Advent: A Return to Abstinence and Fasting

Carlos Overstreet's picture

Do not be conformed to this World

“The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and charity, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others.” Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1434

Until recently, Advent was a time of preparation. Just as folks would work on their houses to weatherproof them for the winter, so Christians would prepare themselves spiritually for the celebration of the Incarnation of Our Lord in the flesh. As in Great Lent, Advent was a time of charity and prayer. Many familiar Advent activities were part of this: Advent wreaths, candles, caroling, gift giving, clothing drives, and soup kitchen attendance. But, at least in America, the third pillar of the Christian life was missing (Protestant America doesn’t really like fasting and unfortunately that has influenced our Catholic culture today). Like a stool, charity and prayer must be rooted in the third pillar of the Christian life: fasting. Not only does it discipline the will and train it to love things that are beautiful, but it also raises charity from mere philanthropy, and grounds prayer in true sincerity.

We Americans have turned this period into a non-stop feasting marathon. This time of year has even been given the name “the holidays” for that very reason. By the time we get to Christmas, we’re tired and worn out, so that the real Christmas season (Advent is the preparatory period before) in the days following December 25th, we follow the cycle of the secular world and put away our trees, and lights and all vestiages of the Christmas season and await the New Year. What? Christmas has only just begun, and what better way to celebrate New Years than in Joy that Christ has come! 

In the Gospel of Matthew (section 4:1-2), Christ immediately after his baptism goes into the wilderness and fasts. Why should the Perfect One fast if not to show us the necessity of this work in conforming our will to that of the Father’s? Again Jesus brings up fasting, telling us of its usefulness in Matthew 6:16-18. He does not use the language "if you fast", but says "when you fast,” acknowledging that the disciples will see a time when they will fast. He counsels his disciples that when they fast, they are to be sober and humble, neither showing their discontent and struggle to those around them.

Then Our Lord says in Mark 2:18-22 that so long as the bridegroom is present, they cannot fast. But when he is taken away, then in that time the disciples will fast. There is His command, instructing us, His faithful, that we are to fast until He returns. The Lord instructing the Prophet Joel says "Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning." This is echoed by all the saints: “change your mind, sorrow for your sins and fast.”

This Advent, make a new start. if you have not already, try and take up the discipline of fasting. This season is particularly marked by avarice, greed and gluttony in our culture. How many people were injured the day after Thanksgiving in the mad rush for “savings?” Or how many people camped outside a store in the cold night, on the pavement, uncomfortable in every degree, choosing this to being at home in warmth with their family and loved ones? Is this not madness? If one should endure such conditions for an early entry into Best Buy to acquire material things, why can’t we do such things for the sake of our souls and our entry into the Heavenly Kingdom? It’s difficult to maintain this attitude any time of the year in contemporary America, let alone the consumer dash that has just started with shopping spree after Thanksgiving. But what is Christianity if not a challenge? Saint Paul’s words call us back from to the life we began at baptism: “Do not be conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2).

What You Can Do

So what’s a good first step? If you haven’t already, keeping the Friday Abstinence would be a great way to begin fasting. Abstinence is type of fasting. The Church for ages has set Friday aside as a day of reflection, and reconciliation. We remember Our Savior’s Passion this day, and enjoin in His work by our fasting and contrition (Canon 1250). The Friday Abstinence consists of abstaining from meat (poultry, beef, pork, lamb) for the duration of the day (anything with feathers or mammary glands is a good rule of thumb). It might seem difficult at first, and you will have to plan a bit in advance regarding your schedule, but after a month or two it becomes a lot easier. It’s a wonderful way to prepare yourself for Sunday, the Day of Resurrection. Try to keep this discipline during Advent, and you will see by the end of it just how easy it was. Hopefully you will choose to continue this throughout the year. Just one day a week, one type of food. There was once a time when Friday was called “Fish Friday” for this reason.

If you have kept the Friday Abstinence and would like to do more, you can add additional days. Abstain on Wednesdays as well or all of the weekdays during Advent. Talk to your Pastor or Spiritual Father, and ask them to work on a fasting regimen with you for Advent. Check in with them periodically as they will probably want to know how your efforts are going. Remember, fasting is only as good as it is paired with charity and prayer. If you toil in them all together, you will reap the most benefit for your soul.

Come let us look at Advent anew, reclaiming it as our Winter or “little” Lent. Saint Leo the Great (5th C.) reminds us of our need to constantly be called back to a life in Christ, and that the Church helps us in this regard, by prescribing the medicine of fasting throughout the year.

“Four periods of the year have been set aside as times of abstinence, so that over the course of the year we might recognize that we are constantly in need of purification, and that amid life’s distractions, we should always strive by means of fasting and acts of charity to extirpate sin, sin which is multiplied in our transitory flesh and in our impure desires.” 

Share this: