In our catechism classes, we must have been taught the prayers to say in preparation for communion, but there is more to preparation than prayers, there is the Eucharistic fast.
What is the Eucharistic Fast?
Canon 919 of the “Code of Canon Law” states, “One who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain from any food or drink, with the exception of water and medicine, for at least the period of one hour before Holy Communion.” Actually, this regulation merely reflects an ancient tradition in our Church, which is rooted in Judaism.
In Acts of the Apostles (13:2), we find evidence of fasting connected with the liturgy. A more normative practice of fasting before receiving Holy Communion appears throughout the Church after the legalization of Christianity in A.D. 313. St. Augustine attested to this practice in his own writings. The specific requirements of the fast have changed over time. Prior to 1964, the Eucharistic fast began at midnight, it was later relaxed to three hours before and the faithful who can keep up with this old rule are actually encouraged to.
Exceptions to the rule:
• If a priest celebrates more than one Mass on the same day, as often times happens on Sunday, he is only bound to the one-hour fast before the first Mass. The priest may eat and drink something to keep up his strength in between Masses even though a full hour will not occur before the next reception of Holy Communion.
• Those who are elderly (at least 60 years of age) or sick as well as their caretakers can receive Communion even if a full hour fast has not been fulfilled. For example, people in the hospital are not in control of their own schedule and may be eating or have just finished eating when visited by the priest or Eucharistic minister. Therefore, the period of fast before receiving Holy Communion is reduced to “approximately one quarter of an hour” for those who are sick at home or at a medical facility, those elderly confined to home or a nursing home, and those who care for these people and who are unable conveniently to observe the fast (“Immensae Caritatis,” 1973).
Why the Eucharistic Fast?
The practice of fasting disposes the soul to more graces, to pray better, more to subdue nature and render it docile to the motions of grace. One can also say that fasting is an exercise of humility, hope, and love– essential virtues in preparing ourselves to receive the Holy Eucharist.
St. Paul reminds us, “Continually we carry about in our bodies the dying of Jesus, so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may also be revealed” (2 Corinthians 4:10). We too are charged to convert our whole lives– body and soul– to the Lord. This conversion process involves doing penance—including bodily mortification like fasting—for our sins and weaknesses, which in turn strengthens and heals us. Pope Paul VI exhorted the faithful in his apostolic constitution “Paenitemini” (1966), “Mortification aims at the liberation of man, who often finds himself, because of concupiscence, almost chained by his own senses. Through ‘corporal fasting’ man regains strength, and the wound inflicted on the dignity of our nature by intemperance is cured by the medicine of a salutary abstinence.”
The fast before receiving Holy Communion creates a physical hunger and thirst for the Lord, which in turn augments the spiritual hunger and thirst we ought to have. In the Old Testament, fasting prepared individuals to receive the action of God and to be placed in His presence. For instance, Moses fasted 40 days atop Mount Sinai as he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28), and Elijah fasted 40 days as he walked to Mount Horeb to encounter God (I Kings 19:8). Similarly, Jesus Himself fasted forty days as He prepared to begin His public ministry (Matthew 4:1ff) and encouraged fasting (Matthew 6:16-18). Likewise, this corporal work enhances the spiritual disposition we need to receive Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
Since the Eucharistic fast assists us in preparing to receive Holy Communion wholly– body and soul, therefore this physical mortification strengthens our spiritual focus on the Lord, so that we may humbly encounter the divine Savior who offers Himself to us.