Have you noticed it yet? There’s been a sudden increase in advertisements for fish sandwiches. Your favorite fast food restaurants have recently added a fish entree to their menu, and they want you to know about it! These temporary additions usually make their annual appearance in mid February and promptly disappear in April. This trend does not correspond to seasonal availability (especially if you live in a landlocked state like I do), but it does correspond to a liturgical season in the Catholic Church: Lent.
What is Lent?
Lent is a period of 40 days in which the Catholic Church asks Her members to engage in acts of penance in order to prepare for celebrating Jesus Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Throughout Scripture, we see that the number 40 often symbolizes a time of penance and preparation. One example is when Jesus spends 40 days in the desert praying and fasting before he begins his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-2). During Lent, the Church imitates Jesus’ preparatory time in the desert by asking us to dedicate ourselves to increased acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Lent is a time for us to recognize the depth of our sinfulness that led to Jesus giving his life for us on the cross so that we can be brought once again into full communion with God.
Many Catholics choose to take on fasts and practices during Lent that are particular to each individual. The purpose of these private devotions is to bring about a greater awareness of our need for God. They can be a small way for an individual to enter into Christ’s redemptive suffering by choosing to forgo a certain pleasure, comfort, or convenience. These practices can also be an exercise in detachment from the things of the world so that one can create more space for prayer in their life.
There are a few days during Lent in which the Catholic Church requires us to limit the amount of food we eat or avoid certain types of food. The Church asks that we perform a fast and abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The Church’s current guidelines for fasting include eating only one regular meal along with two snacks that together do not equal a meal throughout the day. In addition to this, we are also asked to avoid eating meat on these days. On all Fridays in Lent we are asked to abstain from eating meat, but we are not required to fast on these days (except on Good Friday).
The Church requires us to make the additional sacrifice of abstaining from meat on the Fridays of Lent because Friday is the solemn day on which Jesus freely died for our sins. In memory of Jesus’ sacrifice of love, it is appropriate for us to choose to make a sacrifice on that day out of love and gratitude for him. Forgoing meat on Fridays (along with any other fast you may choose to do) is a small way in which we can commemorate and enter into Our Lord’s suffering with him.
Meat, which includes the flesh of mammals and birds, has been associated with celebrations and feasts throughout history. On a solemn day dedicated to remembering Christ’s Passion, it was not appropriate to indulge in such celebratory foods. Fish, however, was a more common food, and it did not have the same connection to celebrations. Therefore, it was not necessary to abstain from eating fish. In the document “Apostolic Constitution on Penance” Pope Paul VI writes, “The law of abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, the products of milk or condiments made of animal fat.” In the original Latin, Pope Paul VI uses the word carnis which translates to “meat” in English. Carnis specifically refers to the flesh of birds and mammals but excludes fish. Even though when we read “meat” we may be inclined to think that it includes the flesh of all animals, the original writing of the document indicates that it is limited to mammals and birds.
For many of us today, meat is much more readily available, and eating it is not necessarily a sign that we are celebrating. However, it is still a valuable sacrifice that we can make in honor of Our Lord’s suffering and death. Personally, I find that choosing not to eat meat causes me to pause and think more about what I will eat rather than reaching for my usual options. This in turn leads me to remember why I am avoiding meat. The small inconvenience and break in routine of not eating meat allows me to bring to mind Jesus’ sacrifice for me several times a day and to connect it with a small act of penance.
It may look like the Catholic Church is asking us to be (almost) vegetarians on an arbitrary day, but when you look more closely you can see the beauty and reasoning in this requirement. The Church offers us the opportunity to grow in self-discipline, to recognize our sinfulness, and to enter into Christ’s Passion through the practice of abstaining from meat on the Fridays in Lent.
Bethany Dhingra is a millennial with a missionary heart. She loves using her Catholic Studies and Communications degrees from the University of St. Thomas to draw others into a relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church. She served as a campus missionary with FOCUS for 3 years. Most recently, Bethany is living in Missouri with her husband and learning how to follow Christ through the sacrament of marriage.