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Lent is over… isn’t it? Let’s eat!

April 21, 2014

Happy Easter! Christ is risen! Risen just as He said!

Time to exercise my theological muscles here. So I will start with faith. What is faith? Faith is, we are taught, the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself. By faith “man freely commits his entire self to God” (Dei Verbum, 5, Pope Paul VI). For this reason we seek to know and do God’s will. “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17), and living faith “works through charity (love)” (Galatians 5:6). As a disciple of Christ, I – we – must not only keep the faith and live on it, but also profess it, confidently bear witness to it, and spread it.

This time of year, I frequently read comments on posts and blogs that are so utterly without merit, knowledge, or even good manners, regarding the ancient practice of fasting and abstaining during Lent.  So my friends, here is your answer to the question: Why do Catholics give up meat on Friday’s? What constitutes meat? Why do I have to obey these old men in Rome? What if I mess up? For Catholics like you and I who are trying very hard to obey, we are blessed by knowing we can say ‘oops’ ,, learn, and experience the Sacrament of Confession! For those who detract from the Catholic Church, or to those who veer off teachings in order to justify choices to the contrary – here is an opportunity to learn some facts on our teachings. I invite you, in love and faith, to read and learn why we do what we do.

First thing is: What are we supposed to do? Our Canon Law reads as such:

•Canon 1250 ALL Fridays through the YEAR and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the entire Church.

•Canon 1251 Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

•Canon 1252 All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bound by the law of abstinence; all adults are bound by the law of fast up to the beginning of their sixtieth year. Nevertheless, pastors and parents are to see to it that minors who are not bound by the law of fast and abstinence are educated in an authentic sense of penance.

•Canon 1253 It is for the conference of bishops to determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence and to substitute in whole or in part for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.

Not too hard to grasp, right? Now, what is abstinence?

The law of abstinence requires a Catholic 14 years of age until death to abstain from eating meat on Fridays in honor of the Passion of Jesus on Good Friday. Meat is considered to be the flesh and organs of mammals and fowl. Also forbidden are soups or gravies made from them. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles and shellfish are permitted, as are animal derived products such as margarine and gelatin which do not have any meat taste.

Now for the ‘WHY’ – always the hardest to explain, especially to angry people. The fourth precept of the Church is “you shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church” to ensure the times of ascesis (self-discipline) and penance which prepares us for the liturgical feasts and helps us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart. It is to help ourselves, not to help the ‘old, bad men’ in Rome.

“It’s too hard!” It seems today that the Catholic family faces more obstacles than ever before trying to observe Lent. Threats of persecution have decreased, but certainly not the ridicule (see above – and other Facebook comments) Our US Culture makes so many demands on our time and energy that there is little room for anything else. Meetings, parties, TV programs, athletic events all proceed unchanged and ever increasing right through the Lenten season. Even our kids are held to the same school routine and activities without any recognition of Lent. So our challenge is to observe the spirit and works of Lent ourselves while living in a secular and ever increasingly hostile culture, to remain in the world but NOT of the world.

The preparation is not to be this gloomy, kill joy attitude, but one of understanding the spirit of Lent. It is a penitential season. Why? It is the period of the Church’s purification and is at the same time first and foremost the period of personal purification. It is a readjustment, an internal renovation, from our pampered, beauty product laden skin right down to the depths of our soul. It is a chastisement of the body in order that the soul may grow. It is purification and liberation – liberation from the distractions of the world that hold us in slavery. It is a cure, and the fasts are meant to be medicinal, that loosens the grip of evil distractions in our life. If we indeed WANT to be cured, we have to go to the root of the trouble, and that is located in our mind and our heart. As they say, bad habits die hard!

What are called to do at Lent? Well, we are called to observe our fasts, increase our prayer with an ever increasing sense of urgency during the seven weeks of the season, and to dedicate more in almsgiving. This discipline goes way back in Scripture. We read how the Jewish exiles in Babylon “wept and fasted and prayed before the Lord, and collected such funds as each could furnish” in Baruch 1:5-6. This sums up the common penitential discipline of God’s holy people since ancient times. So during Lent, we Catholics continue to express sorrow for their sins, and a desire to draw closer to God, through prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Why do we set aside special days and seasons? Shouldn’t we be doing these things constantly as a way of life? Some do – we call them saints! But most of us, with our human nature as weak as it is, will be tempted to neglect them altogether. The Church recognizes we can even fall away from these disciplines for all time.

