On the Eucharistic Fast

Here’s a piece, lightly excerpted, written for a different context, but which may be of interest here…

What is the Eucharistic Fast?

The Historical Practice

The Eucharistic fast, stated most simply, is the practice of not receiving food or drink before the reception of the Sacrament. Exactly how long this fast should be is a matter of discussion and of personal piety relating to changes within broader catholic custom.

When the practice began in the Church is lost in the mists of the first few Christian centuries. Tertullian, writing around 200, appears to make an oblique reference to the practice in To his Wife 2.5. We can say with certainty, however, that by the fourth century, the reception of the Eucharist fasting was widespread. In his Letter 54, St Augustine writes to Januarius to clarify how different practices of liturgy and piety should be followed; in his discussion of Maundy Thursday practices mentions that the Eucharistic fast is a custom of the universal church (Ep. 54.6.8). A confirmation of this practice is found in canon 41 of the Council of Carthage from 419 which appears to be replicating decrees from earlier councils held in 393 and 397:

That the Sacraments of the Altar are not to be celebrated except by those who are fasting, except on the one anniversary of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper; for if the commemoration of some of the dead, whether bishops or others, is to be made in the afternoon, let it be only with prayers, if those who officiate have already breakfasted.

As a result, the custom of the Churches both East and West from as early as we can determine was to receive the Eucharist fasting, defined, in this case, as neither eating nor drinking from the preceding midnight after Mass. The eastern churches still follow this custom, but with differences in practice on exactly when the fast begins; some start at midnight, some start at Vespers or at sundown on the day before.

Pope Pius XII

In the liturgical revisions that led up to the Second Vatican Council, though, changes were made in the legislation of the Roman Catholic observation of this practice. In 1953, Pope Pius XII penned the Apostolic Constitution Dominus Christus that revisited the practice of the Eucharistic fast. The constitution is marked by both a reverence for the tradition and a realization that the practice could jeopardize frequent reception of the Eucharist given the structuring of time in the modern world. Indeed, the first canon confirms the traditional practice altering only the status of water:

I. The law of the Eucharistic fast from midnight continues in force for all of those who do not come under the special conditions which We are going to set forth in this Apostolic Letter. In the future it shall be a general and common principle for all, both priests and faithful, that natural water does not break the Eucharistic fast.

The second through the fifth rules allow non-alcoholic beverages if necessary, but prevents priests from drinking one hour before beginning a Mass. Not until the sixth rule is there a significant change; in this rule, evening masses on days of obligation (or any day in mission territories) are allowed and in regard to those only, the priest and faithful are required to abstain from food and alcohol for three hours and from other beverages for one hour.

In 1957, Pius XII returned to the topic again at the insistence of the bishops. In the Motu Proprio Sacram Communionem, he extended the new rules to all Masses:

2. Priests and faithful, before Holy Mass or Holy Communion respectively, must abstain for three hours from solid foods and alcoholic liquids, for one hour from non- alcoholic liquids. Water does not break the fast.

3. From now on, the fast must be observed for the period of time indicated in Number Two, even by those who celebrate or receive Holy Communion at midnight or in the first hours of the day.

4. The infirm, even if not bedridden, may take nonalcoholic liquids and that which is really and properly medicine, either in liquid or solid form, before Mass or Holy Communion without any time limit.

We strongly exhort priests and faithful who are able to do so to observe the old and venerable form of the Eucharistic fast before Mass and Holy Communion. All those who will make use of these concessions must compensate for the good received by becoming shining examples of a Christian life and principally with works of penance and charity.

Once again, the former fast is upheld as an ideal, but the changes are promulgated for the sake of continuing Eucharistic devotion in the new post-war world and economy.

The Second Vatican Council

In the broad changes across the liturgical board that occurred in Vatican II, three changes in quick succession altered the custom of the Eucharistic fast. In January of 1964, the means of calculating the fasting period was equalized—for both clergy and laity the fast was to be calculated according to when they would receive the Eucharist within the Mass. In November of the same year, Pope Paul VI announced a concession:

In view of the difficulties in many places regarding the Eucharistic fast, Pope Paul VI, acceding to the requests of the bishops, grants that the fast from solid food is shortened to one hour before communion in the case of both priests and faithful. The concession also covers use of alcoholic beverages, but with proper moderation being observed. (Documents of the Liturgy, 272, 2117)

Finally, the instruction Immensae caritatis from 1973 on reception in special circumstances allowed a fast of a quarter-hour for the sick and those who are in the act of ministering to them.

Why Follow the Eucharistic Fast?

