Fasting in Advent?

Question: I have heard Advent used to be time of fast, much like Lent. Is this so, and what should we do?

Steven Acton, Washington, D.C.

Answer: This is true. Advent was once treated more like Lent than it is today, though perhaps with less intensity. Our use of purple vestments and the elimination of the Gloria speak to the older practices as well. For the record, there were also other days in the past, such as “ember days” at the change of the seasons, that involved some fasting or abstinence. That said, current Church documents do not call Advent a penitential season per se, and penitential practices currently are not required of Catholics in Advent.

In my own life, I usually do give up something for Advent. Since there is no requirement to do this, it increases the devotional (loving) aspect. Even in Lent, abstaining from some lawful pleasure is a personal devotion and not a strict requirement of the Church. There is only a very mitigated fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and an abstinence from meat on Fridays of Lent.

So, a small token of penitence in Advent, and even more so in Lent, is to be encouraged. It is less observed today but should not be forgotten.

Race in the Bible

Question: A friend of mine, referencing some sort of black studies program she attended, says that the opening line of the Song of Songs is racist. It says, “I am black and beautiful, Daughters of Jerusalem” (Song 1:5). She tends to be radical, but I must admit I couldn’t really give her an answer. Can you help?

Name and place withheld

Answer: The reference is more likely to economic class than to race. She is a Jewish woman, from the region of Shulem, speaking to other unspecified Jewish women about how she found love.

She speaks to her complexion but goes on to explain it: “Do not stare at me because I am so black, because the sun has burned me. The sons of my mother were angry with me; they charged me with the care of the vineyards: my own vineyard I did not take care of” (Song 1:6).

Hence, her skin was darker since she was consigned by her noble family to work outdoors in the vineyards. Spending extensive time outdoors has scorched and darkened her skin. Thus, she is explaining how she, though from a wealthy family, has the sun-scorched look of one from a poorer family. It might be like a son explaining why he was “working in the mailroom” even though his father owned the company.

But despite all this, her beloved loves her, and she loves him. The Song of Songs is about love, not race or economic class. To reduce it to race says more about us and our preoccupations than about 900 B.C.

This mention of her physical appearance is one of the rare occurrences of such descriptions in the Bible. Skin color, height, weight, etc., are seldom supplied by the text. The tendency should also encourage us to be less preoccupied with such physical descriptions and listen to what the text is really focusing on.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org.