What is Lent & Why Do Catholics Fast?
What is Lent?
Lent is a period of prayer and fasting that precedes Easter. It last forty days, but Sundays aren’t counted as days, so Lent starts about 46 days before Easter. For Roman Catholics, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends at 3:00 PM on Good Friday–two days before Easter Sunday. It’s a little different for the Orthodox Catholics.
Throughout much of the Western world, it is known as Quadragesima, which Latin for “the forty days.” In the United States, however, it is called Lent after the Old English word for spring.
So, What Are the Ashes about?
In the Bible, putting ashes on one’s head signifies mourning and repentance (see Job 42:6, et al.).
Pointing back to God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:19, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” ashes are a powerful reminder to us of our own mortality and need to turn away from our sins. Of course, the sign of the cross on our forehead symbolizes that we belong to Christ Jesus through Baptism, and it is our hope that we will share in His Resurrection (see Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:11).
Biblical precedent for the sign of the cross can be found in the Book of Revelation 7:3, which speaks of the faithful receiving a protective mark upon their forehead. Early Christian historical writings refer to the sign of the cross as well. Tertullian, around 200 A.D., wrote, “In all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign” (The Crown 3).
Why Do Catholics Fast during Lent?
The custom of a 40-day period of prayer and fasting follows the example of Jesus, who spent 40y days fasting and praying in the wilderness in preparation for His earthly ministry, see Matthew 4:2.
On Ash Wednesday and every Friday during Lent, the faithful are called to fast. That is, Catholics who are in good health and between the ages of 18 and 59 are required to eat just one full meal and two small meals (which together would not equal a full meal).
The consumption of water and medicine, of course, are not included in the fast.
Fasting is a spiritual exercise designed to bring the flesh into submission. As Saint Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
There is a supernatural power connected with fasting when it is performed out of love for God. In Matthew 6:4 and 18, Jesus advised His followers to fast and give alms, not for the approval of men but of God “who sees in secret and will reward you.” When the disciples asked Him why they had been unable to cast out an evil spirit, He replied, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29). The angel appearing to Cornelius in Acts of the Apostles, 10:4 revealed to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.”
Why Do Catholics Abstain from Eating Meat on Fridays in Lent?
On Ash Wednesday and every Friday during Lent, Catholics 14 years of age and older are called to abstain from eating meat. According to Canon Law, in fact, Catholics are called to abstain from meat (or perform an equivalent act of penance) on every Friday throughout the year.1
The Church’s authority to make laws binding upon the faithful comes from Christ Himself, who said to the Apostles in Matthew 18:18, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (He said it to Peter, too.)
As with all the laws of the Church, abstinence from meat on Friday was not established to be a burden to us, but to bring us closer to Jesus. It reminds us that this day of the week on which Jesus suffered and died for our sins.
In his First Letter to Timothy 4:3, Saint Paul denounced those “who forbid marriage and enjoin in abstinence from foods.” Some have misused this verse to condemn the Catholic practices of celibacy and abstinence from meat.
In this passage, though, Paul was referring to the Gnostics, who looked down on marriage and food because they believed the physical world was evil. Catholics, on the other hand, don’t believe that the physical world is evil. Certain Catholics do practice celibacy, but if all Catholics practiced celibacy, there would have been no Catholics a long time ago–like the Shakers.
To the contrary, we see such self-control as gifts from God as Paul wrote in the next verse of the same letter (4:4). Yet we abstain from them at certain times and under certain conditions to demonstrate that we love God first and foremost above all created things.
Fasting, abstinence and the other small sacrifices we offer during Lent, are not punishments but opportunities for us to turn away from the world and more fully towards God–to offer to Him in praise and thanksgiving our whole selves, body and spirit.
- Code of Canon Law 1250: “All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the entire Church.” ↩