Fasting, abstinence remain staple practices during Lenten season

March 15, 2011

HOUSTON — In his 2011 message for Lent, Pope Benedict XVI said the “journey of conversion towards Easter leads us to discover our Baptism.” The pope said the Sacrament of Baptism represents what “we are called to experience every day by following Christ in an ever more generous and authentic manner.”

In practical terms, personal trials can test that method of thinking. Michelle Mobbs recalls being overtaken with uncertainty when the nation’s economic downturn surfaced a couple of years ago. So for Lent, she decided to give up worrying.

“I remember there was an overwhelming amount of financial crisis in my own home and worrying is just a constant separation from Christ,” said Mobbs, an independent consultant and a parishioner at St. Laurence Church in Sugar Land. “It was overwhelming at the time and it was almost consuming my life. I just decided that I am not going to worry, and I think it was one of the best things I ever did for myself.”
Whether prompted by simple vices or regular areas of concern, Catholics have long practiced the disciplines related to fasting and abstinence, both forming one of the three pillars of Lent (the other two are prayer and almsgiving; both will be featured in future editions of the Texas Catholic Herald).

‘The logic of gift and love’

The pope said fasting can have various motivations that take on “a profoundly religious significance for the Christian: by rendering our table poorer, we learn to overcome selfishness in order to live in the logic of gift and love.”
Father Mike Buentello, C.S.B, University of St. Thomas chaplain, said Catholics normally participate in abstinence by voluntarily steering clear of certain foods.

“We do this as a form of penance,” he said. “In the early days of the Church, the laws were very severe and it included not just meat but milk products and eggs.”

Now, Catholics primarily abstain from eating meat on Fridays of Lent and Ash Wednesday. As for fasting, it is done for devotional purposes because of one’s love for Jesus Christ. The Church adopted the practice of fasting from Judaism; the Jews fasted before the Passover meal. The practice was later incorporated into the Christian faith.

Lent is a time when many Christians closely follow the life of Jesus Christ and try to apply those principles into their own life.

“We don’t just live as Christ doesn’t matter or doesn’t have a bearing on our lives,” Father Buentello said. “So looking at the life of Jesus Christ, we know He journeyed in the desert for 40 days and fasted for 40 days. In the desert, He was facing temptations from the Devil and so forth, but He emerges from that experience filled with the Holy Spirit. The Gospels really talk about that very strongly … as Jesus begins His public proclamation and goes straight to Galilee.”

When we fast, we are doing just what Christ did to renew ourselves with the presence of the Holy Spirit so that our lives are transformed, according to Father Buentello.

“It is easy to get caught up in the everyday events of life and be drawn away from God,” he said. “[Fasting] reinforces the importance of God in our life.”

Mobbs said she fasts as a way of “giving back” to Christ and what He did for us.

“During the Lenten season, we work on what is keeping us from getting closer to God and what can bring us closer to Him during that time,” she said. “If we are fasting, we can really strip away everything and focus on the relationship we have with God.”

The Lenten season serves as an ideal time to reflect on everything Christ has done for us as well, Mobbs said. “[During Lent], I try to take the focus away from myself and place it on God instead of just concentrating on making it through the fasting.”

Pushing forward

Pope Benedict XVI said in his 2011 Lenten message that by bearing “some form of deprivation — and not just what is in excess — we learn to look away from our ‘ego,’ to discover someone close to us and to recognize God in the face of so many brothers and sisters. For Christians, fasting, far from being depressing, opens us ever more to God and to the needs of others, thus allowing love of God to become also love of our neighbor,” (cf. Mk 12: 31).

Every Lent, Waldemar Karaszewski tries to concentrate on improving specific aspects of his life he considers weaknesses, but the Director of Elementary Religious Education at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Humble regards fasting as absolutely essential to his spiritual life.

“Fasting is not just for 40 days — it changes your life, pushes you forward,” he said.
Karaszewski likens the practice to beginning an exercise regime as a New Year’s resolution. 

“It is difficult to start your exercises … but it becomes a part of you,” he said. “The same with Lent, once you start working on one feature of your life, it becomes a part of you.”

Coupled with prayer and reflection, Karaszewski considers fasting as a most sincere offering of thanksgiving and gratitude to Christ.
“Whatever happens in my life, it comes from God and He takes care of everybody,” he said. “I realize God is truly a part of my life. I don’t have to invite Him; He is there, He is inviting me.”

The great celebration

As she ponders potential options of sacrifice for this year, Mobbs still reflects on her Lenten promise of “no worries” and continues to be mindful of that pledge daily.

“It had a tremendous impact on me,” she said. “There were no miracles but over a period of time, all of my problems from that time were solved. I just gave it up to God and that is important for me to remember.”

Father Buentello said it is significant for all faithful to be conscious of the ultimate reason behind the build-up through Lent.

“There is a time for rejoicing and there is a time for preparing for our great event … the Easter celebration,” he said. “When we prepare, this Easter joy we experience is in our senses and in our bodies because the fast is over. Our Lenten observation, whatever we offered up to God for 40 days, we glorify Him by celebrating the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, knowing that our senses are fully tuned in to what is taking place. It heightens our love for the saving action of Jesus Christ.” †

Fasting and abstaining

Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of universal fast and abstinence. Fasting is obligatory for all who have completed their 18th year and have not yet reached their 60th year. Fasting allows a person to eat one full meal. Two smaller meals may be taken, not to equal one full meal. Abstinence (from meat) is obligatory for all who have reached their 14th year. 

If possible, the fast on Good Friday is continued until the Easter Vigil (on Holy Saturday night) as the “paschal fast” to honor the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus, and to prepare ourselves to share more fully and to celebrate more readily His Resurrection. 

Fridays in Lent are obligatory days of complete abstinence (from meat) for all who have completed their 14th year. †

— Source: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops