Fasting and The Eucharist: Catholic Participation in the Sacrifice of Christ
Christ, as the ultimate sacrifice in Christianity, gave his own life for the benefit of others. His self-sacrifice continues to this day to be celebrated in the Catholic Mass. Through communion, or receiving the Eucharist, one is able to actively partake of the fruits of that sacrifice. But how does one follow Jesus’ example? One surely cannot strive for the same kind of physical death that Jesus experienced. Thus, practice of another form of self-sacrifice becomes necessary.
To eat, to nourish one’s self is an act that is essential for human life. What could cause more pain in this life than to deny one’s self sustenance? The practice of fasting, as one form of self-denial, can serve to bring one closer to identifying with the sacrifice of Christ. This is especially evident when fasting is examined in relation to the Eucharist in the Catholic tradition.
But before we continue, a distinction must be made between two different types of self-denial. To fast, and to not eat do not constitute the same act. My own personal experience while exploring the topic of fasting has deeply colored my view of the practice of fasting. Many personal interests led me to pursue the question of fasting as a form of self-sacrifice. One was my personal engagement with and interest in the Roman Catholic tradition. Another, much more personal influence is my personal relationship with food. To stop eating is one of the (unhealthy ways) in which I personally deal with stress or depression. In reading Caroline Bynum’s book on the relationship medieval women mystics had with food I was able to identify on many levels. These women, in some cases, lived for years on the absolute bare minimum of food. Some were rumored to have lived on the Eucharist alone. Although Bynum struggles to avoid the association, many other scholars would consider these women to be suffering from what we now call anorexia. But I think an important distinction needs to be drawn between these women and modern day anorexics (as well as my own failure to eat when depressed,) and this distinction is related to the topic of sacrifice. Fasting must be approached with a specific religious intent, or no benefits can be reaped from it. Hubert and Mauss write, “Sacrifice is a religious act that can only be carried out in a religious atmosphere and by means of essentially religious agents.”1 Thus, if fasting is to be viewed as a form of self-sacrifice it must fit within the same criteria. And if fasting is approached with the appropriate religious goals, by a religious individual, I believe tremendous spiritual rewards can be gained, but there is no reward to simply not eating.
Thus, to understand how fasting functions in relation to the Eucharist within the context of the Catholic Church we must observe several different factors. First, we must look to the Bible and some early and important Church...