Last year about this time I wrote a post about food for Mardis Gras, so this year I thought I’d better muzzle my inner epicure and write something about fasting for Lent. Lent, of course, is bookended by two days of fasting, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but I’m not going to write about either of those fasts. Nor am I going to focus on the common practice of giving something up, another variation on fasting. Instead I thought I’d write about that fasting which should be a part of the ordinary weekly routine of every practicing Catholic.
Lost already? I thought about titling this post the “forgotten fast,” because the fasting I have in mind is the Eucharistic fast, a practice today as often forgotten as observed.
Prior to 1957 the faithful were obliged to refrain from food and drink starting at midnight on any day they planned to receive communion. This fast was reduced to three hours before communion, and then in 1964 it was reduced again to one hour. Unfortunately, as has happened with a number of Catholic practices, when a requirement becomes too easy, people stop taking it seriously, and today many ignore the pre-communion fast—if they’ve heard of it at all.
While the amount of time involved hardly constitutes a privation, the spirituality behind the Eucharistic fast is important, and perhaps this Lent would be a good time to rediscover its meaning. After all, just because we are only required to fast for one hour, that doesn’t mean we are limited to the minimum.
The chief reason I think the Eucharistic fast deserves to be remembered is that it extends the celebration of the Eucharist outward from the Mass itself into our daily life. The second Vatican Council teaches us that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of our faith, a phrase far more challenging than what it might seem on the surface.
I’ve sometimes used that phrase as the basis of my examination of conscience, and doing so reveals just how demanding the Council’s words are. Is my participation in the Sunday Eucharist really the summit of my week? Can I really be said to order my life around that celebration? Or is it just one event in a list of other things to do? And do I really continue to “live the Mass” for longer than it takes me to pull out of the church parking lot?
My answers to such exam questions, I’m afraid to admit, would rarely get me more than a “C” if I were being graded. The requirement to fast before receiving the Eucharist is one small—but by no means insignificant—way the Church gives us to help boost that grade. Fasting for even a short time before Mass is a concrete way in which the celebration of the Eucharist starts having an impact on the countless small, everyday decisions that make up most of our existence on this earth.
Done with the right attitude—an attitude that sees praying the Mass as something that requires us to step away from worldly distractions and focus on what most matters—the fast can be a first step toward leading lives that are truly “Eucharistic.”
Furthermore, since fasting involves giving up nourishment and the pleasure that comes from eating—and, believe me, I take such pleasure seriously!—doing so before communion reminds us of the mystery of the Cross which we are about celebrate: the knowledge that resurrection comes at a cost, that communion with Jesus involves entering into his self-renunciation.
I should also mention the connection between fasting and penitence, and how appropriate it is that a penitential practice should precede our reception of the Eucharist. A much weightier way of preparing ourselves for communion is, of course, a sober examination of conscience in which we ask ourselves if we are, in fact, leading lives consistent with our faith and seek forgiveness in the sacrament of Reconciliation if we are not. It’s important to remember—though perhaps hard to get our heads around the idea—that living moral lives is not the final goal of our religion. In fact, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we attempt to lead good lives so that we can receive the Eucharist. It’s the Eucharist—communion with God—that’s the summit of everything else.
It now appears that I’ve ended up writing another pre-Lenten post about food, so my inner epicure must be hardier than I thought. But, as every epicure knows, not all foods are created equal. We have in the Eucharist not just a meal, but nourishment for which it is worth renouncing all other earthly goods. It’s well worth locking the Cheetos in the cupboard for an hour if it helps us to better savor the Bread of Angels.