Fasting: Not Just for Lent

Catholics ordinarily associate the concept of fasting with the Lenten season. The only two required days of fasting in the Church, after all, mark the beginning and end of Lent — Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. But twice recently, high-ranking members of the Church’s hierarchy have called for days of prayer and fasting in association with the violence in Israel. Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, called for a day of fasting on Tuesday, October 17, and more recently the Holy Father himself has called for Catholics and members of other Christian bodies to fast for peace on Friday, October 27.

This is a good reminder that fasting is not limited to just one season of the year. This ancient spiritual discipline should be part of our prayer life year-round, especially in times of great need.

What is fasting?

Most practicing Catholics know the typical fasting rules for Lent. But do the same rules apply other times of the year?

It’s good to begin by first establishing just what we mean by “fasting.” In very basic terms, fasting means abstaining from food. But it doesn’t have to mean forgoing food completely. Think of the forty days Jesus fasted in the desert (Mt 4:1-11). Or in the Old Testament, Judith is said to have fasted for the three years and four months of her widowhood, except for sabbaths and feast days (Judith 8:4-6). Yes, it is possible that God could miraculously sustain a person for prolonged periods without food, but there is no indication in the Biblical text that these were miraculous events.

Fasting can also mean limiting the amount of food eaten, or restricting the times which you eat. For example, Muslims observe a fast from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan, eating only during the night. In the Catholic Church, the norm for fasting is to limit yourself to one meal per day (see Pope Paul VI’s 1966 Apostolic Constitution on Penance, Paenitemini). This does not prohibit taking additional food, if needed, as long as it does not equal another full meal.

As mentioned above, the only required days of fasting in the Catholic Church are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, although the faithful are encouraged to observe a voluntary fast on all weekdays of Lent (see paragraph 14 of the US Bishops’ 1966 Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence). In that same document, the bishops specified that the law of fasting only binds those between the ages of 18 and 59.

And if you have health concerns that would prohibit you from going long periods without food, you are also not bound to fast. The idea is to grow spiritually, not to harm your body.

Why fast?

So that’s what fasting is, but why fast at all? Fasting can be undertaken for a variety of reasons. Some people practice fasting for physical health, as a means of losing weight. As a spiritual discipline, fasting has ancient origins and is practiced across many cultures. In the Christian tradition, fasting has been observed as a form of penance, as a means of building spiritual discipline, and as an aid to prayer.

Fasting, combined with prayer, is a powerful way of making an appeal to God in times of need. It is no coincidence that at the same time the leaders of our Church are calling upon us to fast, in the Office of Readings (part of the Liturgy of the Hours) we are making our way through the Book of Esther.

In that book, Esther asks the Jewish people to join her in a three-day fast before she goes before King Ahasuerus to plead for the survival of her people.

“Go and assemble all the Jews who are in Susa; fast on my behalf, all of you, not eating or drinking night or day for three days. I and my maids will also fast in the same way. Thus prepared, I will go to the king…”

Esther 4:16

Today, we are being asked to fast not only for the survival of the Jews, but for peace between Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, and for all the peoples of the Holy Land, that this land where our Lord was born, lived, died and rose from death, and where God formed a special people to be His own, may once more be a land of peace and prosperity for all who dwell there.

Let us join with the Holy Father and Christians around the world in a day of fasting and prayer on Oct 27, and as often as we are able and feel called by the Spirit.