What’s with the Fish Fries: Fasting and Abstinence in Lent
During the Fridays of Lent, Catholics in the United States over the age of 14 are obligated by the Church to abstain from eating meat. This penitential practice is called “abstinence.” Even though the two are similar and sometimes prescribed for the same days, abstinence differs from fasting.
Fasting is the restraining of the total quantity of food one eats, rather than the restraint in the kinds of food eaten.
These two related practices are some of the most fruitful and most widely practiced ways of doing penance among Christians. But why do we need to do penance?
Why do penance?
Listen to what the Catechism says about penance:
Jesus' call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, "sackcloth and ashes," fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1430).
The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others. Alongside the radical purification brought about by Baptism or martyrdom they cite as means of obtaining forgiveness of sins: efforts at reconciliation with one's neighbor, tears of repentance, concern for the salvation of one's neighbor, the intercession of the saints, and the practice of charity "which covers a multitude of sins.” (1434).
The Code of Canon Law adds:
The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons (Code of Canon Law, canon 1249).
The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent (c. 1250).
Thus it is clear that Jesus’ call to penance is a command to each of us from God himself! He even said, “unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:3). We must express our interior conversion of heart by outward acts of repentance. Because we are body and soul, it is only natural to do so. And to aid us in this, the Church has wisely commanded fasting and abstinence on various penitential days throughout the year.
Why is abstinence required on certain days in the year? It may seem at first arbitrary to prohibit a certain food. Others will object that Jesus declared all foods clean. But we must realize that it is precisely because meat is “clean” and even good, that it profits us to forego it in a spirit of humility. Furthermore, abstinence from meat has symbolic and spiritual meanings that are an aid to our penitential practice.
Firstly, abstinence, not from meat, but from the fruit of the tree of knowledge, was the commandment given to our first parents by God. It was by violating the law of abstinence that they fell from their state of original purity into one of sin, and even brought down the evils of the fallen state on all their descendants.
Secondly, as Dom Gueranger points out, during the time from the fall until Noah and the flood, human beings lived only on plant foods, obtained through the hard work of cultivation. It was only when God shortened the lifespan of man, that he gave Noah and his children to eat the flesh of animals. Abstinence from flesh-meat is therefore fitting, “because this food was given to man by God out of condescension to his weakness, and not as one absolutely essential for the maintenance of life.” (Gueranger, The Liturgical Year, vol. 5, Lent, 4).
Thirdly, as a more historical note, meat was once less common than it is today. In prior times, we did not have supermarkets overflowing with chicken, beef, and pork. Meat was likely consumed only occasionally, or seen as a rich person’s food. Therefore, abstinence from this luxury was a fitting expression of poverty of spirit that is fitting for one doing penance. In our own day, we
can find in abstinence a connection to the Christians who have practiced it for two thousand years.
Therefore, when we abstain from flesh meat, we express three things. We express our poverty and reliance on God, we express a voluntary deprivation of something pleasing to us in continuity with our forefathers, and finally, we express a turning away from sin inasmuch as abstinence from meat reminds us of Adam and Eve’s failure to observe God’s command regarding food.
Why All the Fish Fries, Then?
Fish has never been included under the category of meat for the purposes of abstinence. Some authors suggest that this was originally because fish was much more common and less expensive than meat. Others point to the scriptural categories given in the creation account of Genesis, where sea-dwelling creatures are considered distinct from land animals.
To these reasons, we can add that the fish has always had a special symbolism within Catholicism.
As early as the second century, the fish became a popular symbol due to the acrostic formed from the greek word for fish, Ichthys. The letters of this word came to stand for Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, or, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. Thus the fish became a symbol of Christ to the early Christians and a profession of Christ’s divinity.
Furthermore, there are accounts of Our Lord himself feeding his followers with fish in the Gospels, such as the multiplication of loaves and fishes, as well as the post-Resurrection account of Christ and his disciples eating fish on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. There is also the mysterious passage in Luke’s account of the appearance of Jesus to his disciples in the upper room: after rising from the dead, Jesus is hungry, and eats a piece of broiled fish in their presence.
Due to these beautiful symbolic references, and the general exemption of fish from the law of abstinence, fish has become something of a cultural identifier for Catholics. Catholics eat fish on Fridays in place of meat, and therefore the “fish fry” has become a popular fundraiser and social event for many parishes. Even the fast food chain McDonald’s recognized this cultural trend and began to offer a special fish sandwich on Fridays.
Catholics have long abstained from meat on Fridays, especially the Fridays of Lent. Abstinence of this kind is a fitting way to express outwardly our interior penitential spirit of conversion.
When we replace meat on Fridays with fish and vegetable foods, we can be reminded of the story of Adam and Eve—they sinned by eating what was forbidden. So, our act of abstinence from meat can become a spiritual way of saying “Yes, I will obey whatever God asks!” Furthermore, we can embrace the traditional practice of abstinence as a way to be connected with the many generations that came before us, and as a way to unite Catholics under a common cultural practice.