Picture it: You’re in a hurry. You’re focused on school or work or family or friends, where there are a thousand things going on. You stop real quick to eat in the middle of the day. Halfway through the meal – or a little while after – you remember it’s Friday. And it’s Lent! And that’s a burger in your stomach!!
In the words of Homer Simpson, “D’oh!”
This has happened to me before, and odds are that it has happened at one time or another, to you. A side note here to anyone who may be worrying or feeling guilty right now: If you forget, then no, it is not a sin.
So why exactly do Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent?
Actually, people offer several reasons for why the Church embraces this discipline, a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. Some say it was because the Church was trying to support the fishing industry when times were tough. The Church was trying to keep fishermen ‘afloat’ (yes, pun intended). There is some historical evidence of that, dating all the way back to the second century.
Some say it was safer to eat fish than meat. Everyone knew the specific time frame in which it was safe to eat fish, while people tended to test that time frame with beef. There’s some historical evidence to that too, dating back to about the seventh century.
Some point out that hundreds of years ago only the very wealthy could afford meat. Fish (in comparison) was the poor man’s meal. It was cheap, humble food that you had to catch yourself.
Some say that not eating meat helped folks to focus on the humility of Christ, who lived a simple man’s life. There are literally dozens of other examples for this disciplines evolution over the years and the Church’s maintenance of it. They are good to know, but they didn’t help me a lot when I was just trying to understand why I can’t have a burger on Friday. I just knew that I wanted meat.
If we aren’t focusing on Jesus and on the cross when we abstain from the meat, then the matter can become less about Lent and more about ‘should I have the meatless pizza or the grilled cheese sandwich?’ We all know that it’s so much more than that.
I prefer to look at it like this: Jesus Christ, my Lord and my Savior, gave up His own body, His own flesh, that Friday so many years ago, for me and for you. He went through the pain of that self-sacrifice, completely mindful of God the Father.
When I go through the incredibly minor act of abstaining from meat on Fridays, it is just one tiny act of self-sacrifice that points me back to that awful but Good Friday. That was the Friday when God loved me so much that He gave up His flesh in the most selfless act in history.
Thinking about how often my physical body can lead me into sin and away from God, it is great to have a chance to let my body help lead me out of sin and toward God. That’s the essence of what St. Peter was saying when he wrote:
“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin” (1 Peter 4:1).
You see? Abstinence from meat is more than just “going without” during Lent or just a reminder that Christ offered His flesh for us on the cross. Abstinence is a form of prayer, a discipline. When we abstain from meat, we focus on Christ and on our souls, rather than on self and on our bodies. It is faith in action, placing our attention on Jesus and offering Him ‘our flesh’ as a sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2), a vessel through which He can and does work.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. I guess you could say that abstinence makes the body (and soul) grow holier… if we embrace it and allow it. Meat is great, but Jesus seemed to do pretty well with just bread and fish, and so did everyone else who received the feast that day (Matthew 15:34-37).
Remember, God made vegetables, too.