Lent: Fasting & Abstinence; Sundays or Not?

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, this Wednesday February 14th.

This replaces the memorial of Saints Cyril and Methodius which annually falls of February 14th, or for those stuck in the middle ages, the memorial of the third century martyr, Saint Valentine.

There are only two days that Catholics are asked to fast – Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. This does not mean that there are not benefits from more regular fasting, particularly in these days of excess and indulgence. The guidance for a ‘Catholic fast’ is also pretty lenient: one simple, meatless meal, and two smaller meals that do not add up to the size of one regular meal. It’s not exactly Ramadan!

We commonly mistake ‘fasting’ for the self-imposed abstinence that many practice during the season of Lent. Abstinence (going without or ‘giving up’) is another discipline that we can benefit from, especially in these times of entitlement and lack of self-control. Whether it is chocolate or social media, we should choose to abstain from things that do not brings us life and that dominate our time and resources. This takes for granted that anything out-right sinful should be abstained from all year round! The Church asks that we all abstain from something (generally meat) on all Fridays as an act of penance as a memorial for the Lord’s sacrifice on Good Friday – we ‘suffer’ a little to remember His suffering – we don’t tear flesh to remember His flesh torn for us.

So for how long should we subjugate ourselves to this Lenten misery! Well as we know Lent is 40 days long… but if you count the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday you get 46! Some have taken this to mean that Sundays don’t count. This can have it’s benefits. If such an approach leads to a greater celebration of Sunday as a day of worship, then great. However, if it is simply an opportunity to indulge ourselves in a week’s supply of chocolate, caffeine or nicotine then perhaps this is not the approach.

The alternative is a little more ‘Eastern’. Other Catholic Churches (other than Roman – yes there are other Catholic churches, 23 in fact) push a lilt bit deeper. The first 40 days of Lent is a period of general fasting and abstinence – living more simply as preparation and penance. This lasts until Palm Sunday (or Passion Sunday) where we enter Holy Week (or Passion Week) in which fasting, abstinence  and penance continue.

Well which one is right? To be honest the Church isn’t that prescriptive and therefore it is for the faithful to decide for themselves which would benefit their journey to holiness the most – an increased celebration of Sunday, or a deeper experience of penance through self-denial?

There are five ‘precepts’ of the Catholic Church – five things that make one a practicing Catholic. Observing the obliged fasts and abstinence is one, the other four are: 1) attending Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, 2) receive Holy Communion at least once a year in the Easter Season, 3) Confess ones sins at least once a year, and 4) provide for the material needs of the Church.

More on the precepts from the Vatican.

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