For many Catholics, fasting is usually thought of primarily (almost exclusively) during the liturgical season of Lent, the 40-day penitential period leading up to Easter. During this time, the faithful focus on fasting, prayer, and almsgiving to prepare the heart and soul for the solemnity of Easter. But after these 40 days, many forget all about fasting until the next year.
Advent, however, is also a penitential season which we participate in through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Just like during Lent, we ready ourselves through an Advent fast (piccola quaresina as my grandmother called it, meaning “little Lent), to prepare our hearts and souls for the coming of the newborn King.
Both of these practices should hold their place in the experience of the reverent and festive seasons of Advent and Christmas.
Now, I know what you might be thinking, is it even possible to fast during Advent when Christmas brunches, holiday luncheons and cookie exchange parties are happening all around you?
I believe it is, especially when you consider that fasting helps us to focus on the spiritual value of this beautiful season. This is the time for preparing our hearts and souls. Jesus indeed comes to save his people and we must be prepared to meet Him and to celebrate the beautiful feast of His birthday.
The spiritual benefits of fasting can be so rich that many believe this practice should be embraced throughout the whole liturgical year. Christian texts, as well as the Old and New Testaments, show fasting was common in the early Christian community. Drawing from the example of Christ and the disciples, early Christians saw fasting as a way to increase closeness with God through denial of self. Fasting breaks the enslavement to material objects (in this case, food) and “helps us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes (2043).
Until 1966, every Friday was a day of mandatory fasting and abstinence from meat. That year, the U.S. Bishops issued a pastoral statement abolishing the mandatory practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays in the country. While they encouraged the faithful to still practice this fast or to substitute other penitential practices, it is not as common today.
Still mandatory, however, is the one hour fast before receiving Holy Communion. Originally, this fast began at midnight but, after 1964, the fast was reduced to one hour before reception of the Eucharist.
Physical hunger anticipates and echoes a spiritual hunger, to be satisfied by the true food of Christ’s own Body and Blood. Fasting gives way to festivity and celebration, emptiness to fullness, hunger to true satiety. Think of an Advent fast in this same way.
Just like during Lent and the Communion fast, we ready ourselves through an Advent fast to gird our hearts and souls for the coming of the newborn King.
In a sermon, Pope St. Leo the Great shared the necessity of fasting for spiritual growth. Traditionally, fasts were observed at four different times during the year so that they were in sync with the seasons. The liturgical fasts allow the Christian to serve the Creator in union with his creation, and to build a consistent pattern of self-restraint. “When the body therefore fasts from food, let the mind fast from vices, and pass judgment upon all earthly cares and desires according to the law of its King,” the pope said.
He also expressed the spiritual duty of fasting during the month of December (historically, the tenth month in the Roman calendar). “You must observe the fast of the tenth month, whereby, for the complete harvest of all fruits, there is most fittingly offered to God, the giver of them, an offering of self- mortification,” Pope St. Leo said. “For what can be more salutary for us than fasting, by the practice of which we draw near to God, and, standing fast against the devil, defeat the vices that lead us astray.”
Let’s not forget that feasting, too, is an integral image in the Catholic life. Scripture is filled with references of feasts and banquets. Ultimately, the heavenly banquet, the wedding banquet of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9), is the final destination of the spiritual journey. Just as bodily fasts empty us to be filled with Christ, so too can feasting harken to and imitate the spiritual feast and delights of the heavenly homeland.
Fasting and penance thus “prepare us for the liturgical feasts” (CCC 2043). After Friday comes Sunday, after the fast comes the feast.
So, why do us Catholics fast?
Fasting, at its root, is a spiritual exercise. When we fast, our body feels weak. We come face to face with our humanity and are humbled.
When we take away what our body wants, it quiets down. Our souls become stronger, and prayer becomes more powerful. It is a transformative experience and a powerful spiritual weapon that helps order our flesh that tries to control us.
When we fast, we follow holy example. Moses and Elijah fasted forty days before going into God’s presence (Ex 34:28, 1 Kgs 19:8). Anna the Prophetess fasted to prepare herself for the coming of the Messiah (Lk 2:37). They all wanted to see God, and they considered fasting a basic prerequisite. We, too, wish to enter God’s presence, so we fast.
