Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Word on Fasting

While December is a time of much preparations for Christmas, and staff Christmas parties, and increasing Christmas joy and celebration as we gather with family and friends, all of which is hard to avoid, and in fact perfectly fine in themselves, it is also the season of Advent. Therefore we do well to remind each other that spiritual preparation for Christmas, and a part of the Church's gift of Advent, includes the discipline of fasting.

There are several manifestations of Christian fasting, in various Christian traditions, and in various times of the Church Year. So let me just say a brief word on some of the fasts that are relevant to our Western tradition, and to this time of year.

Note Well
While the discipline of fasting is generally encouraged, I would discourage fasting for those who are very young, very old, sick, weak, or pregnant. I encourage it for anyone who can handle it, and who will use it to further his devotion.

Advent Fast
As I say, it is understandable that we will be engaged in many "Christmasy" activities during December, but we do well to watch ourselves, that we do not utterly lose all traces of the true penitential nature of Advent. To borrow a phrase from author Stephen Tomkins, I recommend that we get back to the spirit of Advent by, as much as possible, "giving up Christmas for Advent." A traditional form of the Advent fast would be to fast on the weekdays, which means to limit oneself to one reasonable sized meal and up to two smaller meals, and to abstain from meat on Fridays. The meat abstinence does allow for fish, to be clear. There are Oriental forms of the Advent fast which are stricter than this, and indeed, the modern Roman Rite does not even require this fast, except for the Friday abstention. I recommend it, however, as a worthy discipline to consider making part of your Advent devotion.

Ember Days
Along with the spring, summer, and autumn, the winter brings us the series of Ember Days. The Ember Days of Advent, to be clear, are the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday which follow in that order after St. Lucy's Day, which this year means that yesterday, tomorrow, and Saturday are the Ember Days. One aspect of the Ember Days is fasting. There are other aspects, on which I may reflect a bit in another post. The Ember Days fast traditionally means to fast and abstain. That is, to keep to no more than one normal sized meal, and no more than two smaller meals, and to keep from eating any meat.

Vigil of Christmas
The Vigil of Christmas is also a traditional fast day. First, let's be clear on what we mean by the Vigil of Christmas, or as it is also called, Christmas Eve. It is not merely the evening before Christmas. Rather, it is the full day of the 24th of December. On that day the tradition of the Church asks us to both fast, as defined above, and to abstain, as already defined. It is, therefore, like Fridays, a day in which fish is traditionally served at supper, as we make our final preparations for the Christmas feast, and prepare to go to the midnight Mass.

Eucharistic Fast
I would say a word on the eucharistic fast because there seems to be an increase, thank God, of interest in the Lord's Supper than there was a generation ago, and even, as we have observed lately here, more weekday Masses offered in our parishes than in the past. So with increased frequency of communion, which is certainly to be encouraged for anyone who feels himself in need of the medicine of immortality, even on a daily basis, I strongly encourage such communicants to remember to not let this increased frequency of communion lead to a diminished devotion. Of course increased devotion is one of the aims and benefits of frequent communion, but since we are human, our flesh tends at times, out of its laziness, to pervert such gifts into mere religious routine. So the Church in her wisdom has given us certain disciplines which can be a great help in our preparation for Mass. One of them is fasting. Traditionally one fasts for twelve hours before mass by abstaining from all food except water and medicine. One might at least fast from midnight until after Mass. Ideally the Holy Supper is the first meal of the Christian's day, after which we break the fast by having, you guessed it, breakfast.

In fasting we give our bodies a rest from its normal indulgence, and instead focus our mind and heart on our prayer and devotion. As Saint Leo said, "Fasting has ever been the nourishment of virtue. Abstinence is the source of chaste thoughts, of wise resolutions, and of salutary counsel."

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