Lent is coming up, which means that pretty soon, we’ll only be able to have meat six days a week. We abstain from meat on Fridays during this special season, so we’re going to have to find other things to eat on those days. For example, a lot of people have fish or pizza for dinner, and if you normally eat cold cut sandwiches for lunch, you might have tuna or peanut butter and jelly instead. But why do we do this? Is there any rhyme or reason to it, or is it just an arbitrary and useless rule that serves no real purpose?
Making a Sacrifice
To begin, Lent is a penitential season, a season when we deny ourselves certain pleasures in order to grow in holiness, and abstaining from meat on Fridays is one such sacrifice. Now, we do these kinds of things for a few reasons:
1) We do it to express sorrow and atone for our sins.
2) It’s like spiritual exercise. It builds up our willpower so that when we’re faced with temptations to sin, we’re strong enough to resist them.
3) It helps to keep our focus on God. By giving up earthly things, it helps to make sure that we don’t get overly attached to them to the point that we begin to forget about God. Essentially, it reminds us that as great as earthly things may be, we live for something greater.
So when the Church tells us that we can’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent, it’s simply imposing a mandatory sacrifice to make sure that we practice at least some self-denial. The Church could’ve told us to give up anything, but she chose meat on Fridays. The important thing is that we make some sort of sacrifice during these forty days, and by making us abstain from meat on Fridays, the Church is making sure that we do.
It’s like when parents tell their kids to eat their broccoli at dinnertime. There’s nothing intrinsically necessary about broccoli. You can eat a very healthy diet without it, but parents often choose it just to make sure that their kids eat something healthy. They could choose other healthy foods, but if they choose broccoli, then their kids have to eat broccoli. And that’s what the law about abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent is like. It’s the Church choosing one sacrifice among a multitude of options simply to make sure that we do something.
But that’s not to say that there’s no rhyme or reason behind this particular sacrifice at all. There is. For one, we do penance on Fridays because that’s the day when Jesus died. As he says in the Gospels, “The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15). In this saying, Jesus is the bridegroom, the day when he’s taken away is the day of his death, and the “they” who will fast are his followers.
In context (the entire story is Matthew 9:14-17), Jesus is explaining that his disciples didn’t fast during his earthly ministry because he was still with them, but they would fast after he was taken away at his death. So to commemorate Jesus’ death, the Church today still practices self-denial on Fridays, the day he died.
And why do we give up meat specifically? This is where it gets tricky. I’ve heard multiple reasons for this, and since it’s outside my area of expertise, I can’t give a definitive answer. However, as far as I can tell, the reason seems to be that in the ancient world, meat was eaten at festive occasions. For example, in the parable of the prodigal son, when the prodigal son finally comes home, his father throws a banquet to celebrate, and he kills “the fatted calf” for the feast (Luke 15:23).
The early Christians didn’t think it was right to eat festive foods on the day Jesus died, so abstaining from meat on Fridays became a common practice. This also explains why seafood is okay. When people would eat meat at these celebrations, the meat was that of land animals, not sea creatures, so the Church abstained from the meat of land animals but not from seafood.
Admittedly, this reasoning doesn’t really apply to our culture today. We can easily substitute fish for meat, and we don’t normally view one as more festive than the other. Nevertheless, this practice can still serve as a legitimate sacrifice for us. For example, you might go out to a restaurant that has a meat dish you absolutely love, and you’ll have to get something else. Granted, it’s not the biggest sacrifice in the world, but it’s still a sacrifice.
The Most Important Thing
At the end of the day, the origins of the practice aren’t all that important; it doesn’t matter why the Church started doing it. Instead, the important thing is that it still works as a form of self-denial today, and even though it may not be as harsh as it used to be, the fact is that abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent is still a legitimate sacrifice.
Yes, the Church could’ve chosen to impose some other form of self-denial on us, but like kids whose parents make them eat broccoli, we have to accept the choice the Church has made. Those kids have to eat broccoli even though other foods are just as healthy (and maybe even healthier), and we have to abstain from meat on Fridays even though other forms of sacrifice are just as good (and maybe even better).
The point is that we should be practicing self-denial during Lent, and by making this rule, the Church is trying to get us to at least do something. We should actually go beyond the bare minimum that the Church requires, but that bare minimum is at least a start, just like eating broccoli is at least a start to a healthy diet.