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Home : Faith/Spirituality : Living Faith
2/15/2012 1:51:00 PM
Fasting, abstinence: Dependence on God

Fasting and abstinence are among the oldest traditions in Judeo-Christianity. Theologians point to God's prohibition against the fruit tree in the Garden of Eden as an initial example of abstinence, the purpose being to lead Adam and Eve to recognize their dependence on the Creator.

Realizing our need for God is still the reason for the discipline.  

Fasting was carried out in humility on anniversaries of difficult days in Israelite history, like the Babylonians' capture of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Calamities were seen as God's judgment for wrongdoing and self-denial was a natural response by a people who wanted to remain in covenant with God. The people of Ninevah fasted to show that they wanted to repair their ruptured relationship with the Lord.   

In a tradition recorded in the 11th chapter of Leviticus, Jews were enjoined to avoid eating a long line of creatures that had been declared unclean. This was another way to abide by the covenant.  

Moses went without food for 40 days on a desert mountain before meeting God. Jesus fasted for the same amount of time before starting his public ministry. And now, the church's Lenten observance lasts 40 days.

Abstinence from meat became a tradition in the Christian church from its earliest times, a way to honor Christ's death. The designated day was sometimes Saturday and sometimes Friday, the day of the week on which Jesus died. Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, second century Christian thinkers, made explicit mention of the practice. Pope Nicholas I, who led the church 858-867, officially declared all Fridays meatless.

Lent was a time for those to become Christian to fast and open themselves to the action of the Holy Spirit. In the fifth century, Saint Nilus of Sinai put it like this: "The prayer of one who is fasting is like a young eagle that soars into the air."   

Money that would have been spent for food was given to the poor.

In more recent years, fasting and abstinence were limited to Lent. In the Archdiocese of Portland, as elsewhere, Catholics 14 years and older must abstain from meat on the Fridays of Lent, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Catholics 18 to 59 are to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

The archdiocese's regulations say that to fast means to eat one full meal. The other two meals that day should be less than the normal amount unless they are already at a minimum for good health. Eating between meals is not permitted, but liquids including coffee, milk and fruit juices are allowed.

Alongside its spiritual import, the idea of abstinence has remained in western culture. In the U.S., Catholics in the Northeast ate clam chowder and oyster stew on Fridays. Many U.S. diners still serve clam chowder on Fridays, though many staff and patrons don't know why. Fast food restaurants advertise fish sandwiches when Lent approaches.

Fish fries are a U.S. tradition, especially in the Catholic rust belt states. German Catholics made the meals a standby in Wisconsin and nearby regions. The idea surged during Prohibition, when fish fries were marketed to replace alcohol consumption at taverns on Fridays.

The custom came with Catholics who moved to the Pacific Northwest in the mid-20th century. Holy Redeemer Parish in North Portland has held Friday fish fries for years.

"They're kind of a staple now," says Holy Cross Father John Dougherty, pastor of Holy Redeemer. He grew up in Michigan and remembers going to fish fries after stations of the cross.

"Any time we are gathering the community around table should be encouraged," the priest says.

On one Lenten Friday this year, instead of a fish fry, Holy Redeemer will have a catechist tell stories. That mixes faith education and community building.

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