Traditional Fasting for Advent
Justin Haggerty | The Daily Knight
"Stir up Thy power, we beseech Thee, O Lord, and come: that from the threatening dangers of our sins we may deserve to be rescued by Thy protection, and to be saved by Thy deliverance: Who livest and reignest with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen"
~ Collect, First Sunday of Advent, Roman Catholic Daily Missal, 1962
Season of Advent
The liturgical texts used during the four weeks of the season of Advent remind the faithful of the "absence of Christ." Therefore, the Collects of Advent do not end with, "through our Lord Jesus Christ," as during the rest of the year. In a spirit of penance and prayer we await the Mediator, the God-Man, preparing for His coming in the flesh, and also for His second coming as our Judge. The Masses for advent strike a note of preparation and repentance mingled with joy and hope; hence, although the penitential violet is worn and the Gloria is omitted, the joyous Alleluia is retained. The readings from the Old Testament contained in the Introit, Gradual, Offertory, and Communion of the Masses, taken mostly from the prophecies of Isaias and from the Psalms, give eloquent expression to the longing of all nations for a Redeemer. We are impressed by repeated and urgent appeals to the Messias: "Come, delay no longer." The lessons from St. Paul urge us to dispose ourselves fittingly for His coming. The Gospels describe the terrors of the Last Judgement, foretell the second coming, and tell of the preaching of St. John the Baptist "to prepare the way of the Lord."
The idea of Advent is "Prepare you for the coming of Christ." Therefore the very appeals of the Patriarchs and Prophets are put in our mouths in Advent. Prepare for the coming of Christ the Redeemer, Who comes to prepare us for His second coming as Judge.
When the oracles of the Prophets were fulfilled and the Jews awaited the Messias, John the Baptist left the desert and came to the vicinity of the Jordan, brining a baptism of penance to prepare souls for the coming of Christ. The world took him to be the Messias, but he replied with the words of Isaias: "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare ye the way of the Lord."
During Advent we make straight for Christ the way tour souls---and behold, our Lord will come at Christmas. (Roman Catholic Daily Missal, 1962)
The History of the Advent Fast
[St. Martin’s Lent] was formerly observed, even by the Laity, with Abstinence from Flesh, and with a rigorous Fast, in some Places, by Precept, in others of Devotion, and without any positive Obligation, though universal. The first Council of Maçon, in 581, ordered Advent from St. Martin’s to Christmas-day three Fasting Days a Week, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; but the whole Term of forty Days, was observed with a strict Abstinence from Flesh Meat.— Fr. Alban Butler, The Moveable Feasts, Fasts, and Other Annual Observances of the Catholic Church, 1839
The Catechism of the Liturgy describes the fast leading up to Christmas: “In a passage of St. Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks we find that St. Perpetuus, one of his predecessors in the See, had decreed in 480 AD that the faithful should fast three times a week from the feast of St. Martin (November 11th) [up] to Christmas… This period was called St. Martin’s Lent and his feast was kept with the same kind of rejoicing as Carnival.” In historical records, Advent was originally called Quadragesimal Sancti Martini (Forty Days Fast of St. Martin). The Catechism of the Liturgy notes that this observance of fasting in some form likely lasted until the 12th century.
Turning to The Catechism of Perseverance by Monsignor Gaume from 1882, we read the following historical account of the Advent fast taking the form of a fast on the Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from St. Martin’s Day until Christmas:
“The institution of Advent would seem as old as that of the festival of Christmas, though the discipline of the Church on this point has not been always the same. For several centuries, Advent consisted of forty days, like Lent: it began on St. Martin’s Day. Faithful to the old customs, the Church of Milan kept the six weeks of the primitive Advent, which had been adopted by the Church of Spain. At an early period the Church of Rome reduced the time to four weeks, that is, to four Sundays, with the part of the week remaining before Christmas. All the West followed this example.
“Formerly, a fast was observed throughout Advent. In some countries this fast was of precept for every one; in others, of simple devotion. The obligation of fasting is attributed to St. Gregory the Great, who had not, however, the intention of making it a general law. In the middle of the fifth century – 462 – St. Perpetuus, Bishop of Tours, commanded that there should be three fast days weekly in his diocese from the festival of St. Martin to Christmas. This rule became general in the Church of France til the seventh century, after the holding of the Council of Macon in 581. The holy assembly prescribed that a fast should be observed on the Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of each week, from the feria or festival of St. Martin to the Nativity of our Lord; and that the offices, especially the sacrifice of the Mass, should then be celebrated as in Lent. The use of flesh-meat was forbidden every day during Advent.
