ASK FATHER: Why fast? Why abstain?

From a reader…


Why do we have to fast and abstain? Why the Eucharistic fast? Why Ash Wednesday?

Such a simply put question. Not a simple answer. It’s tied, I think, to another question from email.

Also from a reader….


At Ann Barnhardt’s blog she says that there is not only the abstaining from food before Communion but also from the “marital embrace”, as she puts it. That doesn’t seem right. What’s up with that.

The post in question is HERE.

Reasons for these things. We should have reasons for what we are asked to do.

Both of these are really complicated and I apologize for being a little sketchy. Any of these topics could go on for volumes. They are important for all of us as Catholics and for some Catholics in particular. For example, permanent deacons who are married.

It is obvious that we should be spiritually prepared to receive Communion. But we are creatures of both soul and body. If we should be spiritually fit to receive Communion we should also be physically fit to receive. Hence, fasting.

It should be obvious to anyone who isn’t a Jesuit that we should be in the state of grace to receive Communion. Being in the state of grace is a good thing. However, being in the state of grace and being really on fire for God, striving for ever greater conformity, not being spiritually static is even better. This is a process of self-emptying that brings God more and more perfectly onto the throne of one’s heart. The purgatorial process of purification does this also. No creature should usurp the Creator. It is a detachment from any sense of ourselves as God, which was at the core of the lie of the serpent. Nothing is to be placed or preferred before God.

So, being in the state of grace is the minimum requirement for proper disposition to receive Communion, not the maximum. Think about this: to receive absolution in the confessional we have to be sorry for our sins. Sorrow for sins because we fear Hell (attrition) is sufficient, but more perfect is sorrow because of love of God (contrition). One is the minimum, the other points toward the maximum (ultimate happiness in Heaven).

Physical preparation, disposition, has a practical dimension that is tied into separation of the creature from the Creator. In physical terms, receiving Communion on an empty stomach means that the material accidents of the Host will be more quickly degraded and the Host will not have contact with lesser, merely temporal food. NOT that temporal food is evil. This is not a MORAL issue. Rather it underscores that God alone is God. That which is of and for God is sacred and set apart. This is why mistreatment or theft of sacred things is not just mistreatment or theft, but also sacrilege. This is why the priest’s hands are anointed: to handle sacred things. This is why sacred vessels are gilded: gold is precious. If we had vibranium or unobtainium we might use that. The point is that the Eucharistic fast ties together the spiritual and physical motives of self-emptying. God is God and nothing is to be preferred to God.

God should get our best. Our bet always costs.

I said that this was hard. Allow me to ramble a little more. Those were a few thoughts about the Eucharistic fast. What about other fasting and abstinence and days of penance, Fridays. Let’s not forget also vigils of feasts, Ember Days, penitential seasons, etc.

Firstly, and not in special order, recall the practice of early Christians in Rome especially, as described by St. Pope Leo the Great (+460). The fasting people undertook also involved giving the difference of what you would eat or spend on eating as alms to the poor. Hence, fasting was involved in works of mercy, which is a reflection of Christian charity, understood as the love which is sacrificial and concerned with the good of others at cost to oneself.  Fasting and works of mercy involve self-emptying.  Cost of self for the sake of neighbor, an image of God, is a consequence of and fostering of placing God on the throne of our heart.  Consider Christ’s answer about the greatest commandment.

Fasting and abstinence can have more than one motive.   Fasting also involves the real need to help us discipline ourselves, to gain control over our lower appetites.  It is a practical thing that stems from the wounds of Original Sin.  Appetites, by the way, are not themselves evil.

As I am rambling, there just came to mind something I learned along the way about Old Testament kosher laws and ritual purity.   Let’s see if I can do this without being completely incoherent.

Our fasting and abstinence also have/had an ecclesiological/identity reason: fasting or abstaining on certain days set Catholics apart. Once upon a time non-Catholics were attentive when inviting Catholics for meals not to serve flesh, or they were embarrassed (if they weren’t utter rubes) if they forgot or didn’t know. A derogatory term for Catholics in the anglophone world was “mackerel snapper”. In this day and age with the near total collapse of the very idea of fasting and abstinence, penance in general, in the Church, that label would be incomprehensible to 99% of people under a certain age. So, there is an identity factor involved in eating practices.  In a sense, the fasting and abstinence set an example for others.  Processions in the streets manifested our glorification of God, but they also strengthened our love for God and gave the watching world an invitation.

