We are entering into a holy season. It is a penitential season of focusing on Christ, centering our thoughts and hearts on the sacrifice the Lord made for us in order to obtain forgiveness for our sins. We pray our way through the Stations of the Cross, attend the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and of course…the Knights of Columbus Friday Fish Fry. During this season, and as you prepare, you hear the terms “abstinence” and “fasting”. These two terms are often used interchangeably, but they’re totally separate concepts.
Lent is a 40 day season in the liturgical calendar often accompanied by Mass vestments of purple and conversations of “what to give up.” (oh…did I mention the fish fry already?) It appears the church adopted the 40-day season from when Jesus was tempted in the desert by Satan for 40-days.
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.’ He said in reply, ‘It is written: One does not live by bread alone but every word that comes forth from the mouth of God. Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ Jesus answered him, ‘again it is written, you shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’ Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence and he said to him, ‘all these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.’ At this, Jesus said to him, ‘Get away, Satan. It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.’ Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.” (Matthew 4:1-11)
The Biblical roots of Lent begin with Jesus fasting in the desert while he is tempted by Satan. Scripture tells us that Jesus was hungry. Fasting is the reduction, or total deprivation, of the amount of food you eat during a specific period of time. A person can fast for one meal or one complete day. One can choose to eat a small meal as opposed to a larger meal for a fast. Canon Law requires anyone 18-60 years old to keep a limited fast during Lent. In the United States a fast during Lent is considered, at a minimum, eating one normal sized meal and having two small snacks during the days of fasting. The two snacks, however, cannot add up to the size of a regular meal.
Abstinence is referring to the choice to stay away from something (abstain) that is good or that we enjoy. It may not be sinful, but it is simply a luxury or convenience we choose to do away with at pivotal moments during this season. There are Church laws and expectations that encourage us to abstain from meat while we are in Lent. The purpose of abstaining from meat is that it is a recognition and reminder that Jesus sacrificed his body, his flesh, and his blood for the remission of our sins on Calvary. This took place on Good Friday. As a result, we do not eat flesh meat on Friday in honor of the sacrifice Christ made for us on Friday.
On the days of abstinence during Lent, the Church requires anyone 14-years old and older to abstain from meat during the specified times. This is where it gets a bit tricky, however, because meat is prohibited on certain days of Lent, however, byproducts that use meat such as eggs, milk, cheese, and foods made with animal fat, are acceptable.
There are two days during Lent which are obligatory both fasting and abstinence days. These days are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On these two days one must abstain from meat and fast as well. These are the only two days required by the Church for fasting. The Church requires every Friday during Lent to be days of abstinence.
It has become customary for Catholics to choose something to “give up” during Lent in addition to these requirements by the Church. Lenten sacrifices are voluntary and are left completely up to the individual as to participation and particular sacrifices. Additional Lenten sacrifices are encouraged but are not required.