During Lent we may be asked why Catholics fast and abstain. How can we explain our Lenten practice?
Well, we can explain that Lent is the 40 days before Easter in which Catholics pray, fast, contemplate, and engage in acts of spiritual self-discipline. Catholics do these things because Easter, which celebrates the Resurrection of Christ, is the greatest holy day of the Christian year (even above Christmas) and Catholics have recognized that it is appropriate to prepare for such a holy day by engaging in such disciplines.
(Archbishop Fulton Sheen noted that the Protestant attitude is summarized by the line, “First comes the feast, then comes the hangover,” while the Catholic attitude is “First comes the fast, then comes the feast.”)
The reason Lent lasts 40 days is that 40 is the traditional number of judgment and spiritual testing in the Bible (Gn 7:4, Ex 24:18, 34:28, Nm 13:25, 14:33, Jon 3:4). Lent bears particular relationship to the 40 days Christ spent fasting in the desert before entering into his public ministry (Mt 4:1-11). Catholics imitate Christ by spending 40 days in spiritual discipline before the celebration of Christ’s triumph over sin and death.
Fasting is a biblical discipline that can be defended from both the Old and the New Testament. Christ expected his disciples to fast (Mt 9:14-15) and issued instructions for how they should do so (Mt 6:16-18). Catholics follow this pattern by holding a partial fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Abstinence from certain foods is also a biblical discipline. In Daniel 10:2-3 we read, “In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks. I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks.” Catholics use a practice similar to Daniel’s when, as a way of commemorating Christ’s Crucifixion on a Friday, they abstain from eating meat on that day of the week during Lent. The only kind of flesh they eat on Friday is fish, which is a symbol of Christ.
Even the Ash Wednesday practice of having one’s forehead signed with ashes has a biblical parallel. Putting ashes on one’s head was a common biblical expression of mourning (1 Sm 13:19, Est 4:1, Is 61:3; see also Est 4:3, Jer 6:26, Ez 27:30, Dn 9:3, Mt 11:21, Lk 10:13). By having the sign of the cross made with ashes on their foreheads, Catholics mourn Christ’s suffering on the cross and their own sins, which made that suffering necessary.
So what are the rules for fasting and for abstinence?
The Rules for the Roman Catholic Church are as follows: The Code of Canon Law prescribes (Canons 1250-1252):
Can. 1250: The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.
Can. 1251: Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Can. 1252: The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.
In other words…
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are obligatory days of fasting and abstinence for Catholics.
In addition, Fridays during Lent are obligatory days of abstinence.
The norms on fasting are obligatory from age 18 until age 59.
When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal. Two smaller meals may also be taken, but not to equal a full meal.
The norms concerning abstinence from meat are binding upon members of the Latin Catholic Church from age 14 onwards.