Q. Why do we abstain from meat on days of fasting and abstinence, but not from fish? A friend said that medieval fishermen persuaded the pope to permit fish. Is this true?
A. We fast for three reasons: to prevent future sin, to atone for past sin, and to turn our minds and hearts to spiritual realities. We fast to remember the sacrifice of Jesus, and to offer a small sacrifice, in union with Christ’s, for our salvation and the salvation of the world. On Fridays in Lent the Church asks us to abstain from meat, and to abstain from meat or do some other penance during all Fridays of the year. But fish is permitted on Fridays, and is commonly eaten at fish fries, and in Catholic homes everywhere.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that, “Wherefore the Church forbade those who fast to partake of those foods which both afford most pleasure to the palate…. Such are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air... For, since such like animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body.” In part, St. Thomas’ point was that a rule of fasting from the foods many people enjoy the most is a way to ensure a sacrifice for the greatest number of people— and a way to deny the concupiscence that comes from satisfying every physical desire we have. When we fast from things that give us pleasure, we’re strengthened to avoid every kind of sinful pleasure.
There is an additional theological symbol that comes through fasting from meat. Christ was a man—a living, breathing, walking man—a warm-blooded mammal. By fasting from animals who are also warm-blooded, we honor the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in a very visceral way. Michael P. Foley, a historian who has written on the subject, says that a warm-blooded animal is one that “in a sense, sacrificed its life for us, if you will.” By avoiding such animals, we remember the sacrifice of Christ.
Fasting from certain foods, and not others, is a tradition in the Church, one that is a part of our customs and laws because of its symbolic and spiritual value. We should abstain from meat as the Church directs. But even as we abstain from meat, we should remember the broader sacrifice to which we’re called in Lent. Putting away meat doesn’t mean that Lenten Fridays are the right time for butter-poached lobster, or rich and extravagant foods. But abstaining from meat, and eating simple meals, turns us toward Christ, and towards his life-giving sacrifice.
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