Fourth Precept of the Church
The fourth precept of the Church is to abstain from eating meat and to observe the days of fasting established by the Church. There is a common misconception among Christians, protestant and Catholic alike, that fasting no longer applies. Some believe that Jesus abolished fasting. When challenged by the disciples of John the Baptist as to why His disciples did not fast like they did and like the Pharisees did, Jesus replies “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” (Mt 9:15). Aha, a smoking gun! Jesus is with us and therefore we not longer have to fast. Not so fast! Jesus goes on to say “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Mt 9:15). His disciples will indeed fast. But we have Jesus, some might object. Yes, we have Him spiritually and sacramentally, but we do not yet possess the Bridegroom in His fullness. The Apostles could see Him with their eyes, shake His hand, hear His voice with their ears, but we can’t say these things of Jesus’ presence among us today. While He has not abandoned us here on earth we will not be with our Bridegroom until we enter the Wedding Feast of Heaven.
Some are likely to point to what Jesus says immediately following the above verse, namely “No one patches an old cloak with a piece of unshrunken cloth, for its fullness pulls away from the cloak and the tear gets worse. People do not put new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined. Rather, they pour new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved” (Mt 9:16-17). This is not a repudiation of fasting but a warning to not mix the old Law of Moses with the new law of Christianity. The two are related, old cloth and new cloth as well as old wine and new wine, but not the same. For example, the Law of Moses only prescribes fasting on the Yom Kippur and Jewish tradition adds another four days of obligatory fasting, all of which are mourning various disasters in Jewish history, such as the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. If we were to observe the Jewish calendar with Yom Kippur, Purim, Hanukkah, and so forth, we would be mixing new and old wine, and we could say the same if we fasted on their schedule as well.
Jesus also tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that His disciples will fast. When talking about how to properly fast – for the sake of God and not human respect – Jesus teaches “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you” (Mt 6:16-18). Jesus says when you fast, not if you fast. So He does expect us to fast. Likewise, would Jesus bother to tell His disciples how to fast and not expect us to fast? A few verses earlier in this chapter Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray by introducing the Our Father. Would He tell men 2000 years ago how to pray but not also expect us to pray?
So, what does the Church say about fasting? First of all, we are free to fast if we so choose whenever we want. Sundays are generally excluded out of reverence for the Resurrection, but as Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount as cited above, fasting is meant as a devotion and not a punishment. Likewise, the sabbath is for us and not us for the sabbath (Mk 2:27). Nevertheless, there are two days of obligatory fasting for those age 18 to 59: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting is also encouraged on Holy Saturday as well, but it is not obligatory. In addition to fasting, the Church also requires abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and the other Fridays of the year (unless a solemnity, like the Immaculate Conception, happens to land on a Friday). In 1966, however, the Vatican permitted local churches (i.e., France, United States, etc.) to allow meat on the Fridays outside of Lent so long as another penance replaces abstinence from meat. In true American form, a great many have tossed out the idea of abstaining from anything – not dessert, not coffee, not snacks, not anything – on Fridays outside of Lent. In any case, all Catholics age 14 and up are called to abstain on all Fridays of the year as well as Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.