Q. What is the origin of abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent?
A. Sacred Scripture gives witness to the abstinence from certain foods at certain times throughout the history of salvation. The people of Israel had a strict dietary law that forbade them from eating certain types of animals that were considered unclean at all times. For instance, Jewish were to perpetually abstain from eating the flesh of animals that do not chew their cud. Thus, the flesh of cows, lamb, and goats were allowed, but the flesh of animals such as pigs and rabbits was forbidden (Lev 11:3). Domesticated fowl such as chickens and turkeys were kosher, but birds of prey like eagles and vultures were not to be eaten (Lev 11:13-19).
Jesus declared all foods to be clean. This was emphasized in the Acts of the Apostles when St. Peter was told by God in a dream to slaughter and eat what was considered to be an unclean animal. God told Peter, “what God has made clean, you are not to call profane” (Acts 10:15).
In declaring these foods clean, Our Lord does not prohibit the Church from calling for occasional abstinence and fasting for the good of the members of the Mystical Body of Christ. Fasting and abstinence is a means to self-mastery and attachment to Christ, the Head of the Body.
All Fridays throughout the year are penitential days. Jesus suffered His brutal passion and died on Good Friday, and every Friday is to be a reminder of that day when Christ won our salvation. To allow the faithful to enter into this day, the Church through Canon Law requires that “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 1251). All Catholics 14 and older are bound to this abstinence.
On the Fridays outside of Lent, the U.S. bishops conference received permission from the Holy See for Catholics in the U.S. to substitute a penitential or charitable practice of their own choosing. It is perhaps forgotten that Catholics are bound to perform this penitential or charitable practice on all Fridays throughout the year, except for Solemnities, e.g., Christmas, the Annunciation, the Assumption of Mary.
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