Friday, March 18, 2022

The Great Fast

Daniel Crespi, The Supper of St. Charles Borromeo, 1610-30

From a liturgical point of view, Lent is the most distinctive season of the traditional calendar. In addition to violet vestments and suppressed elements such as “Alleluia” and the Gloria, the Roman Missal has stational churches [1] and a proper Mass for every day of the week, as well as a special “Prayer over the People” for all weekday Masses. The ceremonies of Passiontide, Holy Week, and the Triduum only enhance the unique character of this sacred period. But perhaps the most intriguing feature of Lent in the traditional Roman liturgy is its constant reference to a discipline that takes place mostly outside it: fasting.

The Fast over the Centuries
Fasting is older than Christianity itself. Although the only prescribed fast day in the Mosaic Law is the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur (Lev. 16, 29-30), several others liturgical fasts were later added to commemorate sorrowful events in Israel’s history (cf. Zach. 7, 3-5; 8; 19). Even the heathen got in on the act: when Jonah prophecies doom for the gentile city of Nineveh, its king orders a fast for the whole city that successfully appeases God (Jon. 3, 7 ff). In addition to public fasts, figures such as Moses and Elijah fasted on their own before meeting the LORD God on a mountain (Ex. 34, 28; 1 Kgs. 19, 8). By the time Jesus Christ was born, the Jewish people in Palestine were fasting every Monday and Thursday.
Like Moses and Elijah, Our Lord Himself fasted forty days before beginning His public ministry (Matt. 4, 1-11). Moreover, His instructions on the subject did not begin with “If you fast” but “When you fast” (Matt. 6, 16). The early Church took the hint. In the Didache (a document so old that it may actually predate some books of the New Testament) Christians are enjoined to fast every Wednesday and Friday. Later on, inspired by the verse “The days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day” (Mark 2, 20), early Christians observed a “paschal fast” or “Passion fast” on Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
Juan de Flandes, Temptation of Christ in the Wilderness, ca. 1500
As a season of preparing for Easter developed, so too did the practice of fasting. During the third and fourth centuries, most churches adopted a forty days’ fast in imitation of Our Lord’s fast in the desert. By the year A.D. 339 Saint Athanasius could claim with only slight exaggeration that “the whole [Christian] world” fasted for forty days before Easter. Similarly, Saint Basil the Great (330-79) attests to the fast’s ubiquity and to the respect that it garnered:
There is no island, no continent, no city or nation, no distant corner of the globe, where the proclamation of [the] Lenten fast is not listened to. Armies on the march and travelers on the road, sailors as well as merchants, all alike hear the announcement and receive it with joy. Let no man then separate himself from the number of fasters, in which every race of mankind, every period of life, every class of society is included. [2]
So important was the forty-day fast that the emerging season of Lent came to be named after it. Quadragesima (“fortieth”) is the Latin name for Lent and the basis of the words for this season in different Romance languages. In German, Lent is Fastenzeit or “fasting time,” and in Hungarian and Arabic it is the “Great Fast.” To this day, many Eastern-rite Catholics and Eastern Orthodox prefer the term “The Great Fast” for Lent no matter the language. The only major exception to this trend was English, which baptized the old Anglo-Saxon term for springtime and gave us the word “Lent.”
Fasting and Abstaining
The details of the Great Fast have varied over time. Fasting is the reduction of one’s consumption of food. In the early Church this generally meant only a little water now and then and only one meal a day, which was taken after sunset. After the eighth century, the meal could be taken at “None,” the ninth hour of the day or 3 p.m. Eventually the meal migrated to even earlier times until by the fourteenth century it was at twelve o’clock. It is in this way that “None,” which technically means three o’clock in the afternoon, became twelve “noon.”
The word “collation,” meaning a light meal, also comes from the medieval development of the Lenten fast. In the ninth century Benedictine monks, who were now taking their meal at 3 p.m. or earlier, received permission to have a little food and drink in the evening because of the hard labor they did in the fields. Since they took this refreshment as they listened to the daily reading of Cassian’s Collationes (collected instructions), the snack took on the name of their reading material. By the end of the Middle Ages the laity had also received permission to enjoy an evening collation (the meal, that is). Having a light breakfast on a fast day, on the other hand, was not added until the beginning of the nineteenth century. When the Code of Canon Law was promulgated in 1917, it defined fasting as having one full meal a day and two smaller meals that together do not equal the quantity of the main meal. [3]
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, detail of The Fight between Carnival and Lent, 1559. Note the pretzels on the cart of Lent.
The Great Fast also involves abstinence, the refraining from certain kinds of food. The earliest chapters of Church history witnessed a diversity of practices regarding abstinence, but over time a consensus emerged that was finalized by Pope St. Gregory the Great: “We abstain from flesh meat and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, eggs [and butter].” [4] The absence of dairy products as well as flesh meat from the table (even on Sundays) did not leave many food options, but the early Christians found inventive ways to deal with the restriction. Mothers shaped a simple dough of flour, yeast, and water into the form of arms folded in prayer (a custom of the early Church). After baking them and sprinkling them with salt, they gave these “little rewards” or pretiola to their children. And thus was born the pretzel.
