Why do we fast and feast?

by Father Jason Asselin


“Living our Catholic faith with all its fasting and feasting is an invitation to order our days to the glory of God, and to echo his bountiful goodness in all our actions.” – Father Jason Asselin

We love weekends. Our vocabulary includes popular expressions to celebrate their arrival. We love them for various reasons: extra sleep, time to practice our hobbies, and time for our interests. Our affection for the weekend can help us understand why the Catholic faith includes days of fasting, penance, abstinence, as well as days of feasting and celebration.

“Work is an everyday occurrence, while a feast is something special, unusual, an interruption in the ordinary passage of time” (In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity). At the center of our faith is a person, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, who interrupted the events of humanity when he entered a real, human family in the stable in Bethlehem, learned from his parents, worked, and entered public ministry.

Because our faith is centered on the life, death and Resurrection of Christ, our lives should imitate the life of our Savior. Thus, the practices of self-discipline are undertaken to remind us of Christ’s self-giving, simplicity and humility. We also celebrate the glorious and joyful events of salvation: the birth of Jesus, the Resurrection of Jesus, and other events from the life of our Savior, his Blessed Mother and the saints.

Milestones and memorable moments of life are treasured experiences. Reaching those experiences usually includes rocky, challenging and difficult events. We celebrate Advent before Christmas and Lent before Easter, to remind us of this same idea: fasting comes before the feast. The practice of fasting is a biblical discipline. Jesus instructed his disciples to feast (Mt 9:14-15); he also instructed them how to fast (Mt 6:16-18).

The disciples struggled to accept that Jesus must suffer first, and then enter into glory. We face the same struggle when we are asked to undertake penance and to practice self-denial. Cultural pressures may cause us to question the very necessity of doing penance at all. It is increasingly common to doubt the real value of suffering.

In the book of Acts, Peter’s message on Pentecost states the obligation of repentance (Acts 2:38). Human nature tries to avoid suffering and practices of self-denial. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that original sin produces negative influences on people and makes life a battle against sin (408-409). Penance and abstinence are tools to help us achieve the continual conversion we need. When Jesus calls us to conversion, his first goal is interior conversion, “not sackcloth and ashes, fasting and mortification” (1430). However, we are physical human beings with flesh and bones, therefore, “interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance” (1430). Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the most common expressions of penance contained in Scripture and the Fathers of the Church (1434).

Abstaining from certain foods is a specific form of penance also found in the bible. The prophet Daniel recalls a period of mourning when, “I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth” (Dan 10:2-3). Abstinence from meat on Fridays should remind us of the crucifixion. Catholics are required to observe some form of penance every Friday of the year. Abstaining from meat is required only on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent.

Finally, what about the celebrations, holy days and special feasts observed by Catholics throughout the year? First, the Lord’s Day, Sunday, is the foundation of these celebrations: “God’s action is the model for human action. If God ‘rested and was refreshed’ on the seventh day, man too ought to ‘rest’” (2172). Second, special celebrations are reminders that we follow a different calendar. We’re not here to live for the weekend! Rather, our celebrations recall the many events of Christ’s life throughout the whole year. Easter, the Resurrection, is the “feast of feasts” (1169).

The liturgical year has the goal of communicating all the events of our salvation, including the role of the Blessed Mother of God, the martyrs and saints. The purpose of observing feast days, life events, and saints is to proclaim how the glory of Christ shines for the whole world in these lives and events (1171-1173).

Our feast day celebrations often include physical reminders of God’s goodness to us. The celebration of the Eucharist is the primary example of this; the faithful gather to praise God for his ultimate sacrifice. Another example is the Eucharistic procession. Holy Thursday Mass concludes with this practice. The outdoor procession on the feast of Corpus Christi is another example.

Benedict XVI says, “Our relationship to God needs not only the inward aspect; it also needs to be expressed. As well as speech, singing, silence, standing, sitting and kneeling, expression also calls for this celebratory walking along together in the community of the faithful, together with the God in whom we believe… so the liturgy opens out into everyday life; into our earthly life and cares; it goes beyond the church precincts because it actually embraces heaven and earth, present and future. How we need this sign!” (Feast of Faith).

Everyone craves a little downtime, rest, and vacation. Something greater than the weekend is offered to us in the liturgical calendar. Living our Catholic faith with all its fasting and feasting is an invitation to order our days to the glory of God, and to echo his bountiful goodness in all our actions.

Father Asselin serves as the pastor of St. Helena’s Church in Ellendale and St. Patrick’s Church in Fullerton.

Editor’s Note: If you have a question about the Catholic faith and would like to submit a question for consideration in a future column, please send to news@fargodiocese.org with “Ask a Priest” in the subject line or mail to New Earth, 5201 Bishops Blvd. S, Suite. A, Fargo, ND 58104, Attn: Ask a Priest.