In the life of ancient Israel, God himself set the precedent for special days for penance. Through Moses he commanded the people to observe an annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) (Leviticus 16:29-34). A day of mortification, repentance and prayer, asking God for the cleansing of ones sins. At other seasons were established as well, reading Zechariah 8:19. Such practices were continued by the early Christians, which we can find in Acts 13:2-3, and such established tradition in the Church. Lent observes forty days before Easter, as a way of recalling the Lord’s own forty days and nights of fasting in the wilderness while he prayed and battled with the devil (Luke 4:1-13).

When we make small sacrifices – and they are small in comparison – such as giving up food and giving away alms, we detach ourselves from the things we tend to love TOO much. “And look at the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were proud, sated with food, complacent in their prosperity, and they gave no help to the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 18:49). But by observing the precepts set forward by the Body of Christ, His Church, we make more room in our lives for God.

The “why Friday?” is pretty obvious: it is one way we commemorate the Passion and death of Our Savior Jesus Christ. But why meat? Well, meat was singled out as being a food Christians occasionally abstained from since the first century. This has nothing to do with the Catholic Church “requiring abstinence from foods” that St. Paul talks about in his letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 4:3), referring to the practice of maintaining Jewish dietary laws. The foods prohibited by God in the Old Testament were declared “unclean” and this is why they were forbidden. The Catholic Church’s practice of occasionally not eating meat has nothing to do with this perspective. It is precisely because meat is SO good that we are asked to give it up at certain times. It wouldn’t make a whole heck of a lot of sense if we offered something we considered bad as a sacrifice to God.

More to the point, meat was singled out because it is associated with celebrations and feasts. I understand that there has been a slight cultural shift in the last number of years with more and more people eating a more vegetarian or vegan diet, but most of us still base the food we eat during celebrations around a meat entrée (think Thanksgiving turkey, Easter ham, Fourth of July brat, burger and a steak). A day devoted to remembering Christ’s Passion doesn’t seem like a day to feast. Interestingly enough, the day we celebrate the day of resurrection is a day for feasting (and we get one of those every single week: by experiencing the Eucharist on Sunday).

On top of all of that, meat has often been a luxury in many cultures. People didn’t always have a McDonald’s Dollar Menu, and meat cost a bit more. Maintaining a spirit of simplicity, people turned to other, less expensive fare. But what’s included when we are asked to abstain from meat? Well, throughout the 2,000 year history of the Church, there have been varying definitions over what exactly constitutes abstinence from meat. In some regions of the world, Catholics abstained from all forms of meat and all animal products, while others made exceptions for food like fish.

Still don’t see the point? You would rather eat fish? This the heart of the why we are doing this. God doesn’t need us to give up meat. God doesn’t desire us to have a filet-o-fish sandwiches on Fridays. What does God want? For you to suffer? Is the point of Lent to just grit your teeth and bear it, and if you happen to like fish then you just aren’t going to get holier because holiness comes from pain? NO! The heart of holiness is love, and the way we express our love is through obedience. Abstaining from meat won’t make a person closer to God. Just like ordering Lobster Thermidor is not in the Spirit.  But having a posture of obedience to the Church that Christ established will. This happens to be what the Church asks us to do. If the Church changed the discipline and told us to eat meat on all Fridays during Lent, then obedience to that discipline would help us to grow. Why? Because we sinners like to take the rebellious pose. We like to do it our way. It is hard for us to be told what to do. But to submit is to place our lives in our Father’s hands. If you resent having to give up meat because you see it as pointless, look more deeply into what prompts you to think that way. Is it really the Spirit of Christ? Or a spirit of rebellion? One of those roads leads to God. The other leads in the opposite direction.

Finally, more important than fasts, prayers, and alms, is pursuing a perfect Christian life, one which meets and masters every problem that smacks us in our face; to live perfectly as a Christian, to keep your heart holy, unspotted by sin or selfishness. This is the goal; the goal that saints attain.  We can get good at these things; we are given lots of help.  We are called to the recipe for success in Matthew 25:31-46, as well as the fitness program from the Lord in Matthew Chapters 5 through 7.  You read and study these chapters and verse and you will grow in holiness and closer to God – which is what He wants.

Now that Easter has come, the 40 day trial of Lent is over. The general populace has hunted for secular eggs, and kept the chocolate industry afloat for one more year. And I won’t even go into the manufacturing of that unnatural plastic Easter basket grass that one finds months later. Here in the secular world, Easter comes, and goes. Done. But the Catholic Church is not always about Lent, and penance, and fasting, and mortifications. The Church celebrates the Resurrection of Our Lord with an Easter that lasts an octave, eight days. And more than that, we recall the time of Acts for 50 days until Pentecost – the birthday of the Church. It’s not always doom and gloom and no steak, but about the glory of eternal life that is to follow!  But that is another workout.

Have a glorious Eastertime. And enjoy that Burgerville now, guilt-free!


In Christ’s great and generous, all-calling Love,


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