The fourth commandment of the Church
To keep the days of fasting and abstinence appointed by the Church
Fr Tomasz Pelszyk
From the very beginning Christianity has considered fasting as a means of sanctification (Judaism taught the same and fasting is in accordance with the spirit of religiousness). The fundamental distinction is: a strict fast (Latin ieiunium) and abstinence from flesh-meat (Latin abstinentia).
Fasting in the Church tradition
At first, following the example of the Pharisees people fasted twice a week, on Wednesday and Friday. This second day of course pointed to the Passion of Lord Jesus. During the Apostolic times (the so called Council of Jerusalem in ca. 50 AD) there was a command not to eat the blood and flesh of strangled animals. Pope Nicholas I (858-67) stated that the custom was forgotten in the West and he gave permission to eat 'all kinds' of meat unless it was harmful. But the East kept the tradition of the early centuries. The Church has always respected the customs adopted by some orders that refrained from eating flesh-meat, but the Church did not order strict vegetarianism (what is permitted to some cannot be ordered to all). Apart from other things the attitude was an attempt to oppose Manicheism and certain theories coming from the Eastern religions, which condemned flesh eating. St Augustine testified to the practice of fasting on Saturday, which existed in many Western societies.
The days of fasting at the beginning of each natural season were accepted: sowing in spring, first harvest in summer, wine harvest in autumn, olive harvest in winter (naturally in other climatic zones!). We mean the custom of 'ember days'. The custom was practised in Rome in the fifth century and the days were: Wednesday, Friday and Saturday (probably connected with certain liturgical tradition: Masses were celebrated on those days). From the very beginning there were the days of fasting on vigils, before certain great feasts (the most famous being Christmas Eve).
Days of fasting
The most important time of fasting in the liturgical year is Lent (Quadragesima). For a long time people observed the so-called pre-Lent (from the Sundays of Septuagesima (third Sunday before Lent - approximately 70 days before Easter), Sexagesima (approximately 60 days before Easter) and Quinquagesima (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday - 50 days before Easter), Lent (from Ash Wednesday till the fourth Sunday) and the Passiontide, embracing Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday) and Triduum Sacrum (according to present day rules this period ends before Paschal Vigil, i.e. Saturday).
Towards the end of the 4th century St John Chrysostom explained that Lent gave occasion to deeper and more intensive religious life. There were various practices of abstinence from flesh-meat. The tendency was to make it strict and it was said to be 'forty days of effective fast'. Since people did not fast on Sundays the practice embraced Good Friday and Holy Saturday and four days were added before the first Lenten Sunday (from Wednesday, which was later called Ash Wednesday).
Advent was formed in a similar way. At first it embraced six weeks and finally the Catholic Church accepted the rule that Advent began on First Sunday and consisted of four Sundays. In ancient times there was fast after Pentecost. In all those periods fasting meant eating one full meal a day after sunset and evening prayers. Since 15th century the full meal has been taken before midday.
Meaning of the commandment
A special kind of fasting is the Eucharistic fast, especially connected with receiving Holy Communion. It embraced the time from midnight till Mass. Then the discipline was gradually lessened and nowadays we have the practice of refraining from meals (except water and medicines) one hour before Holy Communion (the sick do not have to keep this practice).
The ordered commandments of the Church point to the necessity of penance. Fasting comes into this perspective and it is not artificially separated from the whole attitude of penance. It has been rooted in Christian piety. The Church established days of fasting and abstinence. These are all Fridays and Lent. Abstinence involves refraining from entertainment (now we do not mention grand parties and wedding receptions but we mean all forms of entertainment with dances and loud music, including school receptions). The Church intends to help the faithful to control their instincts and to shape freedom of the heart. Advent is not mentioned as a period of abstinence in order to keep the joyful character of the preparation to the Lord's coming. However, it seems that it is worth following the healthy tradition to assume the attitude of calmness although the ecclesiastical law does not suggest it directly.
Abstinence from flesh-meat is obligatory for all who are over 14, and it should be observed on all Fridays (some believers are falsely convinced that it only applies to the Lenten Fridays) and on Ash Wednesday. The Church clearly emphasizes that if someone cannot abstain from flesh-meat on Friday he must do some other form of penance. The official commentary to the fourth commandment of the Church does not mention Christmas Eve but we should follow the deeply rooted Polish tradition (which does not exist in many countries) and treat this day as a day of abstinence. Combining abstinence from flesh-meat with abstinence from alcohol is praiseworthy. Fasting, which is one full meal a day (there may be two small meals), applies to all believers at the age of 18 - 60, the exception being the sick. This fast is obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
The Church also reminds us of acts of penance. These are: prayer, charity, deeds of piety and love, mortification through fulfilment of obligations in a more faithful way, abstinence from flesh-meat and fasting. The above-mentioned principles constitute only part of the teaching included in the fourth commandment. One should remember not to leave out such important issues as care for the poor (almsgiving), devoting time to the sick and lonely (deeds of mercy for the body and the soul) as well as using time for work better and fulfilling entrusted tasks with honesty. So the perspective shown in the fourth commandment is extremely wide.