From feast to fasting

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.


14 Responses to From feast to fasting

  1. William Atkinson says:

    Maybe in this day and age a real true fast would be to put down the I-pad, computer, cell-phone, droid, and blue tooth and spend day concentrating on the meaning of Jesus in our daily lives; and do it with community around you/us….

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      That’s a great idea, William. There are two important things I think all of our electronic gizmos distract us from: (1) the people directly in front of us and (2) silence.

    • John Stewart says:

      Internet articles like these require us to think below the surface, big kudos for that.

      Second, this is a double edge sword of an issue for me. Fasting, in any religion, is a brilliant way to focus your body away from consumerism in general. We do not need as much food as we think we do, and many people would be surprised with themselves if they simply cut down on what they ate. The idea of supersizing meals and overeating in general reflects most bad things about American culture. The amount of consumerism we partake in is dizzying, and sometimes we get so caught up in it that we miss the point (I recommend reading John Kavanaugh’s “Following Christ in a Consumer Society”. It really touches up on this stuff). Fasting, whether done for hours, days or weeks at a time, helps us step back into reality with God. I see that the basics draw us closer to God, and when we fast, we can see how many other human commodities distract us from our creator. It’s a brilliant point that you raise, Tony, but there is a down side as well. You see I live in Wisconsin, where brats and cheese surround me everywhere I turn. It makes fasting really difficult at times, but God wills it.

      Which raises a question, how can people even start fasting when we live in a culture where food is available whenever you want it?

      God bless.

  2. PK says:

    Many thanks for this excellent post!

    I live in Ireland, where there are still strong social norms about Lent – even the most lapsed of Catholics will talk about giving something up for Lent without any thought about the spiritual significance of this act. For many it’s almost like a national diet; Ash Wednesday is even national non-smoking day. This identification with Catholic culture is a good thing as far as it goes, but it rarely goes beyond the level of culture for most people here.

    Anyone with an interest in fasting and mortification would do well to familiarise themselves with the life of Fr Willie Doyle, an incredible Irish Jesuit military chaplain who died while attempting to rescue wounded soldiers during World War 1. He lived a life of very intense penance which would not be advisable to copy in the absence of a very specific calling. But he also practiced many smaller mortifications (eg no butter on bread etc). His fascinating diaries reveal his inner struggles with these mortifications, but without this interior struggle he would never have grown into the hero of the battlefield who saved so many souls and who attained almost legendary status amongst the Irish soldiers.

    I highly recommend Fr Doyle’s biography for anyone seeking powerful Lenten spiritual reading. I run a blog about Fr Doyle; you can find a post linking to a reprint of the biography here:

    (I am not financially involved in the sale of this book, so this comment is not a mere commercial advertisement!).

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Good work, T. After reading your thoughts I may well take something like this on as part of my own Lenten fast.


    PG, SJ

  4. Qualis Rex says:

    Salve Anton! Thank you for giving so much insight and discussion on fasting. For the past 5 years I’ve done the “Benedictine” fast (very close to the Eastern Orthodox fast) and as a fellow stereotype, I always find it extremely difficult and almost not worth it, as my sour mood and demeanor and actions caused by them probably far outweigh any spiritual gains received from fasting. But I’m doing it again.

    As far as the eucharistic fast, that to me is an absolute no-brainer. I don’t want to sound judgemental, but to me, anyone who truly believes in the real presence has no other option than to fast LONG before they feel worthy to receive the body of Christ.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Slave Qualis!

      Hope Lent is off to a good start for you. I’ve been thinking about the point you raise about fasting, since a lack of food is not always a good thing for my demeanor either! Have you talked about the fasting with a confessor/spiritual director? I ask because from what you say, it sounds like it may not be bearing good fruit (and, as our Lord says, you shall judge the tree by its fruit). Fasting (beyond, of course, the minimum the Church asks of us) requires grace, and if God isn’t giving you this particular grace, he might be calling you to something else…

      Obviously, I am not your confessor and am not in a position to resolve a question like this over the internet, but it’s a question to think about. If cutting back to fasting a day or two per week, or fasting from something other than food, or doing something else entirely, works better, that might be where God is drawing you. We have to be good evangelists, too, and if our joy dies out, it’s harder for people to see Christ at work in our lives.