With the Gospel spreading to northern lands, it became increasingly difficult to abstain from lacticinia or dairy products. Prudently, the Church granted numerous dispensations based on particular circumstances. Some who took advantage of these exemptions made up for it by giving alms for the construction of churches—hence the name “Butter Tower” for a steeple of Rouen’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Gradually the rules in the West against lacticinia during Lent were relaxed; in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, all restrictions concerning them are formally dropped (1250). Only the Eastern Churches more or less adhere to this form of abstinence today.
Regarding “flesh meat,” the Western Church prior to the 1960s always had some kind of Lenten restriction on consuming the meat of a land-dwelling, warm-blooded animal. Prior to Vatican II, flesh meat was entirely prohibited on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays; on the other weekdays of Lent, it was allowed only at the principal meal. What constitutes “flesh meat,” however, has never been defined with scientific precision, and the Church has sometimes allowed certain foods according to a curious logic. [5] Moreover, the Church was generous in granting dispensations to the sick, travelers, soldiers, and other groups. [6]
As with pretzels, Catholics found resourceful ways to compensate for the rigors of the Great Fast. Chief among these adaptations was the development of doppelbock beer, a strong lager perfected by the Paulaner monks in Munich specifically for Lent. [7] It was said that the monks gave up all food during this penitential season and lived only on their doppelbock (which was rich in carbohydrates, calories and vitamins), but no one knew whether this was true. In 2011, a nondenominational Christian and home brewer named J. Wilson put this rumor to the test by crafting a nutrient-rich doppelbock and drinking nothing but it and water during all of Lent, including Sundays. Rather than perambulate in a dim haze, Wilson lost twenty-five pounds and “found [himself] operating in a tunnel of clarity unlike anything [he’d] ever experienced.” [8] He also gained new respect for the monks and for their annual acknowledgement of their frailty and dependence on God.
Goals of Fasting
As one of my friends jokes, the Great Fast is not “Forty Days to a Thinner, Hotter You.” Fasting is not dieting, which aims to improve the body or its appearance; neither is it an assault on the body, as if the body were an evil to be punished or a stumbling-block to holiness. In fact, the fine Catholic art of fasting, this most bodily of acts, has almost nothing to do with the body and virtually everything to do with the soul. The traditional Preface for Lent helps us understand this profound paradox when it asserts that God Himself uses our “fasting of the body” to “curb our vices, elevate our minds, and bestow virtue and reward.” [9] Let us look at each of these in turn with the help of the traditional Mass prayers for Lent.
Curb our vices. Bad moral habits (i.e., vices) can remain in a soul even after it has been absolved of its sinful acts through Confession; and concupiscence (a proclivity to evil) remains in the soul even after it has been cleansed of original sin through Baptism. The Christian response to both is a habit of mortifying the “flesh,” by which is meant not the body per se, but the soul’s bodily desires wounded and disordered by concupiscence or vice. In particular, the mortification through prayerful fasting is a powerful means of loosening the grip that vice and concupiscence have on us. [10] Accordingly, the proper prayers during Lent describe the Great Fast as “medicinal” or “healing” for both body and soul. [11]
Elevate our minds. God willing, bodily mortification leads to spiritual renewal [12]—or to put it in horticultural terms, the “pruning” of the flesh can cause a “growth spurt” in the soul. [13] A recurring theme of the proper prayers of Lent is for the outward acts of fasting to effect an inward transformation. [14] We want God to “enlighten our minds… so that we may see what should be done and be able to perform what is right.” [15] It is by being instructed in heavenly disciplines, in turn, that the fast is made profitable. [16] Paradoxically, the habitual feeling of compunction and contrition that bodily penance encourages is a life-affirming disposition that brings with it great peace of mind. [17] One Lenten Collect sums up this ascetical pattern nicely:
Grant…that these fasts which chasten us may also fill us with holy joy: that with our earthly affections weakened, we may more easily grab onto the things of heaven. [18]
Bestow virtue and reward. With God’s grace, prayerfully abstaining from food strengthens our fallen natures to abstain from vice, [19] and abstaining from vice makes it easier for us to follow justice. [20] An increase of virtue in general is the goal of fasting, and an increase of charity in particular is a principal goal of the Great Fast. [21] From the earliest centuries, the Church has emphasized that Lenten asceticism is meant to increase our love of God and of our brothers in need. Money saved because of fasting, for example, should be given to the impoverished: as Pope Saint Leo the Great put it, “May the abstinence of the fasters be the refreshment of the poor.” [22] Or in the words of the beautiful Maronite liturgy:
How splendid is fasting That is adorned with charity. Break your bread generously with one who is hungry; Otherwise yours is not fasting but saving! [23]
The Reformation
The Protestant Reformation largely did away with the ancient Lenten fast. One exception was England, where Parliament ordered town criers to promulgate their frequently-updated fasting laws. These statutes were abolished by the Puritans (who had monthly fast days instead) and reinstated in the wake of the Restoration (1660). Falling into neglect after that, they were formally repealed in 1863. The Lenten fast survived otherwise as a personal choice. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, kept the fast and recommended it to his congregation.