Jesus fasted (Mt 4:2). And since He needed no purification, He surely did this only to set an example for us. In fact, He assumed that all Christians would follow His example. “When you fast,” he said, “do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting” (Mt 6:16). Note that He did not say “IF you fast,” but “WHEN.”
The Bible spells out specific spiritual benefits of fasting. It produces humility (Ps 69:10). It shows our sorrow for our sins (1 Sam 7:6). It clears a path to God (Dan 9:3). It is a means of discerning God’s will (Ezra 8:21) and a powerful method of prayer (8:23). It’s a mark of true conversion (Jl 2:12).
Fasting helps us to be detached from the things of this world. We fast, not because earthly things are evil, but precisely because they’re good. They’re God’s gifts to us. But they’re so good that we sometimes prefer the gifts to the Giver. We practice self-indulgence rather than self-denial. We tend to eat and drink to the point where we forget God. Such indulgence is really a form of idolatry. It’s what St. Paul meant when he said, “their god is the belly…with minds set on earthly things” (Phi 3:19).
How can we enjoy God’s gifts without forgetting the Giver? Fasting is a good way to start. The body wants more than it needs, so we should give it less than it wants.
Fasting has its health benefits, but it’s not the same as dieting. Fasting is something spiritual and far more positive. Fasting is a spiritual feast. It does for the soul what food does for the body.
St. John of the Cross said that we cannot rise up to God if we are bound to the things of this world. So, we give up good things, and gradually we grow less dependent on them, less needy.
All of this is part of our preparation for heaven. For we’re destined to lose our earthly goods anyway. Time, age, illness and “doctor’s orders” can take away our taste for chocolate, our ability to enjoy a bowl of pasta, and even the intimate embrace of a loved one. If we have no discipline over our desires, then these losses will leave us bitter and estranged from God. But if we follow Jesus in self-denial, we’ll find a more habitual consolation in the ultimate good — God Himself.
Who should fast and where do we begin?
God wants His people to show their devotion to him through fasting. But you must be sure you are physically able before attempting this discipline. If you must adhere to a stringent diet or eating schedule, including diabetics or whose health makes fasting difficult or unhealthy, then you are exempt from the Catholic rule of fasting. It’s best for you to get the nourishment you need to stay healthy so you can continue living your life to the fullest and make a difference in the world for Christ.
Everyone 14 years of age and older is bound to the law of abstinence, and everyone 18 years of age but not yet 60 is bound to the law of fasting. Of course, one must be mindful of his or her own physical condition. These physical sacrifices help each of us to be spiritually mindful that Our Lord suffered and died for our sins.
Every Catholic should set realistic expectations for themselves before fasting. If you are a beginner who is expressing interest in fasting for the first time, you should start off slow. Consider fasting one day out of the week or adhering to the preordained fasting days of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The last thing you want to do is set a goal that is impossible to attain or adversely affect your health.
For fasting during Advent, it’s helpful to review what is expected during the season of Lent. We are called to abstain from meat on Fridays as a reminder that our Lord offered His body a flesh sacrifice for our sins. We also abstain from meat and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Here the fast entails having only one full meal a day which is sufficient to maintain one’s strength, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal.
Moreover, we should recall that every Friday of the year outside Lent remains a day of penance. While each individual may substitute the traditional abstinence from meat for another practice of self-denial or personal penance, each person should strive to do some penance to atone for sin. (Cf Code of Canon Law, No. 1251).
You already know that a regular Catholic fasting program allows less than two full meals per day throughout the fasting period. Being able to eat some food is a tremendous blessing, but you should make sure you’re eating in a way that will help you instead of making your fast more difficult. I encourage you to eat nutritiously and in moderation.
- Eat nutritious food: When you do eat, get as much nutrition as possible. Consider eating more proteins and healthy fats, which provide long-lasting energy throughout the day. Carbs and sugars provide quick spikes in energy, but they could leave you feeling tired and hungry sooner. And of course, be sure to drink plenty of water and eat foods with the essential vitamins and minerals you need.