Old Testament. It is important to keep deeper reasons in mind for what God commanded in Leviticus, for example about animal and grain sacrifices or kosher laws, what the people could and could not eat. There was nothing morally wrong with swine or pork flesh. As a matter of fact before the kosher laws, in the Noachic covenant, they could eat pork. The reason why God gave them kosher laws was to help them break the tendencies to idolatry they had and their connection to the sacrifices to pagan gods in Egypt, which involved the very things that they were commanded not to eat. These laws also set them apart from the nations, giving them an identity. They had to be purified of idolatry and brought closer to God in covenant so that they, in turn, could be the bridge for the nations to come to God.  God made the people go out of Egypt and into the wilderness to begin purifying them of pagan ways, break their idolatry with Egyptian gods and lead them, after a generation of “disposing them for worship, to the place where He wanted them to worship properly, the Promised Land.

Exodus was about purification and disposition for worship, about them understanding that God alone is God.   The kosher laws and ritual purity laws of Leviticus were part of this process.

This ties back to the question of abstinence from sexual intercourse as part of being properly disposed for Communion (at the top of this post).

NB: Today the Church’s law requires a Eucharistic fast and fasting and food abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and penance on Fridays.  The law does NOT now require abstinence from sexual relations.

Just as there is nothing morally evil about food, there is nothing morally evil about sexual relations.  After all, God commanded the human race (which consisted of two members, our First Parents) to be fruitful and multiply and He built into us the mechanics to do that.  However, because of the fall of our First Parents our appetites and passions are disordered and hard to control.  This fact… fact… lead St. Augustine to posit that it is virtually impossible for a person not to have some selfishness in a proper sexual willing act.  This is the opposite of self-emptying.  This is the opposite of having life fully and is instead a turn to non-life which is death.

We are just going to have to leave that there as a stepping off point back to the Old Testament and ritual impurity.

Let’s be clear about this from the beginning and I will repeat it because it is hard for many to grasp.  Ritual purity laws of the Old Testament are NOT about MORAL impurity.  To be “unclean” was not a  MORAL thing, like being sinful.  It had to do with suitability for liturgical worship.  Someone who was ritually impure, unclean, was not to be in contact with that which was set apart for God alone.  They could not enter the Tabernacle or Temple or touch the things for worship.   They had to undergo purification to be disposed properly for worship.

What were the things that made one “unclean” (not “sinful” or “evil”, but “improperly disposed for worship”)?

Child birth
Bodily discharges – both men and women.
Sexual intercourse
Contact with a dead body

Note that some of these are voluntary and some are are not.

Impurity is NOT a MORAL category. These are not in themselves sins. Childbirth: God said “be fruit and multiply”. It is a duty to have children. It is a duty to bury the dead.  If we MUST do these things, how can they be “wrong”.  And why are involuntary things impure?

I am digging way back into my memory now, and I hope I get this right.

The key is that God is God and God is Life.  That which detracts from Life is non-God and must be kept apart from God.

In the Old Testament kosher laws the people were commanded not to eat blood, which is why people were shocked at what Jesus said in John 6.   Why?  Because “life is in the blood” (Lev 17:11).   When there is loss of blood there is loss of life potentiality.  When there are discharges of anything having to do with giving life, there is loss of life potential.  There is an implication of un-God.  Leprosy: the body is in a state of decay.  Corpses: obvious.   In sexual intercourse, not all that is discharged and is potentially life giving is actualized and is, thus, “lost”.

While death is a consequence of sin, to die is not a sin.    But death always points to non-God, who is Life.

The concern of ritual purity was, again, not a MORAL concern.  It had to do with proper disposition for worship.   Ritual purity laws were part of God’s way of teaching His people that He, not they, was God.

Also, as in what I mentioned above.  These laws and the kosher laws separated them from the pagan nations.  Over time they were to train and purify the people so that they could be the path for the nations to come to God.

It has to do with the difference between temporal and sacred. Death must not be in the holy place, the Tabernacle or the Temple, which are “heaven on earth”. Therefore, through the purity laws God taught the people that he was about life, not death.

Of course in the New Covenant ritual purity laws and kosher laws are gone, as are all the old sacrifices.   In Acts 10 we read how Peter received the vision of the animals that God said He had made clean and they could now eat.   We read that Peter pondered what meant.  Then the Holy Spirit tells Peter that three men were looking for him.  At issue was contact with gentiles who would make Jews ritually impure.  The vision’s explanation came forth.  Peter understood the deeper reason and gave the explanation. God had made all those things clean as he had made all the gentiles clean in the Blood of Christ.  Impurity was no longer an issue.  Kosher laws, etc.  Over.  Christ’s Blood had cleansed all those things for eating and had also cleansed the gentiles.  Acts 10 continues with gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit and being baptized.

The Church reflected on all of these things for centuries.  She knew that the old covenant priests had to abstain from sexual relations for at least three days before they could consume the pre-figuring of Communion, the shewbread or “presence bread” of old covenant worship.  Shewbread, “presence bread”, were loaves that were placed on a table in the Tabernacle (cf Exodos 25:30).  They had to be renewed every week and, therefore, they had to be eaten by the priests.  If a priest was ritually impure, he could not fulfill the worship God commanded.

