What Are the Lenten Fasts and Who Keeps Them?
Catholics who have celebrated their 14th birthday are to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, the Fridays in Lent, and Good Friday. In addition to not eating meat, Catholics who have celebrated their 18th birthday are to fast on both Ash Wednesday and Good Friday until at least their 59th birthday. Here, fasting is defined as eating just one full meal. Two smaller meals are also allowed if necessary to maintain one’s strength, but eating solid foods between meals is not permitted. (The physically, mentally, or chronically ill, as well as pregnant or nursing women, are also excused from fasting and abstinence.)
Why the Ages 18 to 59?
Two reasons: because of the nutritional needs of the young and elderly, and because the number forty symbolizes penance and purification in the Bible.
Why Isn’t Fish Considered “Meat” on Meatless Fridays?
In times past, fish was considered a food of the poor. It took multiple pounds of grain to raise one pound of livestock, but fish were simply caught from the water. Eating fish conserved grain for others and was an act in solidarity with the poor. Today, Catholics are only obliged to abstain from (land-based) meats on certain days of Lent. However, Catholics remain obliged to offer penance on Fridays throughout the whole year; be it through fasting, abstinence, pious devotions, or loving service. Every Friday is to be a little remembrance of Good Friday.
Why is Lent Longer Than Forty Days?
There are actually 46 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. However, every Sunday is a “little Easter” and, like all solemnities, Sundays are not considered days of penance. As Jesus said, “Can you make the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” (Matthew 9:15) All are free to keep Lenten penances on these days, but enjoying these respites can increase one’s devotion and joy in the Lord. Subtract the six Sundays in Lent from the total and you are left with forty days.