“The same abstinence was observed in other Catholic regions as a pious donation proves for us. In 753, Astolphus, King of the Lombards, having granted the waters of Nonantula to an abbey of the same name, reserved forty pike to furnish his own table during St. Martin’s Lent. We may infer that, in the eighth century, the Lombards observed the fast during the forty days before Christmas, or at least abstained from flesh meat.”
By the 1100s, the fast had begun to be replaced by simple abstinence. As stated in A History of the Commandments of the Church by Rev. Antoine Villien:
“Thus even before reaching full vogue, the Advent fast was on the decline. At the end of the twelfth century it was nearly abolished. The Council of Avranches AD 1172 made not only fasting but even abstinence in Advent a matter of simple counsel especially addressed to clerics and soldiers. In Rome, the observance still existed but in Portugal, it was not known whether it carried with it any obligation for the Archbishop of Braga questioned Pope Innocent III on this point and the Pope, instead of insisting that there is an obligation, simply states that in Rome the fast is observed. No very clear information is to be obtained from Durand de Mende if an Advent fast existed at his time. Durand does not speak of the way it was observed. In England, it was obligatory only for monks like the daily fast imposed by the Council of Tours for the month of December up to Christmas.”
As indicated, in 1281, the Council of Salisbury held that only monks were expected to keep the fast; however, in a revival of the older practice, in 1362 Pope Urban V required abstinence for all members of the papal court during Advent. Yet, this too did not last long. By the time of St. Charles Borromeo in the 16th century, the saint urged the faithful under his charge in Milan to observe fasting and abstinence on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays of Advent. Dom Gueranger similarly testifies to this in The Liturgical Year:
“The discipline of the Churches of the west, after having reduced the time of the Advent fast so far, relented in a few years as to change the fast into a simple abstinence and we even find Councils of the twelfth century, for instance Selingstadt in 1122 and Avranches in 1172, which seem to require only the clergy to observe this abstinence. The Council of Salisbury held in 1281 would seem to expect none but monks to keep it. On the other hand, for the whole subject is very confused owing no doubt to there never having been any uniformity of discipline regarding it in the western Church, we find Pope Innocent III in his letter to the bishop of Braga mentioning the custom of fasting during the whole of Advent as being at that time observed in Rome, and Durandus in the same thirteenth century in his Rational on the Divine Offices tells us that in France fasting was uninterruptedly observed during the whole of that holy time.
“This much is certain, that by degrees the custom of fasting so far fell into disuse that when in 1362 Pope Urban V endeavored to prevent the total decay of the Advent penance all he insisted upon was that all the clerics of his court should keep abstinence during Advent without in any way including others, either clergy or laity, in this law. “St. Charles Borromeo also strove to bring back his people of Milan to the spirit if not to the letter of ancient times. In his fourth Council, he enjoins the parish priests to exhort the faithful to go to Communion on the Sundays at least of Lent and Advent and afterwards addressed to the faithful themselves a pastoral letter in which, after having reminded them of the dispositions wherewith they ought to spend this holy time, he strongly urges them to fast on the Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at least of each week in Advent.” (Matthew Plese, The True Advent Fast, The Fatima Center, 2020)
As we prepare for the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, let us straighten our souls to curb concupiscence and repent for the countless sins that we have committed to the Sacred Heart. Enter Advent wholeheartedly to do penance, amend your life, and offer sacrifices in the form of fasts and prayers. Stay true to your daily fast and find time to make a good confession---a general confession would be most appropriate. Schedule time in the morning and evening for spiritual reading and meditation, the Divine Intimacy: Meditations on the Interior Life for Every Day of the Liturgical Year is highly recommended and will bear good fruit.
If you would like to gather as a family for daily Advent readings, I would strongly recommend From Advent To Epiphany: Daily Readings and Meditations to Pray Alone or as a Family.
Recommended Fast Schedule:
Monday, Wednesday, Friday - Fast, Abstain
Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday - Abstain
Sunday - No Observance
*(Vigil of the Immaculate Conception and Ember Days must be observed over this recommended fasting schedule.)
In Christ Crucified and the Most Victorious Heart of Jesus.