In Switzerland, the Great Fast was not only a subject of the Reformation; it triggered the Reformation. Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) was invited by his printer to dinner to celebrate the publication of Zwingli’s edition of St. Paul’s Epistles. In what was probably a planned provocation, the printer served sausage even though it was Lent; the ensuing public outcry was great, and the printer was arrested. Although Zwingli did not partake of the forbidden meat, he defended the practice in a sermon entitled “Regarding the Choice and Freedom of Foods.” The incident became known as “The Affair of the Sausages.”
From the website of Mission Orthodox Presbyterian Church, St. Paul, Minnesota
Zwingli in part was concerned that Church practice gave the impression to the unlearned that the sum of Christian life was merely observing the Lenten fast and fulfilling one’s duties regarding confession and Holy Communion once a year. But as with so many other of the Reformers’ objections, Zwingli threw the baby out with the bath water, ignoring overwhelming testimony from Church history and erroneously claiming, on the basis of the unscriptural principle of sola Scriptura, that Church leaders had no authority to regulate the fasting of their flock.
Vatican II
Lent is the only season singled out for emendation in the Second Vatican Council’s document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. In article 110, the Council Fathers state that 
the practice of penance should be fostered in ways that are possible in our own times and in different regions, and according to the circumstances of the faithful… Nevertheless, let the paschal fast be kept sacred. Let it be celebrated everywhere on Good Friday and, where possible, prolonged throughout Holy Saturday…
Every Council Father (and every cleric) at the time was required to recite or chant during Lent the Vespers hymn Audi, benigne Conditor, the first stanza of which implores God for help during “this sacred fast, spread out over forty days” (in sacro jejunio, fusas quadragenario). Sacrosanctum Concilium, on the other hand calls only the “paschal fast” sacred, which it redefines – in contradistinction to the early Patristic understanding – as a fast on Good Friday and maybe Holy Saturday. All other Lenten penance, including the universal forty-day Great Fast, is no longer sacred but can be changed or even eliminated.
Pope Paul VI opted for the latter option in his 1966 Paenitemini. Oddly, this Apostolic Constitution beautifully summarizes the theology of penance and urges the faithful to fast voluntarily, even as it officially replaces the forty-day Great Fast with a piddling fast of two days on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Paul VI’s move away from mandatory communal fasting was not left unnoticed by Archbishop Bugnini and his colleagues who were redesigning the Roman rite at the time. The traditional Missal mentions, explains, and prays for the practice of fasting on every day of Lent prior to Holy Week: the traditional rite’s Preface for Lent, which is used daily from Ash Wednesday until Passiontide, is supplemented almost daily with additional references to fasting in the proper prayers. While the 1969 Missal retains several references to fasting on Ash Wednesday (still a mandatory fast day), there are only two required references to the fasts of the faithful for the rest of the season. [24] Consequently, with the exception of Ash Wednesday, the new Missal offers very little guidance on fasting and almost no prayers for its success. [25] “The practice of penance,” Sacrosanctum Concilium states, “should be fostered.” But if one wants regular instruction on the nature and meaning of fasting, and if, moreover, one wants priests and congregations daily praying and offering up the Holy Sacrifice for the efficacy of one’s fasts, one is better off turning to the Missal used during Vatican II rather than the one created after it.
The astute Mary Eberstadt once observed that the contemporary West has reversed its morality concerning food and sexual intimacy. [26] Whereas previous generations were relatively indifferent about what foods to consume and morally exacting about the use and abuse of the procreative act, today’s enlightened citizens have a growing list of morally-charged “verbotens” about food [27], and a shrinking list of morally-forbidden venereal acts. Put bluntly, Eberstadt concludes, we live in an age of “mindful eating” and “mindless sex.”
This “mindful eating” has valuable lessons to teach in nutrition and ecological stewardship: indeed, I know many a traditional Catholic mom who has made superlative use of the new data, and incorporated them into a sacramental celebration of the family table. But the new age’s concomitant doctrine of “mindless sex” has already damaged the lives of untold millions through divorce, abortion, pornography, the hookup culture, and the breathtaking attempt to rewrite sexual identity. Since there seems to be little hope of radical self-correction from within this movement, the prophetic voice of the Church is needed now more than ever.
How sad and ironic, then, that the same Pope who upheld the mindful sexual ethic of the Church also abandoned the Church’s own tradition of mindful eating and non-eating. Pope Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae to defend Catholic teaching against artificial contraception, but he also authorized the destruction of the mandatory, communally-shared Great Fast of Lent, a powerful annual tradition that rejects the fetishization of bodily goods such as food (even organic!) and proclaims the need for a regular reality check that only a reordering of the appetites through a Christian mortification of the flesh can provide. For as Our Lord solemnly warned and as most Catholics have now forgotten, there are some demons that can only be exorcised through prayer and fasting (Matt. 17, 21).

