singularity. But since the practice may be unwise, it should never be undertaken without consultation with a competent spiritual guide.

However, certain Vigils, formerly of obligation but no longer listed in the American Prayer-Book, may commendably be observed by fasting and abstinence, in honor of the labors of our Lord and His Saints, as:

Fasts of Devotion

1. Christmas Eve
2. Vigil of Pentecost
3. Vigil of All Saints

Easter Even is a Vigil, but is not listed as a Fast of Devotion because it is normally observed as a Lenten day of fasting with abstinence up to noon, at which time, according to the usual reckoning, Eastertide begins.

The Eucharistic Fast

The fast before Communion is not primarily an act of penance, but one of homage to our Lord, in order to receive the Blessed Sacrament as the first food of the day. It is normally a strict fast from both food and drink from midnight. At the Midnight Mass of Christmas it is natural and reverent, though not of obligation, to fast for some hours beforehand. No fast before Communion is required of those in danger of death. (And this is held to justify some relaxation in the case of those on active duty in the armed forces, for whom the fast from midnight may, if necessary, be replaced, according to widespread practice, by one of two to four hours, under the authority of Chaplains or others ministering to those involved.) Liquid food may be allowed to those seriously ill, or to those bed-ridden for over a month, but in such cases, no one should presume to “dispense himself,” for the Priest who dispenses the Sacrament is the guardian of the Church’s requirements, from whom a formal dispensation should ordinarily be sought.

Since the eucharistic fast is not penitential, it is not understood to prohibit smoking. However, common sense and good manners ought to regulate those things which do not fall within the formal regulations of the Church, such as smoking, the use of lipstick, propriety of dress, and personal cleanliness.

There is no law of the Catholic Church as to what hours of the day or night the Eucharist is to be celebrated. The law concerns only the fast before Communion, and thus the hour for celebration must be set according to the ability of the Celebrant and Communicants to fast from midnight previous to reception. Hence there is no justification for celebrating the Eucharist in the afternoon or evening, except those unusual circumstances indicated above, which may, by permission from the proper superior authority, excuse from the normal observance of the fast, namely, imminence of death or danger thereof, or absolute impossibility of normal reception of the Holy Communion.


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