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Praised be Jesus Christ!

If you have been to any fast-food chain recently, you probably noticed the advertisements for the fish sandwich plastered all over the place; which can only mean one thing—we have entered the season of Lent. It makes me proud that there are enough Catholics throughout the United States who take the obligation to abstain from eating meat on the Fridays of Lent seriously enough to influence national food chains to offer a meatless alternative during Lent. But have you ever wondered why we don’t eat meat but we do eat fish? Or why it is on Fridays? Or why only during Lent?

Catholics have kept the practice of abstaining from “flesh meat” (abstinence) on Fridays as one of our oldest Christian traditions. “From the first century, the day of the crucifixion has been traditionally observed as a day of abstaining from flesh meat (“black fast”) to honor Christ who sacrificed his flesh on a Friday” (Klein, P., Catholic Source Book, 78).

The simple answer to the question: Why Friday? Is that since Jesus sacrificed his flesh for us on Good Friday, we refrain from eating “flesh meat” in his honor on Fridays. So why meat but not fish? The Latin word for meat, caro, from which we get English words like carnivore and carnivorous, applies strictly to flesh meat and has never been understood to include fish. But in the olden days there were some interesting debates about what exactly was considered fish: turtle? beaver? (oddly enough, both do not count as “flesh meat,” so feel free to have some turtle soup next Friday). In former times flesh meat was more expensive, eaten only occasionally, and associated with feasting and rejoicing; whereas fish was cheap, eaten more often, and not associated with celebrations, so giving up meat was seen as the greater ascetic practice.

Abstinence is a form of asceticism, the practice of self-denial in order to grow in holiness. Jesus asks his disciples to deny themselves and take up their Cross (Mt 16:24). Abstinence is a sober way to practice simplicity and austerity, to deny the cravings of our bodies to honor Jesus who practiced the ultimate form of self-denial when he gave his body for us on the Cross. So if you give up meat on Fridays, only to feast on lobster tail or Alaskan king crab, you are defeating the whole purpose of abstinence.

Back before 1966, Church law prohibited eating meat on all Fridays throughout the entire year. The new law, promulgated in 1983, states that abstinence is to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ. The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) extended this law to include all Fridays in Lent, but with the understanding every Friday throughout the whole year would remain a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ. While the practice of abstinence on Fridays outside of Lent is no longer binding under pain of sin, the Church still asks that we continue to make all Fridays a special day of penance or elect to substitute some other penitential observances.

Perhaps we should ask for the fish sandwich all year?

In Christ through Mary,

Fr. Curtis

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