When McDonald’s starts advertising the Filet-O-Fish sandwich, that’s one cue that Lent is here. Oh right, no meat on Fridays, or something like that? The ins and outs of when we fast, sacrifice, and feast can be confusing. The “why” behind these practices can get lost in the details.
Below is your guide to Lenten fasting and abstinence. And don’t worry, if the Filet-O-Fish sandwich isn’t your thing, I’ve got some other meal ideas for you!
For Catholics, there are only two out of 365 days a year that we are asked to fast: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. (For those of us who get hangry, this is great news. Only two days! Surely, we can survive.)
When we fast, we go without our normal amount of food. The essence of fasting is to reduce and simplify our meals. A helpful guideline is one regular meal plus two small meals, and no snacks in between (fluids, including coffee and tea, do not “count” as elements of a meal, technically speaking). The trick is that the two smaller meals put together shouldn’t be bigger than the normal meal.
Fasting is really about your heart. Our hearts are distracted with so many things — social media, work projects, finances — that we can easily forget about God. We feel a lack — a desire for more — and this creates space for our hearts to remember and refocus on God.
Abstinence is another layer of Lenten fasting — it is simply avoiding meat, which is traditionally associated with feasting because it was eaten on special occasions. In addition to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics are asked to abstain from meat on all the Fridays during the season of Lent.
If you don’t eat meat regularly or at all, though, don’t write abstinence off. Consider choosing an additional sacrifice for these days of Lent. It is a tangible way to remember that Jesus suffered and died for us — it’s a small way to connect our sacrifice with his.
The fine print
These Lenten practices are not meant for everyone. The elderly and young children, as well as the sick and frail, are not asked to fast or abstain. Pregnant or nursing women may also forgo these practices.
Even those with mental health issues, such as an eating disorder, should be prudent about if and how they enter into fasting and abstinence. In these cases, people are free to choose a different type of practice or sacrifice that will lead them closer to God during Lent.
Some people wonder how a Lenten fast would apply if their breakfast in the morning is a simple cup of coffee. No need to calculate volume sizes to compare your venti latte with your lunch and dinner — coffee and tea (as well as other fluids) are not part of the fast. Lent is a good opportunity, however, to examine your attachment to certain things. Perhaps simplifying your coffee order, or replacing it with a banana, would help you practice discipline — and the money you save could be offered to people in need, further motivating your sacrifice.
Everyone should consult their consciences regarding how to fast and abstain from meat, but one of the benefits of joining these practices is that they connect us to a worldwide body of people who are making the same choices and striving to make more room in their lives for God.
I think I got it, but give me an example
Here’s the simple rundown:
No meat on Fridays in Lent (abstinence). Simple.
In addition, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, eat no meat, no snacks, and small meals only (fasting + abstinence).
If this is all new to you, or if you’re taking it seriously for the first time, that’s fantastic. Here are a few simple menu items that most Catholics lean on to get through the Lenten season:
Breakfast: Hard boiled egg and toast without butter or jam; or oatmeal without sugar or toppings
Lunch: Rice, beans, and salsa; or tuna fish salad or sandwich
Dinner: Tomato, lentil, or vegetable soup; or grilled cheese sandwiches
First we fast, then we feast! After the 40 days of Lent, we swap fasting for feasting as we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection at Easter. Keep the end in mind as you fast throughout Lent — at Easter, enter into the feast as much (or more so) as you entered into the fast!