Lenten Fasting

St. Patrick’s Day this year fell on a Friday in Lent.  For Catholics who observe guidelines about Lenten abstinence, this meant no corned beef (or uncorned beef, for that matter).  Here in Philadelphia, however, Archbishop Chaput suspended the directives about meatless Fridays for 17 March.  I suspect that some other bishops did likewise.  Years ago when I was living in another city, the local bishop railed against the city’s major league baseball team for playing a home game on Good Friday and selling hot dogs at the stadium.

What do these Lenten dietary practices mean when they are lifted for a day of Irish pride but staunchly defended at the baseball park?  Setting aside diocesan variations, perhaps the more pointed question concerns the point of these dietary practices in a secular culture where high-end non-meat choices can easily take the place of beef, pork, chicken, etc.  Why do I give up the hamburger or the chicken salad sandwich?  Why do I fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday?

Perhaps the very phrasing of these last two questions misses at least part of the point.  I wrote about myself, me, in my individuality.  While it is true that no one can fast for me or abstain from meat in my place, it is also the case that I do not engage in these actions as an atomized individual.  An important aspect of these Lenten practices is that, around the world, believers engage in them together.  This corporate aspect is manifested, for example, when families gather for meatless meals or together refrain from eating but even apart from these shared contexts, my individual act is simultaneously a corporate act.

In his famous “Letter” of 1964, Romano Guardini wrote about corporate action in liturgy: “Of particular importance for the liturgical act is the action and full participation of the congregation as a body. The act is done by every individual, not as an isolated individual, but as a member of a body which is the ‘we’ of the prayers. Its structure is different from that of any other collection of people meeting for a common purpose. It is that of a corpus, an objective whole. In the liturgical act the celebrating individual becomes part of this body and he incorporates the circumstances in his self-expression. This is not so simple if it is to be genuine and honest. Much that divides men must be overcome; dislikes, indifference towards the many who are ‘no concern of mine,’ but who are really members of the same body, lethargy, etc. In the act the individual becomes conscious of the meaning of the words ‘congregation’ and ‘Church.’”

Of course, Guardini is writing here about the liturgical assembly, which by definition concerns a communal context (or at least a juxtaposition of bodies!).  Perhaps if we are clearer about our Lenten practices taking place as part of a corporate action, we can be clearer about our corporate worship when we assemble.  Perhaps the reverse is also true, and one reason why we may be at risk of losing the corporate sense of our Lenten practices is our diminished sense of liturgical worship as corporate.  Perhaps the point is not *this* shared penitential practice as opposed to other practices but rather this *shared* penitential practice.


  1. You have a point here. I have seen others suggest that the idea of picking something to give for lent is not really a formative process but an individualistic choice, and proposed more communally imposed sacrifices. This was also seen as evidence that we are all Congregationalists now.

    So, year long meatless Friday’s?

  2. I once thought that an appeal for a substitution would be adequate. Two St Patrick Fridays ago, a young pastor I knew grumbled at all the requests he got for a dispensation. When I suggested he offer an alternate fasting, from alcohol, a gleam surfaced in his eye. I don’t know how he handled it in 2006.

    Maybe it’s the advent of vegan diets, but I wonder if the meat fast isn’t a bit outdated. If I were considering alternatives fit for the First World, I would suggest that Fridays, at least in Lent, be a fast from two indulgences: sugar and alcohol. Let’s put that in our Happy Hour and smoke it.

    James Keenan’s piece here: http://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2016/12/22/arrested-development-american-conscience seems worth a ponder. Too bad that the American bishops didn’t get together and say, “We put aside the fast on March 17th. Let’s do Wednesday the 15th instead.” That would maintain the corporate act on a national level. I doubt we’d have Cardinal Ratzinger’s CDF putting the kibosh on such a corporate episcopal action, right?

  3. I second Todd Flowerday’s suggestion about fasting from sugar and alcohol for Lent. This year and last, I observed the practice for Lenten weekdays, with time out for feast days and Sundays.

  4. Abstinence from alcohol reminds me of a college classmate whose abstinence from alcohol would be promptly followed at midnight on Easter with chugging a pint of distilled spirits. This was the University of Virginia….

    The Eastern churches have a long list of things to be abstained from:

    Flesh of warm-blooded vertebrates
    Flesh of cold-blooded vertebrates
    (Flesh of invertebrates is exempt)
    Oil (olive specifically in some disciplines)

    And then there’s the historical practice of abstinence from conjugal relations that a lot of people are unaware of. (One damper on Eucharistic reception in the West way back in some places was the idea that one needed to take on 3 *days* before *AND* after reception of Holy Communion. People must have looked forward to Wednesday nights (or early Thursday mornings where Wednesdays were also days of abstinence year round) outside of Lent and Embertide. I only mention this to illustrate why indults became the rage in Western Christendom.)

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      Count me a skeptic on sexual abstinence, except outside of marriage. As a married guy, it doesn’t strike me as terribly different from a priest fasting from presiding at Mass. Which, as we all know, would be a total non-starter.

      1. @Todd Flowerday:
        I wasn’t kidding. Here’s a link that include examples across the centuries (though it doesn’t include the three days after that I’ve run across in my reading which I vividly remember because it astounded me and forced me to re-read several times):


        The marital fast still survives in Eastern Christianity, though as with Orthodox ascesis outside monastic areas probably more likely to be observed strictly among converts in communities dominated by converts.

  5. Fasting and abstaining have been watered down to the point of being a useless exercise now. Giving a dispensation from abstinence to eat corned beef on Irish Pride Day is equally as useless because people would do it anyway and not bat an eye. Or is that an example of Vox populi, vox Dei?
    Yet I know people that regularly go on a 24/48 hour “cleanse” for non-religious reasons and find it so easy to do and claim to feel so good afterward. But if the bad old priest says I can’t have a hamburger on 8 days a year, no one is telling me what to do. Like confession, fasting is gone. And no matter what anyone tries to say, or do, or explain, they’re not coming back.

  6. John Kohanski : Fasting and abstaining have been watered down to the point of being a useless exercise now.

    I’ve always thought the “full meal plus two less-than-half meals” sounds like an eating-a-lot sort of fast…it helps me through a Good Friday.

    1. @Scott Knitter:
      I admit to following the older tradition of the fast in one respect but not another: I do wait until noon (though it would be even older tradition to wait until mid-afternoon – the old Sext vs None thing during Lent…) to break fast, but I only have a collation (a bowl of rice or cooked cabbage depending on where I am, work or home), and don’t have my full meal until evening, rather than the other way around…

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