Compared to the Giants of Old, My Lenten Practices Look Pretty Small

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By Msgr. Charles Pope, February 15, 2018

I was explaining to a new Catholic recently that the color purple (violet) used during Lent symbolizes its penitential quality. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fasting and abstinence, and all Fridays of Lent are days of abstinence. These remind us that during Lent we are to give special attention to our sins and our need for salvation.

Long gone are the days of a forty-day fast beginning on Ash Wednesday, but we still delight in the carnival of Fat Tuesday! Carnival literally means “farewell to meat” (carnis + vale)). Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) was so named because the last of the fat was to be used up before the fast began the next day.

The fasting and abstinence in those days were far more than the token observances common today. In most places, all animal products were strictly forbidden during the entirety of Lent. The rest of the details varied by region. While most areas permitted fish, others permitted fish and fowl. Some prohibited fruit and eggs. In some places (like monasteries) little more than bread was eaten. On Fridays during Lent, some areas observed a complete fast; in others believers ate only a single mean; in most places, however, the practice was to abstain from eating until evening, at which time a small meal without vegetables or alcohol was eaten.

Yes, those were the day of the giants — when fasting and abstinence were real sacrifices.

Our token fast on just two days during Lent really isn’t much of a fast at all: two small meals and one regular meal — is that even a fast at all? And we abstain from meat only on the Fridays of Lent instead of all forty days.

What is most remarkable to me is that the fasts of old were undertaken by men, women, and children who had a lot less to eat than we do. Not only was there less food, but it was far more seasonal and its supply less predictable. Further, famines and food shortages were more a fact of life than they are today. Yet despite all this people were able to fast and abstain for forty days. Further, there were ember days sporadically through the year, when a day-long fast was enjoined. And Advent back then had a more penitential nature than it does today.

Frankly, I doubt that we moderns could pull off the fast of the ancients or even the elders of more recent centuries. Can you imagine the bellyaching (pun intended) if we were obligated to follow the strict norms of even 100 or 200 years ago? I’m sure we would hear that such demands were “unrealistic” or even unhealthy.

Perhaps this is a good illustration of how our abundance enslaves us. The more we get the more we want; the more we want the more we think we can’t live without. We are so easily owned by what we claim to own. We are enslaved by our abundance and experience little freedom to go without.

I look back to the Catholics of 100 years ago and before and to me they seem like giants compared to us. They had so little compared to what we have yet they seem to have been so much freer. They could fast. Though poor, they built grand churches and had large families. They crowded into homes and lived and worked in conditions few of us would tolerate. Sacrifice seemed more “normal” to them. I have not read of any huge outcries from that time that the “mean, nasty Church” imposed fasting and abstinence during Lent and Advent. Nor have I read of complaints about the required fasting from midnight until receiving Holy Communion. Somehow, they accepted these sacrifices and for the most part were able to undertake them. They had a freedom that I think many of us lack.

Imagine the joy when, for a day, the fast was lifted: Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Gaudete Sunday, Feast of the Annunciation, St. Joseph’s Feast day, and Laetare Sunday. For us, the pink candle of Guadete Sunday just makes us wondering, “Rejoice? Over what?” For them these were literally “feast days.”

I admit I am a man of my time. The fasting and abstinence described above seems nearly “impossible” to me. I do undertake certain Lenten practices, but when I look back to these “giants” of old, my sacrifices feel pretty small.