If for the Old Covenant disposition for priestly reception of the pre-figuring of Communion, shewbread, then perhaps it is also fitting for disposition for New Covenant Communion.

Reflection on this would eventually lead to its being officially enshrined.  The Council of Trent reflects this as does the Roman Catechismin the section on the Eucharist.  There are paragraphs on “Preparation of the Soul” and “Preparation of the Body”, the later stating that

Our preparation should not, however, be confined to the soul; it should also extend to the body. We are to approach the Holy Table fasting, having neither eaten nor drunk anything at least from the preceding midnight until the moment of Communion.

The dignity of so great a Sacrament also demands that married persons abstain from the marriage debt for some days previous to Communion. This observance is recommended by the example of David, who, when about to receive the show­bread from the hands of the priest, declared that he and his servants had been clean from women for three days. [1 Sam 21]

The above are the principal things to be done by the faithful preparatory to receiving the sacred mysteries with profit; and to these heads may be reduced whatever other things may seem desirable by way of preparation.

The same Catechism also makes the distinction about three ways of reception of Communion. There is, first, sacramentally only, which means reception of the sacrament but without benefit, indeed, sacrilegiously, because one is not properly disposed (principally is not in the state of grace).  There is, next, spiritually, namely those who being in the state of grace receive the fruits of reception.  There is, third, both sacramental and spiritual reception, who are well-disposed and also inflamed with desire.  The Catechism states:

Hence it is clear that those who, having it in their power to receive with fitting preparation the Sacrament of the body of the Lord, are yet satisfied with a spiritual Communion only, deprive themselves of the greatest and most heavenly advantages.

Remember that, many many words ago, I mentioned about sufficient and more perfect motives?

This is a really long ramble and I apologize for it being a little disjointed.

There are reasons and there are reasons for what we do concerning fasting and abstinence, for being disposed to receiving Communion.  They are interconnected.  Our laws about these things have changed over time and we should not oblige people to do what the law does not oblige.  However, we can point to the deeper reasons for the laws in the first place and still be guided by those deeper reasons.  They can become stepping stones.

I’ll stop before I get into something else.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Lurker 59 says:

    In terms of the sexual intercourse part, on one hand, it is part of the necessity of approaching worship from a point of purity and detachment from the good things of the world, but it is also a very strong rejection of pagan cultic practices.

    In the more overtly demonic forms of paganism, there is a ritualized orgy as part of the worship. Communal sexual intercourse within a worship context, whether as part of crop fertility, a retelling of creation myths, or as part of sacrifice/rebirth rituals (Pachamama cultic worship goes here) is part and parcel with much of paganism.

    The abstaining from sexual intercourse on the part of the priests and people of ancient Israel as preparation for and during times of worship was something that set them apart from their pagan and demon-worshiping neighbors. The worship of the true God requires worshiping Him in truth and without superstitious practices which present the gods and their worship as something base and something that gives power and control over the world, others, and even the gods. Beyond rejecting those notions, Catholic worship calls one to a union with God, a union that requires detachment from even the good things of this world — hallowing them and bringing to fruition their dignity yes but ultimately in seeing that these good things are not God and cannot take His place in one’s heart. So they are necessarily set aside when one comes to offer sacrifice to the true God (and are also seen as part of the sacrifice — ie that which is given up).

    I don’t have proof of this, but I think the prudishness of the Victorian Age and Protestant views towards sexuality contributed to the dissociation of “sexual intercourse” from abstinence within western Catholic thought. Abstinence includes sexual intercourse is there previously and it is within the Eastern and Orthodox traditions.

  2. Sue in soCal says:

    I could be wrong, but the Catechism of Trent was written when the laity very infrequently received the Eucharist.

    If you are married and a daily communicant, it would definitely be difficult to be fruitful and multiply if you abstained three days before receiving the Eucharist. It would less difficult if you go to Mass on Sundays only.

    Since daily Mass and receiving the Eucharist are encouraged now, I assume the Trentan rules are effectively modified to reflect this.

    Just my two cents worth.

  3. RobinDeLage says:

    But remember, you are not obliged to receive the Eucharist just because you are attending the Mass. Married couples also are not obliged to engage in sexual relations each time they share a bed.

    Three days of abstinence could easily be managed by married couples that attend the Mass daily.

