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Dietary Rules

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Description and comparative analysis of the dietary rules of different religions and confessions

Dietary Rules

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3.1. Fasting and abstinence
The Catholic Church historically observes the disciplines of fasting and abstinence. During Lent, Roman Catholics observe abstinence on all Fridays of Lent, as well as on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

In 1966, Pope Paul VI significantly amended the laws of fasting through his apostolic constitution Paenitemini, in which he affirmed some practices and gave certain authority to national conferences of bishops around the world. The changes by Pope Paul were incorporated into the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Abstinence and fasting are required on both Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On those days, one full meal is allowed along with two other smaller meals. Catholics bound by the law of abstinence include everyone age 14 and over; the law of fasting includes individuals age 18 through the beginning of their 60th year.

For Catholics, fasting is the reduction of one's intake of food, while abstinence refers to refraining from meat (or another type of food). St. Basil gives the following exhortation regarding fasting: «Let us fast an acceptable and very pleasing fast to the Lord. True fast is the estrangement from evil, temperance of tongue, abstinence from anger, separation from desires, slander, falsehood and perjury. Privation of these is true fasting».

Sacred Scripture and Christian tradition teach that fasting is a great help to avoid sin, and all that leads to it. We first hear of the commandment to fast in Genesis, where man is prohibited from eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. After Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden, fasting is proposed, in the stories of Ezra and Nineveh, as an instrument to restore our friendship with God. In the New Testament, Jesus brings to light the true and most profound meaning of fasting, which is to do the will of the Heavenly Father who “sees in secret and will reward you”(Mt. 6:18). Jesus himself sets the example, answering Satan, at the end of forty days and forty nights in the desert: “man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4). True fasting, then, is eating the “true food” which is doing the Father’s will. If, therefore, Adam disobeyed God’s directive—not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil—the believer, through fasting, intends to submit himself humbly to God, trusting in his goodness and mercy.

Fasting is recorded in the early church, and is frequently encountered and recommended by the saints of every age. Fasting represents an important ascetical practice, a spiritual arm with which to do battle against every possible disordered attachment to ourselves. Freely chosen, the detachment from the pleasure of food, and other material goods, helps the disciple of Christ control the appetites of nature, weakened by original sin, whose negative effects impact the entire human person.

Bernardino di Betto, known as Pinturicchio, Saint Jerome in the Desert, 1475-1480, Walters Art Museum, Baltimora.
The limitation of foods has been considered, since ancient times, an exercise that reawakens the will to obey God, as happened to St. Jerome who chose to spend four years in the Syrian desert as a hermit, mortifying his flesh and elevating his spirit through study and fasting. The subject has given Pinturicchio the opportunity to depict a monumental, rocky landscape, while the lizard and the scorpion call attention to the desolation of the scene. The open book contains a passage from a letter attributed to Saint Augustine in which Jerome is compared to Saint John the Baptist, another saint who lived in the wilderness.

Briton Riviere, The temptation in the wilderness, 1898, Guildhall Art Gallery, London.
Jesus himself fasts, because this practice helps to remain in fidelity to God and in solidarity with the people, especially with the poorest. Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.-The Temptation In the Wilderness- is an example of the artist's technical skill and knowledge, and is also interesting as being the successful outcome of an experiment in colour. The painter decided to express the sentiment of his subject almost entirely by means of colour, i.e. by the white figure of the Christ against the sunset glow of the sky, both sky and figure being focused by the gloom of the landscape.

Discover that you are hungry and thirsty for love
The practice of fasting teaches that man does not feed only on food, but on words and gestures exchanged, of relationships, of love, that is, of everything that gives meaning to life nourished and sustained by food. Fasting then performs the fundamental function of letting us know what our hunger is, of what we live, of what we feed ourselves and of ordering our appetites around what is truly central.

Fasting in secret
[text in the image “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”] Since the risk of making fasting a meritorious work, an ascetic performance is present, the Christian tradition reminds us that it must take place in secret, in humility, with a specific purpose: justice, sharing, love for God and for the next.

Fasting to become supportive
[text in the image “FAST of JUSTICE in solidarity with migrants”]Fasting weakens our tendency to violence


Lent - a season of repentance, prayer and fasting

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This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This web site reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.