This week is the beginning of Lent, a six-week period on the Catholic calendar when the faithful are supposed to engage in acts of abstinence and penance. I’m reminded of a lunch meeting I attended last year during Lent. I had to call the waitress back and change my order from a turkey club sandwich to the grilled salmon. Then I explained to the other guys at the table, “I forgot it’s Friday. Can’t eat meat during Lent.”
This prompted a discussion, which was summarized by one of my colleagues, who said, “So let me get this straight. To engage in personal sacrifice and abstinence, you Catholics can’t eat meatloaf on Friday, but you can eat lobster and shrimp?”
My brilliant and insightful reply was, “Um, yeah, sort of.”
The no-meat-on-Friday rule is such an ingrained Catholic tradition, I really hadn’t given it much thought recently. (I am using, of course, the definition of “hadn’t given it much thought recently” that means: never thought about it ever.)
To me, having to eat fish on Friday is a major sacrifice because I’m not a big fan of fish. Compared to a steak or a roast beef sandwich, in my view anything from the sea just doesn’t match up. (This reminds me of the observation made by my favorite comedian, Jim Gaffigan: “What’s the best thing to put on fish? Anything that kills the taste of fish!”)
Back when I was a kid, the rule was that you could not eat meat on Fridays all year long, which probably explains why I still break out in a cold sweat at the mere mention of the words “fish sticks.” Now it’s just the Fridays during Lent plus Ash Wednesday. When you add it up it’s a grand total of only eight days.
From what I can gather, the tradition against eating meat on Fridays dates back to a time when red meat was an expensive luxury, while fish was commonplace and cheap. I suppose a lot of faithful peasants back then proudly declared, “Hey, today is Friday, so I refuse to eat something I can’t afford anyway.”
The idea of abstinence, denying ourselves of something that we typically enjoy, is a pretty foreign concept in our modern-day instant-gratification culture. The motto of most Americans these days seems to be, “I want what I want, and I want it now!!”
American Catholics are not exactly standing in line to engage is special fasting and abstinence. We’re like most other people, immediately trying to figure out a loophole, such as the great “sacrifice” of substituting lobster for meatloaf.
On a Catholic website, someone offered this comment recently: “Forget the no-meat thing. The Church should declare that Catholics must abstain from television every Friday. Now that would be a major sacrifice.”
Whoa, let’s not go crazy. I prefer the peasant approach: refuse to do something I can’t afford anyway. On Fridays during Lent I think I’ll give up driving around in a BMW 760i Grand Coupe. That ought to show God how holy and reverent I am.
The Lenten rules about fasting and abstinence are not designed to see how clever we are in coming up with loopholes. Fasting and abstinence are tried-and-true methods that remind us just how dependent we are on God, which subsequently draw us nearer to Him.
This Lent, why don’t we try to find something that will be a genuine sacrifice, maybe giving up TV or doughnuts or coffee. But please let’s not fool ourselves by thinking that substituting lobster for meatloaf is a holy sacrifice. Because God surely is not fooled, nor is He impressed.