Have you ever been so excited that you couldn’t eat?
Maybe you came home on school break, or had been away in the service and wanted that home-cooked meal?
That’s the feeling you should have as you move through the days just before Easter.
As we finish the fasting of Lent, we come to the time of the paschal fast.
What’s the paschal fast?
In its most recent “Chancery Bulletin,” emailed to all parishes, the Diocese of Green Bay included mention of the paschal fast: “Where possible, the paschal fast should continue through Holy Saturday until the Easter Vigil.”
This comes from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose website notes: “If possible, the fast on Good Friday is continued until the Easter Vigil (on Holy Saturday night) as the ‘paschal fast’ to honor the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus, and to prepare ourselves to share more fully and to celebrate more readily his Resurrection.”
Those who remember the paschal fast as something prior to the Second Vatican Council may be surprised that the council’s bishops addressed this in their “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” (made official on Dec. 4, 1963): “Let the paschal fast be kept sacred. Let it be observed everywhere on Good Friday and, where possible, prolonged throughout Holy Saturday, as a way of coming to the joys of the Sunday of the resurrection with uplifted and welcoming heart” (n. 110).
While this fast is an ancient tradition in the church, it developed gradually over the first centuries. The first Christians honored the Lord’s resurrection each Sunday. They commemorated Christ’s passion and death annually on the Jewish Passover. As the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Winnipeg (Canada) website notes: “For them, the anniversary of the death of Christ was a very sad day, so to celebrate it worthily, they fasted on that day. Thus the original celebration of the Christian Pasch (Passover) began with a fast. This was the pasch of the crucifixion.”
Gradually, this fast of a day or two expanded and became what we know of as the 40 days of Lent, which have been fast days for centuries. For Latin-rite Catholics today, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday remain days of fast (for those between the ages of 18 and 59) and abstinence (for all over age 14). Lenten Fridays are also days of abstinence for adult Catholics.
So what is this paschal fast, also called the Easter fast?
The “Ceremonial for Bishops” (a liturgical guide) explains, “The Easter fast is sacred on the first two days of the Triduum, in which according to ancient tradition the Church fasts ‘because the Spouse has been taken away.’ Good Friday is a day of fasting and abstinence; it is also recommended that Holy Saturday be so observed, so that the church, with uplifted and welcoming heart, be ready to celebrate the joys of the Sunday of the Resurrection” (n. 39).
This shows what the paschal fast is about: As we commemorate Good Friday and Holy Saturday, we are sad because the Lord was taken away by death and rested in a tomb. However, because we know Easter is coming, this is not a fast of deepest sorrow.
Carmelite Br. Daryl Moresco, who directs novices in Middletown, N.Y., explains the paschal fast as referring to Passover (known to Jews as Pesach, which gives us the Greek word, Pasch).
“Something is being left behind,” wrote Br. Moresco of this fast. “Something is beginning. … It sounds serious because of what it is meant to accomplish: ‘a way of coming to the joys of the Sunday of the resurrection with uplifted and welcoming heart.’ Such a fast, that has its good effects on mind and heart as well as body, is a solemn and very infrequent undertaking.”
Both the Catholic Encyclopedia and the Benedictines of Holy Trinity Monastery in St. David, Ariz., explain that this paschal fast traditionally consisted of a “diet of dry food, bread, salt, and vegetables,” so that Easter would be “celebrated with great relish.”
The paschal fast also connects us to those who will enter the church at the Easter Vigil, the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) catechumens and candidates. In the early days of the church, those who were to enter the church at the Easter Vigil underwent a time of intense prayer and preparation. Today, this emphasis on preparation remains.
As the TeamRCIA blog notes, “The paschal fast has no sense of penance to it. It is totally focused on preparing for the feast. … For the elect, the paschal fast is not only a reduction in food intake, but also a time of quiet, during which they ‘refrain from their usual activities, spend their time in prayer and reflection’ (RCIA 185). … if possible, they can take time off from work and get all of their Easter preparations completed beforehand. As far as possible, the paschal fast should be a time of intense focus on what the elect are about to celebrate.”
On their own accord
This preparation theme is echoed by Michael Poradek, worship director for the Diocese of Green Bay. Poradek said that, while he has not seen the paschal fast increasing in popularity locally, he knows some people practice it on their own accord.
“I have been aware of it or at least of the encouragement to spend quiet time in prayer and reflection versus celebrating Easter early,” Poradek said. “It’s really meant to connect our celebration of the Triduum together as one unit, with the three stations we move from throughout the days.”
While some may see more fasting as a burden, Br. Moresco counters that it should be about excitement.
“It is that kind of fast, the fast of excitement, the fast of being so full of what is to come that food is almost forgotten,” he noted. “A Friday and Saturday like that will give us hearts uplifted and ready to welcome the Vigil.”
Even Jesus spoke words reminiscent of this paschal fast: “Can you make the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, and when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast in those days” (Lk 5:34-35).
We remember how the disciples mourned. However, they then rejoiced. In the same way, at the Easter Vigil, we will celebrate the bridegroom’s return. Then fasting will be a thing of the past.
Sources: Diocese of Green Bay Chancery Bulletin and worship office; vatican.va; usccb.org; catholicdoors.com; ltp.org; teamrcia.com; Carmelites.net; Catholic Encyclopedia; ibendictines.org; and archeparchy.ca