Having discussed what it is, we now consider what it means. The first step is to state what it is not; the Eucharistic fast is not a penitential fast. In a penitential fast—as during Lent—we deprive the body of food as we remind the soul to abstain from sin; we deny the body in order to more perfectly discipline our members according to Christ’s will; we abstain from the pleasures of food and satiety as an act of contrition for sins committed, vices indulged, and virtues forgone.

But none of these are the purpose of the Eucharistic fast. Indeed, this penitential fasting is, by long-standing Church law, not permitted on Sundays, all of which are celebratory feasts of the Resurrection.

Now we turn to what the fast is. The proper purpose is proved by Augustine in the aforementioned Letter 54. He reminds Januarius:

…for from that time [of the earliest Church] it pleased the Holy Spirit to appoint, for the honour of so great a sacrament, that the body of the Lord should take the precedence of all other food entering the mouth of a Christian; and it is for this reason that the custom referred to is universally observed. (Ep. 54.6)

According to Augustine, this practice makes literally true what we believe to be spiritually true. The Eucharist is the first and greatest sustenance for Christians; it is to be preferred above all other means of nourishment, physical and spiritual. Through the Eucharistic fast our priorities are demonstrated physically as the Eucharist becomes the first food of the day for us. In Augustine’s context of daily Eucharist, then, the practice presented a great symbol to the Church: for the faithful, their “daily bread,” the first food that passed their lips each morning, was their spiritually-first and greatest meal, the very bread of angels. The Eucharistic fast, therefore, was a practice that honored the place of the Eucharist in the life of faith and promoted the proper ordering of Christian priorities: the intimate union between Christ and his faithful in the Eucharist should hold pride of place in our hearts and in our days.

In today’s Episcopal context it is very rare to find a parish that offers daily morning Masses where this symbol may be enacted. Even though our culture and its structuring of time prevents us from honoring the Eucharist in this way, the fast still provides an opportunity for recollecting that the Eucharist is our primary means of nourishment as Christians. Even when evening Masses are held and a full day’s fast is untenable, an afternoon’s abstinence can call to mind the importance and pre-eminence of the Sacrament; recollecting the bread of angels to be had that evening, a mid-afternoon snack may be deferred as we prefer the “bread that satisfies” over a nutritionally and theologically transient bag of pretzels or can of soda.

Best Practices for the Eucharistic Fast

Given the history and theology of the Eucharistic fast, we may note a few points. First, present Catholic Custom obliges us to fast for one hour before reception of the Sacrament. This represents a minimum rule enacted for the sake of maximal participation in the Eucharist—that all who are called to the supper of the Lamb may come. Second, in honor of the sacrament, however, a more robust practice may be recommended. Pius XII’s Dominus Christus seems to hit the best note given our cultural situation. That is, whenever possible and medically appropriate, the traditional fast ought to be kept. In the case of evening Eucharists, the three hour rule seems reasonable. This method gives pride of place to the traditional practice, yet understands the scheduling issues with which our patristic forebearers did not have to contend. Third, the fast is maintained for the glory of and preparation for the Eucharist. It should never be a legalistic or pharisaical tool to put down others. Like many worthy Anglican practices, no one should be compelled to follow it, but all should be invited to understand and participate in it.

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About Derek Olsen

I'm a layman within the Episcopal Church with a PhD in New Testament and an interest in most things medieval, monastic, and liturgical. My chief job is keeping up with my priestly wife and our two awesome kids. In addition to that, I earn a living, run the St Bede's Breviary, listen to loud goth/industrial music, and do some stuff for the church. I currently serve as Secretary to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music where I'm also co-chair of the Calendar committee and chair of the Digital Publications committee.
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3 Responses to On the Eucharistic Fast

  1. I’m probably one of very few who remember the “real” fast — but the other day I was at a Roman Catholic church and I was astounded to see an ablutions cup!
    When I was a young priest, this was used to pour the ablutions into after a first Mass (rather than consuming the ablutions), so that the celebrant could still literally be fasting for the subsequent Masses.
    When I asked about it the other day, the priest explained that now it was filled with water and used to rinse the priest’s fingers after he has touched the Sacrament.

  2. Sean+ Lotz says:

    I am fairly fanatical about fasting Communion. I preach it, I teach it, I do it. But, I can not go without water. If I don’t drink water, frequently my voice will give out while preaching and/or while consecrating. I don’t know that anybody minds if my throat dries up during the sermon, but to lose my voice and commence a prolonged coughing jag right at “Take, eat, this ” is a nuisance to everyone. So I always drink water shortly before the Eucharist, though I do wait until right before.

    I will add that I tend toward hypoglycemia, and frequently have blood-sugar needs in the morning “Food! Now! Feed me now! Before I pass out!” But never when fasting for Communion.

  3. Pingback: Fasting and Abstinence | Praying Anglican Layman

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