- Eat with moderation: When it’s time for your bigger meal of the day, you may want to overeat or indulge in sweets and although this could provide momentary pleasure, it could leave you feeling groggy and unhealthy. Eat moderate portions to stay disciplined during your fast.
- Some of the flavorful, nutrient-dense, meatless meals we enjoy when fasting include breakfast soup, avocado toast, potato & onion frittata, Mediterranean lentil salad, eggs in Purgatory, pasta con le sarde, chickpea soup with tomatoes and pasta, Mediterranean fish with Sicilian vinegar, lemony-chickpea and asparagus salad, sardine and fennel salad, farro vegetable salad, tuna and cannellini bean, pesce alla Milanese, seared scallops
It takes time to develop one’s fasting experience. People who can fast for long periods may have started in the same place in which you currently find yourself. A veteran faster may be able to hold their fast for the entire forty days of Lent because they have more experience. Some may choose to fast every Friday of Lent or Advent or on various holy days throughout the year.
Focus on your own personal goals rather than on the ability of others. Fasting isn’t a competition. How often you fast and when you start fasting is a part of your own journey. Set realistic goals for yourself, and you’ll be able to experience the true blessings of fasting.
Fasting is a humbling experience. It fully reveals our reliance on God in the midst of our own weakness. When you first begin your fast, you may start feeling irritable, cranky and frustrated. While your first instinct might be to give in to these types of emotional responses, you should instead quiet yourself before God and seek him in prayer.
In Psalm 69, King David describes a difficult situation where everything seems to be going wrong in his life. Even as he fasts, the people around him ridiculed him. It would have been easy for David to lash out against the people and things in his life that were causing him difficulty. He could’ve given up on his fast and put his situation into his own hands. But what did he do instead? Verse 14 shows that David prayed to God for deliverance.
When you fast, you can take inspiration from King David and remember to go to prayer instead of focusing on the bad parts of your life. St. Peter tells us in I Peter 5:7 to give your worries to God because He cares for us. Catholic fasting and prayer go hand-in-hand. Use fasting as an opportunity to communicate with God and enjoy a deepening reliance on Him.
Last year, Pope Francis reminded believers that fasting is one of the tasks of Lent and said that even “if you cannot commit to a total fast, the kind that makes you feel hunger in your bones you can still fast humbly and consistently.”
Prayer is always helpful. In the following prayer, attributed to Pope St. Pius V, we can see the essential connection between deprivation of the body and repentance of the soul. If we commit to the former while neglecting the latter, our fasting is nothing more than dieting.
Look with favor, Lord, on your household. Grant that though our flesh be humbled by abstinence from food, our souls hungering after you, may be resplendent in your sight.
The hunger we feel in our stomachs should enhance the hunger for the Lord in our hearts. When it does, He will bless us, making our souls radiant.
The consumer commercial Christmas would have us believe that our longings can be satiated with the latest gadget, popular gift item or trendy fashion. But fasting’s discomfort reminds us that satisfaction from material goods is fleeting; only God, the source and end of all regular desires, can truly satisfy. Hence fasting can fortify us to perform the necessary material preparations for Christmas – cooking, baking, decorating, shopping, card-writing, gift-wrapping, – in a spirit that looks beyond the trimmings to their ultimate purpose: the great celebration of God coming to live among us. Even children, beaming with excitement and anticipation of coming gifts and festivities, can be reminded of the real Gift who comes at Christmas simply from encouragement to give up one small thing during Advent.
Advent looks forward not just to the first coming of Christ of Bethlehem but to His second coming at the end of time. Thus, it is a time when we remember both the perfect innocence of the Christ Child and the final judgement as we focus on preparing ourselves in the spirit of His innocence and for His just judgement. And as it has been for centuries, fasting and abstinence are part of this preparation.
In the same sermon, Pope Leo adds that “since salvation of our souls is brought about not only by fasting, let us add works of mercy for the poor to our fasting … so that whoever from his just labors offers a sacrifice of piety to God, the author of all goods, he may merit to receive from them the reward of the heavenly kingdom.”
This Advent, as we add fasting to our prayer and almsgiving, may we also merit to receive the same reward, found not in a shopping mall or a store online, but away in a manger!