This is a page that focuses on religious and theological issues, as well as providing comprehensive teaching from a classic Catholic perspective. As you read the articles, it is my hope they will educate and bless you.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Fasting and Abstinence

Over the next couple of studies, I want to take some time to talk about some devotional practices that we as Christians partake in, and I want to begin by talking about fasting and abstinence.  Although technically this is not one of the seasons of the Church year when this is practiced (Lent and Advent are generally fasting and abstinence periods) it is nonetheless important because as Christians we are to devote time to the worship of our God, and that involves primarily 5 main disciplines:

1.  Corporate worship (attending Mass, other services, etc. to fellowship with the Body)
2.   Tithing
3.   Prayer
4.   Bible study
5.   Fasting and abstinence

It must be understood that none of these practices, in and of themselves, are essential for your salvation, but they are acts of worship and do keep your Christianity vital.  They are also the ultimate reference to what James 2:26 talks about:  faith without works is dead.  In other words, you can be a lazy Christian, never cracking open a Bible, never attending church, and never praying, fasting, or giving of your tithes to God's house, and it may get you into the door of heaven, but you won't have the vitality of the Christian experience in your life without an active practice (your works) of the faith that we have invested into the grace God gave us in our salvation.  Remember, God doesn't need us; we need Him!  However, He does love us, and therefore desires us to be in fellowship with Him, which is why Jesus died for our sins on that Cross.  Accepting Christ and being born again though is just the first part of the journey, and our salvation is a daily walk afterwards that requires us giving honor to God in our works.  This is why we give to God's house, we worship with our brethren, and we also maintain a personal devotional life that entails prayer, Bible study, and fasting.  When we do these things, they renew us, and thus we are able to commune with God the way He intended for us to do so.  That being said, the five basic disciplines I mentioned are not just mere obligations on our part to fulfill, but rather acts of worship!  As we actively practice them, we renew ourselves in spirit, and thus God can be more personal to us.  The works themselves, as previously stated, do not save - God doesn't need our worship, because He is God! - but rather they benefit us because they are our response to God's love for us.  If we think of these things more in that light rather than as just a formal set of rules to follow, we would benefit as Christians more from them.

Now, to talk about fasting and abstinence.  I suppose the first thing we need to do is clear up something about this by saying that fasting and abstinence are two separate things.   They are related to each other, but they are not synonymous terms.  Here is the definitions according to Church practice:

1.  Abstinence has to do with quality of food or other consumptive goods.  It is customary during certain times of the year to abstain from things such as dairy products, red meat, wine, olive oil, snack foods, and sweets, but also from non-food items - you can abstain, as a spiritual practice, from things like sex, playing games, and television also.

2.  Fasting involves the quantity of consumptive goods - all that means is that you eat less at certain designated fasting times than you normally would.  Usually,  that involves three things - fasting before receiving the Eucharist, eating one small meal and one main meal, or a total fast where all food is fasted except water and enough to sustain the body during daily activity. Oftentimes, fasting goes hand-in-hand with abstinence as well, especially during Lent, because although you are abstaining from red meat, etc., you also are eating less of what you are able to eat. 

Fasting is a normative practice in Christian worship, and has been so for centuries.  It is something we inherited from our Jewish roots, as fasting was a very important discipline during the Old Testament period in Temple worship (Ex. 24:18, Nehemiah 1:4, Jeremiah 48:5-8, among other references).   Often, fasting was also associated with humility and repentance, a renunciation of the pleasures that caused bondage in order to regain focus on the Lord and His worship.  This is still true partially today as well, as that aspect of fasting has carried over.  However, it also has a greater purpose, and that is of spiritual discipline - by learning to deny the flesh, we can focus more on God and His glory.  Ancient Eastern Orthodox ascetic writers described it as a type of warfare also against what they called the "Passions." (fleshly desires) in order to bring their mind and spirit more in conformity with the act of prayer to God (Procurat, Golitzen, and Peterson, Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Church {Lanham, MD:  Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1996} pp. 43-44).  As a result of this conformity, the practitioner is brought more into focus in regard to prayer and almsgiving.  References to fasting and abstinence are quite abundant among the early writings of the Church Fathers and other ascetical writers, and fasting was once a more important discipline than it seems to be today apparently.  This is truly a tragedy too, because there are great benefits to fasting according to the way God has directed the Church to do so, and we are missing out these days on a lot as a result. 