      Anyway, like I said, I’m just raising the question…


      • Qualis Rex says:

        Anton, thank you SO much for your very kind and always appreciated concern. I have indeed spoken to my spiritual advisor on this, and he is definitely of the mindset that you should do it until you can’t do it. And I’m affraid I was a bit too tongue-in-=cheek on my demeanor (this, as well as sarcasm does not come over well on the internet). Rest assured, I would be cranky and hot-tempered whether I fasted or not : )

        Once again, my apologies for joking about such a worthwhile subject. The fact is, I have suffered through periods of my life where I had only one meal a day. In other words, the choice/option to fast was not given to me; it was imposed. Every day I fast during Lent, I am extremely grateful for the OPPORTUNITY that God has given me to fast, and that this opportunity is available today/now, but can be taken away from me at any moment, as well as extremely aware of the fact that there are so many people in this world who do not have this luxury.

        Once again, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your concern. And as always, your prayers are most appreciated!! God bless you!

      • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

        Oh, good, I’m glad you’re only experiencing normal levels of crankiness and hot-temper! 😉

        Certainly no need to apologize for joking to me… it’s actually necessary I think to keep such discussions from becoming too dour.

  5. Alex Ash says:

    Thanks a ton for the information on fasting!

    I am, unfortunately, one of the people who have never heard about the pre-communion fast before. In my Christian Discipleship class, however, we have talked about ways that we can strengthen our love for God through humility. A couple of the points made on the topic of how to be more humble were an attitude of obedience to the law of God and a freedom to let go of everything that stands in the way of our love and service of God. I think fasting for just an hour before receiving the Eucharist would go along with these two points and help people realize how reverent we should be in receiving Communion.

    You also make a good point when you said that the Eucharist fast deserves to be remembered because it extends the mass outward into our daily lives. During Lent, this would be a good point to consider as a sacrifice, but I think it may be more important that we live out Jesus’ message during Lent through service instead of giving up something. Service is also an act of humility, and it benefits the community, God, and everyone’s personal relationships with each other.

    Thanks again for your attention and detail on this important topic of the Eucharist and fasting.


    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Hi Alex,

      I’m glad you found the topic helpful and learned something new (it makes me glad to do the blog to hear that from you). Service, as you say, is another great way of observing Lent. The “bottom line” of Lent is drawing closer to God, and both sacrifice and service can help us do that. In fact, the two aren’t really opposed since service will eventually require some sacrifice from us too…


  6. JH says:

    I couldn’t agree more on the benefits of fasting, especially in a culture that’s so bent on consumption. I also share the view that fasting before Mass helps extend the Eucharist – and thus the sense of “the sacred” – into our daily lives. This can help remedy the urge to restrict our religious practice and mentality to the boundaries of our parish church, or to the hours posted for Mass or Benediction.

    Every once in a while I get asked about the sense of fasting before Mass. As part of my answer, and if the person’s Catholic, I encourage them to try it and to reflect prayerfully on their experience after the fact. Hopefully this leads to an appreciation of the practice precisely through practice. Intellectual justifications are well and good, as is the fact that the Church asks the discipline of those who are to receive Communion, but an experience that one has chosen for themselves speaks powerfully. Ideally, this even leads us way beyond a single instance of fasting and towards deeper questions: Do I really believe that “God alone suffices”? What kind of room am I making for God in my life? How much do I really want a relationship with God? And so on.

    It reminds me of GM Hopkins’ correspondence with his agnostic friend, Robert Bridges. Bridges asked Hopkins how he could make sense of faith. Instead of furnishing a long, philosophical answer, Hopkins wrote back, “Give alms.”

  7. […] life.  Friday abstinence, in fact, can be seen as a preparation for Sunday’s feast, just as a one-hour fast is preparation for receiving […]

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