  4. teomatteo says:

    Would it be profitable for a vegetarian to eat meat on friday. For some that would be more difficult than those of us who are not vegetarians. Seems to me. (I quit eating meat in college (where else) for about 15 years. It was a challenge getting back)

  5. The Masked Chicken says:

    In, The Story of a Soul, by St. Terese of Liseaux, she laments that she cannot receive Communion, daily, and dreams of a day when this is possible. Pope Pius X, upon reading this said something to the effect, “This is wonderful. We must do this.”

    The result was Moro proprietary, Sacra Tridentina, Dec. 20, 1905, which encouraged daily Communion.–daily-reception-of-holy-communion-2174

    Reception of daily Communion, in a state of grace, will, gradually, help one overcome venial sins, which is of a higher order purification than the voluntary abstinence from martial relations.

    The Council of Trent discipline is just that – a discipline, given at a time when reception of the Eucharist was mandated once a year. Such a discipline was easy to carry out. That they did not envision daily Communion is plain from their own statement:

    “The dignity of so great a Sacrament also demands that married persons abstain from the marriage debt for some days previous to Communion. This observance is recommended by the example of David, who, when about to receive the show­bread from the hands of the priest, declared that he and his servants had been clean from women for three days. [1 Sam 21]”

    David did not receive the showbread every day. He received it specially, the used or old showbread (this is important), from Abimelech in the book of Samuel, so it was a special case, just as receiving Communion was an uncommon case during Trent. Thus, the two cases are parallel and Trent’s discipline makes sense.

    Communion, in a proper sense, is new bread, to be eaten at the Sabbath. There was no sexual regulation regarding eating the Sabbath bread, that I know of.

    Anyways, disciplines can change. Trent never considered the possibility of daily Communion, so its discipline does not apply. This is an example of a modal logic phenomenon called the Eberhard phenomenon, where a conditional requirement never attains.

    Refraining from sex can be meritorious, to be sure, but how is one purifying oneself if one is fixated on sex at the same time? One has to approach this, like any fast, with common sense.

    The Chicken

  6. APX says:

    recall the practice of early Christians in Rome especially, as described by St. Pope Leo the Great (+460). The fasting people undertook also involved giving the difference of what you would eat or spend on eating as alms to the poor. Hence, fasting was involved in works of mercy

    I wish we would see a resurgence of this. I volunteer for the SSVP and we are short every month on financial donations. People right now can afford cheap unhealthy processed pantry items. They can’t afford fresh, healthy nutritious foods that will sustain them to work and do well in school. For that we need money.

    I’m speaking at all of our Masses this weekend for our Lenten food and donation drive and I put it out there as a suggestion for almsgiving.

  7. Imrahil says:

    Dear RobinDeLage,

    for a monthly Communion, plus additionally one whenever you complete a sort of spiritual program (think: consecration of oneself to our Lady, St. Joseph; consecration of one’s home to the Sacred Heart, etc), three days of abstinence could easily be managed, yes. And that was, at the time of Trent and in the centuries that followed, the standard among the devout; if that.

    For a weekly Communion, they could not without aching inconvenience which could not as a matter of practical fact but give rise to the misconception that the consummation of marriage was sinful. (It’s not entirely without selfishness indeed, of course; but of the “legitimate self-love” sort.)

    For a daily Communion, they could obviously not at all.

    Now, for good reasons (even granting that the opposing side may have had good reasons as well), the Church by the actions of St. Pius X has changed her practice to the ancient one which is that the normal thing to do for a Catholic who attends Mass is to Communicate. Granted, you are not obliged to receive; granted, you sometimes have to not receive; granted, Mass even without Communion is of infinite worth; but the normal thing to do is to Communicate. Hence, no abstinence from marriage consummation (well, what about midnight or the three hours, if you allow the levity…), and the Roman Catechism in so far as it may have at its time enacted a positive law about this is abrogated.

    Before the Roman Catechism in any case, St. Thomas was quite clear about abstinence from marriage that this is to be understood in the sense of decency, and not of necessity (Sth. III 80 VII reply ad 2) – and that at a time when with the usual frequency of Communion it really was easy to hold.

  8. michele421 says:

    Where I lived as a child, fish, including tuna fish, was a great deal more expensive than meat. The same went for fresh vegetables. My mother loved seafood, as do I, but we couldn’t afford it often. On Lenten Fridays she would take me out to a seafood restaurant. Technically, of course, that was abstinence, but it was really more of a treat. Those were wonderful times, and I can’t regret a single one, but it makes more sense, I believe, to allow people to chooses penances that will be effective for them in their circumstances.

  9. Amina says:

    It was a good write, Fr Z, and it does need to be addressed.

    It is a matter of decency (not giving blush to the angels) and addresses the endeavor of a faithful one-mindedness in heart, mind and soul.

    I have read that married people are called to chastity, and perhaps it was in this context that it applies.

    Vanity, Love of Self, the World, Flesh and the Devil are nigh at hand.

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