The thing about that is that too many modern Western Christians think that fasting is an optional thing, and thus it is largely ignored or dismissed as irrelevant for the days and times we live in because our society demands more out of us.  With "positive confession," "seeker-sensitive," and "Purpose-driven" heresies and fads permeating much of today's Christian circles, fasting is often seen by many contemporary pastors and church leaders as a legalism with little value, and therefore the discipline is not taught.  And, we see the fruit of that in much of today's "Churchianity":  Christians don't pray, they think "church" is some big party, sin and repentance are not even addressed, and as a result many people sitting in churches are little better than baptized pagans because they have never been taught spiritual discipline.   Those who do take fasting and abstinence seriously often have a skewered understanding of it - they treat it as a sort of "holy hunger strike" to get what they want out of God without understanding what fasting is supposed to be about.  In that regard, they are really no different than the Buddhists, Hindus and animists, all of whom have fasting as a part of their religions as well but in their theologies they "give to get," meaning they hope to reach some sort of "nirvana" or enlightenment, or they hope to appease their gods by fasting in order to gain some prestige or material wealth.  Many Christians too have fallen into that trap, and I have heard of people in churches, at the prodding of theologically offbase televangelists or ill-trained pastors, "fasting" to get a fancy car, a high paying job, or some other material perk.  They fail to realize that God doesn't work that way - if he did, I am sure many of us would be materially much better off than we are!  Again, fasting is an act of worship, whereby we deny ourselves physical pleasures in order to focus more on God and to also crucify our sinful flesh, as Jesus commanded - what do you think that whole "take up your cross and follow me" thing in the New Testament is all about, not to mention the many references about dying to self??  That is truly what fasting is about, as well as how many of the Fathers and Saints of the Church understood it.  Our understanding today could benefit from more study of the Ancient Church, instead of trying to make the Church more "relevent" to the worldy, secular culture.   That is something that Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, and some of these other people would do well to listen to. 

I want to also now talk about some specific aspects of fasting and abstinence.  One thing to note is that one should never fast on Sundays, with the exception of the hour or so before partaking of the Eucharist, because Sundays are always days of celebration - each Sunday commemorates the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, although Easter (or Paska, in the Eastern Church) is the official feast of the Resurrection.  Therefore, even during Lent it is permissible - and mandatory! - not to fast or abstain on Sundays.   This is a teaching that also is often neglected by sincere but misinformed Catholics and Orthodox too, and I have a story to relate as an example.  A few years back, Barb and I had thought about converting to the Orthodox Church, and we began attending a local Antiochian Orthodox parish here close to where we live.  However, what I discovered was something that was disturbing - the extent of legalism and triumphalism on the part of some in that parish, to the point where they denied Catholics and Protestants were Christians, later dissuaded us from being part of that communion.  And, when it came to fasting, a couple of catechists as well as a priest there actually taught that if you even ate a fried shrimp or a piece of cheese on a Lenten day you would be in danger of hellfire.   What they essentially did in this church was to take ascetical monastic fasting regimens and apply them legalistically on their parishioners to the degree that it made it almost impossible to even eat!  It was only later that I understood that what they were doing was wrong, and I adopted the more realistic Western Church fasting and abstinence practice instead, as it was more in line with Church teaching.   Monastics have indeed had commendable fasting regimens, but I am sure they never intended those to be used so rigidly and legalistically as some of their spiritual descendants have done.  And, that made me look at some other bad practices I have seen over the years.

Catholics and Orthodox are not the only churches to practice fasting and abstinence, as the old-time Holiness and Pentecostals did likewise.  Having grown up in that environment, I was familiar with the discipline of fasting, and indeed there were some stellar people of faith in those old-time churches that sincerely fasted, sometimes for days, and they did so according to Biblical direction.   These people were also serious prayer warriors, and they considered fasting a normative practice to pray for revival, the lost souls of their loved ones, and for just getting closer to God.   Their fasting regimen was a bit different though, as many of these people took quite literally the idea of not eating anything, save drinking water to stay hydrated for health reasons, for up to 40 days straight.  God saw their hearts and honored that too, although it isn't exactly what the Bible taught or the Church practiced for centuries in regard to fasting and abstinence.  Nonetheless, they never pushed that conviction onto others, and their hearts sought Christ and His Spirit in spirit and truth, and God honored that.   Unfortunately, the children and grandchildren of those early Holiness and Pentecostal saints never caught the vision they had, and in many churches today fasting is rarely if ever mentioned.   That too is tragic, because one reason many of those churches are alive today is because of the fervent prayers and fasting of these wonderful people of God.  Now, I don't recommend that anyone do that, as a 40-day total fast is a tall order for anyone to fill, but there are some who feel led by the Lord to do that, and to them I say God bless their obedience.

