It’s well known that Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent, and that Ash Wednesday and Good Fridays are fast days, in which we cut back on how much we eat. But what about the rest of the year? Should we be abstaining and fasting on other Fridays? And in particular, what about right now, during the season of Easter? It’s easy to sound legalistic in answering these questions, so let’s begin by laying something of a biblical and spiritual framework:
First, fasting isn’t optional in Christianity. Jesus says that “when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men.” Instead, “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:16-18). So there’s clearly a wrong way to fast (doing it for the acclaim of men), but that’s not an argument against fasting. Notice that Jesus says not “if you fast,” but “when you fast.”
Second, we need fasting. God summarizes the story of Israel by saying that “it was I who knew you in the wilderness, in the land of drought; but when they had fed to the full, they were filled, and their heart was lifted up; therefore they forgot me” (Hos. 13:5-6). That’s true of not just Israel, but all of us. When things are going poorly, we realize our weakness and (hopefully) cry out to God for help. When things are going well, on the other hand, it’s easy to buy into the illusion that we can take care of ourselves just fine without God. For this reason, Moses warned that “when you eat and are full, then take heed lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Deut. 6:11-12). Fasting is one of the concrete ways in which we allow ourselves to be shaken out of this forgetfulness and self-delusion.
Third, fasting is a practice of the Church, not just a private devotion. It’s great to decide for personal reasons that you need to fast for a particular period of time. But it would be a mistake to think all Christian fasting is like that. When Jesus says “when you fast,” he doesn’t use the second-person singular, as if it were up to each of us to decide when and where to fast. Instead, he says “you” in the plural, like “when you all fast.” We see concrete instances of local churches calling fasts in places like Acts 13:1-3 and Acts 14:23.
Fourth, fasting on Fridays has always been part of Christianity. It’s easy to think of fasting on Fridays as a modern thing. But it actually goes all the way back to the time of the apostles. A first-century Christian text called the Didache instructs, “Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites; for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week; but fast on the fourth day and the Preparation.” In other words, one of the ways that Christians were setting themselves apart from groups like the Pharisees was that the Pharisees would fast on Mondays and Thursdays, and Christians would fast on Wednesdays (the fourth day of the week) and Fridays (the day of Preparation). This wasn’t an empty cultural marker, like wearing pink on Wednesdays. It was a reminder of the death of the Lord Jesus on Good Friday, the day of preparation (Mark 15:42; John 19:31). In the modern era, this has taken the form of abstaining from meat on Fridays, rather than a full-fledged fast. But the reasoning is the same. As the NCCB (now USCCB) puts it, “Catholic peoples from time immemorial have set apart Friday for special penitential observance by which they gladly suffer with Christ that they may one day be glorified with Him. This is the heart of the tradition of abstinence from meat on Friday where that tradition has been observed in the holy Catholic Church.”
Fifth, the joy of Easter trumps the fast. St. John the Baptist’s disciples asked Jesus why his own disciples didn’t fast, and he replied, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matt. 9:15). That’s the crux: our fasting shouldn’t interfere with rejoicing in the presence of Jesus. During the Octave of Easter (the eight-day period from Easter Sunday to Divine Mercy Sunday), we celebrate the bridegroom returning to us from the grave, so it’s fitting for a time to set all of our fasting and abstaining aside. Likewise, there are certainly particularly important feast days (called solemnities) in which we relax these disciplines in order to highlight the feast.
So where does all of that leave us? The Church’s instructions are clear. Catholics who are able to do so* are required to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent (can. 1251), but we should also treat the entire season of Lent and every Friday throughout the year as penitential (can. 1250). As the USCCB explains, “Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year.” Just as every Sunday is a mini-Easter, every Friday is a mini-Lent, preparing us for Sunday and Easter.
How do we mark that mini-Lent, outside the season of Lent itself? It depends a bit on where you live. In the United Kingdom, Catholics are required to abstain from meat throughout the year. In Canada, Ireland, and the United States, you can substitute something else for meat (like alcohol). But as the American bishops explained, the point of this was not to abolish Friday penance, but to urge Catholics to come up with “other forms of penitential witness which may become as much a part of the devout way of life in the future as Friday abstinence from meat.”
All of this is relaxed entirely if “a solemnity should fall on a Friday” (can. 1251). That always includes the first (but only the first) Friday after Easter, since the Universal Norms specify that “the first eight days of Easter Time constitute the Octave of Easter and are celebrated as Solemnities of the Lord.” For the rest of Easter season, we’re back to Friday penances. Perhaps the best way to understand why is to consider the counsel of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who says in his rules for discernment, “Let him who is in consolation think how he will be in the desolation which will come after, taking new strength for then.” The Fridays of Easter keep our Easter highs from getting so high that we forget the cross, just as the Sundays of Lent keep our Lenten lows from getting so low that we forget the Resurrection.
So this season, let us keep that spirit of Friday penance, without losing an ounce of our Easter joy!
*Those who should not fast or abstain are exempted, including young kids, pregnant/nursing moms, and people who are suffering from illness. Fasting and abstaining from meat should never endanger your health or the health of your child.