Ash Wednesday and the weeks of Lent will be upon us very soon now. One of the hallmarks, outward signs of how we Catholics practice our Faith during Lent is manifested through abstinence from meat and quite commonly, through the eating of fish. Catholics do not eat meat on Fridays of Lent (and also Ash Wednesday). And one of the worst answers that we can give to others as to why is the response “Because that is how we have always done it.” What is behind our seemingly Lenten fascination with fish? And again, why when all other animal flesh is forbidden to be eaten is fish and other sea food allowed? Eating fish on Fridays is not a recent development. The practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays is now of ancient custom for Catholics.
The first thing we must remember is that not only are our lives marked with the liturgical seasons of the Church, there is also the liturgical rhythm of the days, weeks and months. While each Sunday is a commemoration of the Lord’s Resurrection, a little Easter, in a sense, each Friday is a day of penance, remembering our Lord’s Passion and Death on the Friday nearly Two Millennia ago on which he gave up his life for us. By way of note, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are not only days of abstinence from meat, but are also days of fasting.
It is also a fact of great importance that though after Vatican Council II Catholics in the United States were no longer obligated to abstain from eating meat on Fridays outside of Lent, they were not completely “off the fish hook”. While the bishops of most countries continue to require Catholics to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year, the directives for American Catholics is that they now have an option to either still abstain from meat or choose another fitting penance on Fridays that fall outside of Lent. Fridays within Lent and Ash Wednesday remain days when we are obligated to abstain from meat in the United States.
Sadly, this got lost in translation over the past few decades with many Catholics now supposing that outside of Lent, there is no Friday penance at all, and it seems to me that it is only in recent years that this is again being taught and rediscovered. While there is flexibility in what type of penance American Catholics may do on Fridays, we must do something. I do sometimes wonder if the best thing would be for the United States Bishops to again simply require “meatless Fridays” throughout the year for American Catholics.
Fridays without meat are a respectful, penitential abstaining from what many of us love to eat in remembrance of our Lord’s Passion. But we still haven’t really breached the question have we? Why fish on Fridays? Why is fish allowed when other meats are excluded? It has always seemed fitting that on the day that our Lord shed his blood for us that the meat of animals whose blood has been shed not be consumed. Many of you may be thinking what I am, fish also shed blood. Yet fish and other seafood are an exception to an otherwise extensive, beautiful rule. And this exception helps point us to a deeper explanation, deep into the waters where Simon Peter and the other fishermen cast their nets.
There is, in the Christian mind, a deep correlation between fish and our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus called the disciples, above all Simon Peter, Apostle and first pope, from their occupations, making them fishers of men. There is that grand precursor miracle to the Eucharist, in which we see the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and following the Resurrection, Christ’s appearance on the shores of Galilee in which he serves the Apostles a breakfast of fire roasted fish.
The symbol of the fish is one of the absolute earliest representations of Christianity. A special type of a poem, called an acrostic, in which the initial letters of words in the poem form another word came into play. The first letter of each word in The Greek phrase Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, in English, “Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior”, form another Greek Word, Icthys, which in Greek, is the word for fish. For the early Christians, both the word Icthys and the fish symbol that accompanied it, were of a profound importance, acting as a compact, but potent profession of Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, our Redeemer.
And we are all called to be immersed in the Ocean of God’s redeeming mercy, wordage that has become familiar to many of us with the spread of the devotion to the Divine Mercy that has proceeded from the widespread dissemination of St. Faustina’s writings. Like fish, may we all swim in God’s mercy!
The point is this: Fish were intimately bound up with the life of Christ, with the ways he interacted and gathered his first disciples. Allowing their consumption on the days when all other meats are forbidden can emphasize to us, can remind us, of the fact that God truly did walk among us, reach out to us, gather us in from the seas of sin and death with his net of salvation
In the giving up of what we love, meat included, all of us together as the Body of Christ, and as individuals, we can unite our small sacrifices to the sacrifice of Christ and draw closer to him on the Cross, embracing him, consoling him, becoming like him. Apart from Christ, our penances, our mortifications, and our abstaining from this or that is fruitless, but in communion with him, they become the point of our departure away from our life of sin, diving forth into the Sea, out of the boat of our comforts and supposed security, towards the shoreline, realizing with eyes of faith, like Simon Peter, who also dives into the sea at the end of the Gospel of John, that the man who calls to us from the shoreline, who awaits us, is the Risen Lord.
In Christ there is both bounty and mercy, without him, empty nets, and death. And through fish, we are vividly reminded of that consoling and urgent fact. The practice of eating fish on Fridays is neither fishy, nor superstitious, nor trivial, but is instead full of life giving lessons if you plunge deeply into why we do so, lessons more abundant than the fish in the depths of the waters of the sea.