The Catholic Church recognizes and celebrates over 10,000 saints. We also have additional feasts celebrating Marian apparitions and important biblical events.
We do like to party. At least theoretically.
The truth is, in this moment of history, since we aren’t really good at fasting, it follows that our ability to enter into feasting is also compromised.
The fasting and abstinence requirements for Latin Catholics—in the United States and, largely, abroad—are minimal. In the U.S., the only required days of both abstinence (from meat) and fasting (one meal, two snacks that don’t add up to a full meal) are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting is required for people ages eighteen to fifty-nine, and abstinence starting at the age of fourteen.
The Eastern Catholic Churches (there are twenty-three of them) have their own particular laws to be followed. For example, my own church, the Armenian Catholic Church, requires abstaining from meat on all Wednesdays and Fridays.
Until the Code of Canon Law changed in 1983, the Vigils of All Saints’ Day, the Immaculate Conception, Christmas, and Pentecost were days of required fasting and abstinence, as well as all Fridays throughout the year except Easter Friday and the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which always lands on a Friday. If another solemnity happens to fall on a Friday, the prohibition is also lifted.
Interestingly, the Friday in the Christmas octave is still considered a fasting Friday because Christmas (although liturgically celebrated as an octave) is celebrated only as a one-day solemnity.
These sorts of canonical nuances can sometimes appear legalistic or be embraced legalistically. But fasting isn’t for the sake of fasting. In his Summa Theologica (II-II, Q. 147), St. Thomas Aquinas gives three reasons why fasting is important for continuing conversion: First, because fasting increases the virtue of chastity; second, to aid in contemplative prayer; and third, to make reparation for sins.
These are all important reasons to fast. Jesus also tells us that some demons can be exorcised only by prayer and fasting (Matt. 17:21).
But there’s an even greater end to which fasting is oriented: the sake of truly enjoying the feasting. Therefore, feasting is more important, in a certain sense, than fasting. Remember, the season of Lent is forty days, but Eastertide is fifty!
If Western Catholics can reclaim fasting and abstinence beyond the Church’s minimal requirements, we can also reclaim the practice of, and the joy of, the feast.
Although the saying (used in various places, but having its roots in Scripture) goes, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”— meaning “let’s enjoy life while it lasts”—for the Christian, the feasting is sacramental, a sign of and a participation in the ultimate cause for our rejoicing: “the marriage of the lamb” (Rev. 19:7). This biblical reference is about our ultimate union with God and the consummation of that singular joy. It’s why our solemnities are usually (but not always) holy days of obligation—because our joy culminates in the holy sacrifice of the Mass—and why we are actually canonically forbidden to fast or abstain on Sundays and other holy days!
Feasting, then, is a form of worship. It is how we worship the Lord with our bodies. Remember, we aren’t just souls. We aren’t just flesh. We are body-soul composites, and so we worship God through both body and soul. This is why we don’t just sing or recite prayers during liturgy. We also sit, stand, kneel, bow, and genuflect. What happens in the body affects the soul. A posture of worship disposes one’s heart and mind to worship. That’s how it works for the fleshly yet also spiritual creatures we are.
The reason we place both fasting and feasting seasons in the liturgical calendar is because we need to be reminded of our ultimate end and be prompted to “continually convert”—to increase our capacity for worship, to exercise the role of memory. The use of memory in the Christian sense is not just a remembering of the past, but a certain remembering that makes what is past also present here and now. It’s a way of sanctifying time by connecting it with the light of the eternal and experiencing it now. This is why we say, “Today is Christmas, today Christ is born” or “Today is Easter; today Jesus rose from the dead.”
The liturgy is not only the highest form of worship, but the greatest festival and the deepest and most profound way of entering into joy. Fasting and feasting are meaningful only insofar as they are oriented to this end: the contemplation and love of him who is Love (1 John 4:8).
In other words, feasting isn’t just about a day off from work or even about joy. It’s about becoming joy. Without the feast, there is something that simply can’t happen in you and for you.
In his book In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, philosopher Josef Pieper cites an observation from Friedrich Nietzsche: “The trick is not to arrange a festival, but to find people who can enjoy it.”
Nietzsche is right about what counts when it comes to feasting—and we must become the sort of people who have developed the capacity to feast. Besides our own ability to enter into the beatific vision one day, there is an evangelical quality to an authentic Christian feasting culture—for what converted the early Church in the first place but joy? That’s the joy that persisted even in the face of terrible persecutions . . . and it’s the joy that should animate all of us through all the days of Eastertide.