Moving on, we're still talking about techniques of fasting and abstinence, and I want to give some general guidelines as to how it is done in both East and West.   In the Christian East, the practice is generally to abstain from red meat, dairy, olive oil, and wine during the four major fasting/abstinence cycles in the Church year, but some monastics also practice what is called xerophagy.  What that essentially entails is the eating of uncooked vegetables and fruits only, the consumption of water or pure fruit juice only, and nothing cooked, no dairy, no eggs, no meat, nor anything else similar.  It is an extreme form of abstinence, and if a person has the conviction to undertake the effort, it is noble and well within Church guidelines to do so.  However, it is not required.  In addition to xerophagy, another practice is also abstinence from worldly entertainments, sexual relations (if married of course, as unmarried Christians should not be having sex anyway!), and other pleasures.  Oftentimes, this goes hand-in-hand with the dietary fasting/abstinence, but is more left up to individual conviction.  It is also customary to re-direct resources or energy normally used in such pursuits and appetites to the Lord's work - volunteering more, giving money normally spent on items you are fasting to a ministry, etc.  That way, fasting and abstinence truly becomes an act of worship then.

In the Christian West, in general fasting/abstinence is confined to the Fridays of Lent, as well as to Good Friday and Ash Wednesday.  The rules of fasting are not quite as strict as they are in the Christian East, as basically the faithful abstain from red meat on those days as well as other things they may have personal convictions to "give up for Lent."  In general, fish and dairy are permitted on Fridays, but not poultry or red meat (an interesting side to this is that when Catholic missionaries first came to the Americas with the explorers and discovered beavers, Church officials allowed beaver to be classified as a fish and thus it was allowable to eat during Lent, although God only knows why someone would eat beaver in the first place!).  Also, abstinence from alcohol is prescribed as well during fast days, and among more traditional Anglicans and Roman Catholics no sexual relations were allowed during the fasting periods either.  Along with that, in both East and West, Lent is a time of reflection and repentance, in order to prepare to celebrate the Risen Savior on Easter.   Therefore frequent confessions are encouraged (many Catholics today still go to confession during Lent, the only time they partake of the sacrament actually in many cases).  These are just some general practices, although much more can be said.

There are a couple of things I need to stress in regard to fasting and abstinence though that are very important:

1.  Fasting and abstinence are not only confined to Lent and other designated days.  As a matter of fact, if a person has the conviction and discipline to do so, a periodic personal time of fasting and abstinence is a good practice to get into.

2.  Fasting should never be reduced to a legalistic obligation - remember, it is a form of worship and not a mere motion you go through.  Therefore, the Church has always taught and maintained (although some of its leadership seems to be ignorant about it!) that we are to fast as we are able.  What that means is if you have health issues that preclude you from observing the fasting and abstinence the Church recommends, the Church is also flexible enough to take that into consideration and that person can fast or abstain from other things besides vital components of their diets that may be prescribed by a doctor or other authority.   This is where giving up sugar, television, or other things can come into play.  Fasting is not a bondage, but an act of worship, and anyone who teaches otherwise - even clergy! - is in direct defiance of the Church's teaching on the subject.  The important thing is that you are observing the fast or abstinence, and God will see that as does the Church.

I also encourage you to consult the local parish calendars that you should receive each year, because in general there will be days marked when fasting or abstinence is prescribed, and usually it is the symbol of a color-coded fish - if the fish is red, it means fast, or blue for abstinence (some days will have one of each too).  Generally too, if a specific day for fasting and/or abstinence does come along, the parish bulletin you receive each week should advise you of that, as well as providing guidelines (Orthodox churches are particularly good about doing this, as much of my information here comes from old bulletins I have archived).
Therefore, be assured that you will be informed one way or another.  And, if you do have specific dietary needs, talk to your priest, and I am sure he can work with you - in general, special circumstances for fasting are spelled out in church bulletins or canonical writings, but for your own peace of mind you can always talk to your priest too.  Hopefully this provides some direction.

That being said, I will conclude this teaching about fasting and abstinence.  I advise though that this is not an exhaustive study on the subject, but only provides some basic information to answer some basic questions.  Hopefully, you can use it to whet your own appetite to research it further, and one book I recommend is David Bercot's Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1998).  Bercot's book has direct quotations from the Ante-Nicene Fathers addressing many of these issues, and you can find a good article on fasting on pages 274-276, which I also used for research material.  Also, especially around the Lenten and Advent seasons, consult your local parish bulletins as well, because they often will provide inserts for fasting guidelines that contain valuable information as well.  That being said, God bless and be with you until next time.