Out of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament, it has been a long-standing tradition in the Church to practice what is often called the “Eucharistic
Fast” or “Fasting before Communion.” But what exactly does this practice entail, and where does the practice come from?
Canon 919 is the law of the Church that dictates our practice. It’s interesting to note that priests are only required to fast before their first Mass of the day, and that the Church makes an exception for anyone who may have legitimate or medical need. The canon follows:
- One who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain from any food or drink, with the exception only of water and medicine, for at least the period of one hour before Holy Communion.
- A priest who celebrates the Most Holy Eucharist two or three times on the same day may take something before the second or third celebration even if the period of one hour does not intervene.
- Those who are advanced in age or who suffer from any infirmity, as well as those who take care of them, can receive the Most Holy Eucharist even if they have taken something during the previous hour.
Some of you perhaps remember a day when the fast was much longer than an hour! I remember my grandmother telling me stories about how she and
her high school friends used to cut their dates short on Saturdays to get a quick burger before the fast began at midnight. Our current practice, however, is a simple hour before receiving (not even an hour before Mass begins). While the Church has significantly shortened our fasting period in recent years, it certainly has not abrogated it entirely, and so the fast deserves at least a little of our attention.
Many of us observe the fast without thinking about it. But our Eucharistic fast should, in practice, cause us to be mindful of what we are receiving — to sacrifice a little in preparation to receive Jesus Christ, who sacrificed so much for us. It should make us call to mind, in some small way, our unworthiness to receive so great a gift.
One of the things I see often from the pulpit is chewing gum. Gum especially should never be in our mouths when receiving our Lord in bodily
form (otherwise, think of what would happen to Christ’s Body when we dispose of our gum!). While we certainly don’t want to be overly scrupulous
about such things, it is important to know that anything that is not strictly medicinal violates our fast and should cause us to abstain from receiving (or ask the pastor for dispensation). Obviously, this requires our discretionary judgment: cough drops as medicine are fine; peppermints…maybe not. Black coffee or tea, if it is absolutely necessary, has been considered by some as a legitimate exception — but the spirit of the law should have us asking “What can I do to show my reverence?”, not “What can I get away with?”.
The Church asks us to abstain for a reason. The tradition is an ancient one, stemming from the rejection of pagan cult practices which were
often marked by revelry and gluttonous feasting. Christians, by contrast, were taught to observe sobriety when approaching their liturgy—and even
to engage in fasts as a sign of their devotion.
Hence, as Pope Pius XII teaches in Christus Dominus (an apostolic constitution from 1953), there has existed a Church precept even as early
as the Council of Hippo in 393(!) which ascribes the custom of fasting to those who approach the Sacrament of the altar. Pius XII continues:
“Abstinence from food and drink is in accord with that supreme reverence we owe to the supreme majesty of Jesus Christ when we are going to receive Him hidden under the veils of the Eucharist. And moreover, when we receive His precious Body and Blood before we take any food, we show clearly that this is the first and loftiest nourishment by which our soul is fed and its holiness increased. Hence the same St. Augustine
gives this warning: ‘It has pleased the Holy Ghost that, to honor so great a Sacrament, the Lord’s Body should enter the mouth of the Christian
before other food.’”
To fast before we receive is an act of devotion. In today’s day and age, with so little love and respect shown for our Lord or His Church, especially to the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, may we strive to be a people intent on showing this reverence in whatever small ways we can. Let’s offer our fast for all those who cannot receive our Lord or who carry out acts of violence against His Body, and indeed for all our brothers and sisters in Christ who do not know the gift of the Eucharist that brings us communion here in the Catholic Church.
Keep spreading joy!