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Scott P. Richert

Reader Question: Lent, Fasting, and the Bible

By March 11, 2010

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On our "Questions About Catholicism" form, reader Meredith asks:

Where in the Bible does it state that meat is forbidden on Fridays during Lent?

There's a whole lot packed into this rather short question, so get ready for a whirlwind tour through salvation history, Christian practice, and the relationship between the Bible and Tradition.

The first thing to note is that the Bible says nothing about not eating meat on Fridays during Lent. It can't, because it says nothing about Lent at all—at least not directly.

Fasting, which always included abstaining from meat, is a common practice in both the Old and New Testaments. Virtually all of the patriarchs and prophets are depicted as fasting and praying before an important event. Moses, for instance, fasted and prayed on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights before receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28). In the New Testament, Christ Himself follows the example of the patriarchs and prophets, going into the desert to fast for 40 days and 40 nights (Matthew 4:1-2; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-2).

Those 40 days should look familiar: It is from these fasts that the early Church developed the 40-day fast before Easter that we know as Lent. In doing so, they were following the example of Christ, Who instructed His disciples how to fast (Matthew 6:16-18) and told them that it was necessary in certain cases (Matthew 17:20; Mark 9:28).

One common objection to the practice of fasting raised by non-Catholics is based on Matthew 9:14-15. The disciples of John the Baptist ask Christ why His disciples do not fast, as they and the pharisees do. Christ replies, "Can the children of the bridegroom mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them?" He doesn't stop there, however: "But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast."

Indeed, in the Acts of the Apostles, we see the early Church engaged in fasting before celebrating the Eucharist and ordaining priests (Acts 13:2-3; 14:22; 27:33). In other words, the practice of fasting after Christ's Death and Resurrection is found in Scripture because the Church practiced it. That may sound like a tautology, but it's an important truth—while the Church was shaped by Scripture (the Old Testament), She also shaped Scripture (the New Testament).

That shaping of Scripture happens through the development of Tradition, which didn't stop when the last book of the Bible was written. By the end of the first century, Christians were fasting in preparation for Easter, and, just as it was for Moses and Christ, fasting always meant abstaining from meat—not just on Fridays, but on every day of the fast.

As Fr. John Hardon, S.J., notes in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, "In the early Church there was less formal precept and therefore greater variety of custom, but in general fasting was much more severe than in the modern Church." In fact, while today some Catholics bristle at the Church's very lenient rules for fasting and abstinence during Lent, in the early Church, it was the opposite: The people insisted that the Church toughen the discipline!

Lent started out as a fast of a day or two before Easter; quickly extended to all of Holy Week; and by the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325 had risen to 40 days—all largely at the request of Christian laymen, who wanted to perform a greater sacrifice in preparation for Easter. Indeed, the pre-Lenten period (no longer celebrated in the Novus Ordo but still celebrated in the Traditional Latin Mass) of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima arose through the request of Christian layman rather than through imposition by Church authorities. During this period, various food items—first meat, then dairy products and eggs, then all oils—were removed from the diet, so that when Lent started, Christian were eating only bread, water, and vegetables, and those only once per day, for the entire 40-day period.

In that light, the Church's current Lenten discipline of eight days of abstinence (Ash Wednesday and the seven Fridays of Lent) and two days of fasting (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) doesn't look very hard at all. Interestingly, though, an increasing number of Catholics have begun to return to the Lenten discipline prescribed by the Church up until 1966—a move that parallels the early Christians' insistence that the Church provide them with a stricter fast.

FAQs About Lent:

More FAQs About Lent:

If you have a question that you would like to be featured as part of our Reader Questions series, please send me an e-mail. Be sure to put "QUESTION" in the subject line, and please note whether you'd like me to address it privately or on the Catholicism blog.

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March 25, 2010 at 10:46 pm
(1) Mark C. says:

Thank you for this insightful article. The idea of Lent and fasting has intrigued me, even as a Baptist. I have learned even more about it through reading your material; it just adds to the evidence in favor of Lent and other Catholic observances.

August 5, 2013 at 9:24 am
(2) Daamonturne says:

1 Tim. 4:1,2,3 sums up the reason why pretty well. Verse 1 tells us that this teaching was to Positively be taught. No wonder people are confused about following it.

April 4, 2014 at 5:00 pm
(3) Laurie says:

Scott, thanks as always for your very well stated explanation. As a life-long and passionate Catholic who now spends much time with non-Catholic Christians, I get this question many times in some form or another. And if even Christ Jesus fasted, can’t imagine them seeing it as non-biblical.

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