An earlier version of this article appeared in the 2017 Winter/Spring issue of the The Latin Mass magazine. Many thanks to the editors of TLM for allowing its republication here.

[1] For more on stational churches, see Michael P. Foley, “Making the Stations: Stational Churches and the Spiritual Geography of the Roman Patrimony,” TLM 18:1 (Winter 2009), 38-41.
[2] De Jejunio Hom., 2.2 (PL 31.186), quoted in Francis X. Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952), 171.
[3] Canons 1250-1254.
[4] Epistle to Augustine of Canterbury (PL 22.773).
[5] Exceptions to the rule have included beaver tail, the occasional waterfowl, capybara (the world’s largest rodent), and in some parts of Michigan, muskrat. See Michael P. Foley, “Fish on Friday: The One That Got Away,” TLM 1:3 (Summer/Fall 2010), 42-46.
[6] For instance, beginning in 1885 the U.S. had a “Workingmen’s Indult” that exempted manual laborers and their families from the law of abstinence for all of Lent except Ash Wednesday, Fridays, and Holy Week. See T. Lincoln Bouscaren, S.J. and Adam C. Ellis, S.J., Canon Law: A Text and Commentary (Bruce Publishing Co., 1951), 697.
[7] The monks named their Lentenbock after their Savior Jesus Christ; today, Salvator beer is made by the Paulaner Brewery in Germany and widely available in the U.S.
[8] “What I Learned from my 46-Day Beer-Fast,”, 25 February 2012, retrieved 26 January 2017.
[9] It should be noted that God uses our fasting to make us better; fasting is not an act of self-improvement done without grace. Accordingly, the Lenten prayers often beg God to sanctify our fasts (see Collects, Monday and Wednesday in Passion Week).
[10] See Collect, Saturday of the Third Week in Lent.
[11] See Secret of Thursday of the First Week in Lent and Collect for Saturday after Ash Wednesday.
[12] See Collect, Ember Wednesday in Lent (second Collect) and Thursday of the First Week in Lent.
[13] See Collect for the Saturday of the Second Week in Lent.
[14] See Secrets for Ember Saturday in Lent and Tuesday of the Second Week in Lent.
[15] See Prayer over the People for Ember Wednesday in Lent.
[16] See Collect, Monday of the First Week in Lent.
[17] Bd. Columba Marmion, Christ the Life of the Soul (Angelico Press, 2012), 191-93.
[18] Collects, Wednesday and Thursday of the Fourth Week in Lent, italics added.
[19] See Collect, Wednesday of the Second Week in Lent.
[20] See Collect, Monday of the Second Week in Lent.
[21] See the Epistle for Quinquagesima, the Sunday before Lent that introduces us to the ultimate reason for the upcoming fast.
[22] Sermon 13.
[23] Vespers of Tuesday in Lent.
[24] The Collect for the Third Sunday of Lent and the Prayer over Offerings for Saturday in the Fifth Week of Lent. I say “required” because the traditional Preface for Lent was retained in the new Missal as Preface IV but made optional. I also stipulate fasts of the faithful because the new Mass’s First Sunday of Lent refers to Christ’s fast in the desert, but there is no reference to, let alone prayer for, our imitating His action.
[25] See Lauren Pristas, “The Post-Vatican II Revision of the Lenten Collects,” in Ever Directed towards the Lord, ed. Uwe Michael Lang (T&T Clark, 2007), 62 –89; see also Lauren Pristas, The Collects of the Roman Missals (Bloomsbury, 2013), 113-158.
[26] “Is Food the New Sex?” 27 January 2009,, retrieved 21 January 2017.
[27] E.g., the rules surrounding vegetarianism and veganism, organic products, grass-fed cattle and free-range poultry, GMO’s, gluten and trans-fats, etc.

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