Learn the Rules of Fasting for Lent

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Lent is a common time for fasting in many churches. It is followed by Roman Catholics as well as Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians. While some churches have strict rules for fasting during Lent, others leave it as a personal choice for each believer.

It can be difficult to remember who follows which fasting rules, particularly during the 40 days of Lent

The Connection Between Lent and Fasting

Fasting, in general, is a form of self-denial and most often it refers to eating food. In a spiritual fast, such as during Lent, the purpose is to show restraint and self-control. It is a spiritual discipline intended to allow each person to focus more closely on their relationship with God without the distractions of worldly desires.

This does not necessarily mean that you cannot eat anything. Instead, many churches place restrictions on specific foods such as meat or include recommendations on how much to eat. That is why you will often find restaurants offering meatless menu options during Lent and why many believers seek out meatless recipes to cook at home.

In some churches, and for many individual believers, fasting may extend beyond food. For instance, you might consider abstaining from a vice like smoking or drinking, refrain from a hobby you enjoy, or not indulge in activities like watching television. The point is to redirect your attention from temporary satisfactions so you are better able to concentrate on God.

All of this stems from multiple references in the Bible regarding the benefits of fasting. In Matthew 4:1-2, for example, Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness during which he was greatly tempted by Satan. While fasting in the New Testament was used as a spiritual tool, in the Old Testament, it was often a form of expressing grief.

Fasting Rules of the Roman Catholic Church

The tradition of fasting during Lent has long been held by the Roman Catholic Church. The rules are very specific and include fasting on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all Fridays during Lent. The rules do not apply to young children, the elderly, or anyone whose health may be in jeopardy if they do not eat as normal.

The current rules for fasting and abstinence are set forth in the Code of Canon Law for the Roman Catholic Church. To a limited extent, they can be modified by the conference of bishops for each particular country.

The Code of Canon Law prescribes (Canons 1250-1252):

Can. 1250: The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.
Can. 1251: Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Can. 1252: The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.

The Rules for Roman Catholics in the United States

The law of fasting refers to "those who have attained their majority," which may differ from culture to culture and country to country. In the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has declared that "the age of fasting is from the completion of the eighteenth year to the beginning of the sixtieth."

The USCCB also allows the substitution of some other form of penance for abstinence on all Fridays of the year, except for the Fridays of Lent. The rules for fasting and abstinence in the United States are:

  • Every person 14 years of age or older must abstain from meat (and items made with meat) on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and every Friday of Lent.
  • Every person between the age of 18 and 59 (your 18th birthday completes your 18th year, and your 59th birthday begins your 60th year) must fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting consists of one full meal per day, with two smaller meals that do not add up to a full meal, and no snacks.
  • Every person 14 years of age or older must abstain from meat on all other Fridays of the year unless he or she substitutes some other form of penance for abstinence.

If you are outside the United States, you should check with the bishops' conference for your country.

Fasting in Eastern Catholic Churches

The Code of Canons of Oriental Churches outlines the fasting rules of the Eastern Catholic Churches. The rules can differ, so it's important to check with the governing body for your particular rite.

For the Eastern Catholic Churches, the Code of Canons of Oriental Churches prescribes (Canon 882):

Can. 882: On the days of penance the Christian faithful are obliged to observe fast or abstinence in the manner established by the particular law of their Church sui iuris.

Lenten Fasting in the Eastern Orthodox Church

Some of the strictest rules for fasting are found in the Eastern Orthodox Church. During the Lenten season, there are a number of days when members are encouraged to severely restrict their diets or refrain from eating altogether:

  • During the second week of Lent, full meals are allowed only on Wednesday and Friday. However, many members do not fully comply with this rule.
  • On weekdays during Lent, meat, eggs, dairy, fish, wine, and oil are restricted. This also applies to any food products containing these items.
  • The week before Lent, all animal products, including meat, are prohibited.
  • Good Friday is a day for a complete fast during which members are encouraged to eat nothing.

Fasting Practices in Protestant Churches

Among the many Protestant churches, you will find a variety of suggestions regarding fasting during Lent. This is a product of the Reformation during which leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin wanted new believers to focus on salvation by God's grace rather than traditional spiritual disciplines.

The Assemblies of God views fasting as a form of self-control and it is an important practice, though not mandatory. Members can voluntarily and privately decide to practice it with an understanding that it is not done to curry favor from God.

The Baptist Church does not set fasting days, either. The practice is a private decision when a member wishes to strengthen his relationship with God.

The Episcopal Church is one of the few that specifically urges fasting during Lent. In particular, members are asked to fast, pray, and give alms on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

The Lutheran Church addresses fasting in the Augsburg Confession. It reads, "We do not condemn fasting in itself, but the traditions which prescribe certain days and certain meats, with peril of conscience, as though such works were a necessary service." So, while it's not required in any particular fashion or during Lent, the church has no issues with members fasting with the right intent.

The Methodist Church also views fasting as a private concern of its members and has no rules regarding it. However, the church does encourage members to avoid indulgences such as favorite foods, hobbies, and pastimes like watching TV during Lent.

The Presbyterian Church takes the voluntary approach as well. It is seen as a practice that can bring members closer to God, rely on Him for help, and aid them in resisting temptations.