In many dioceses next week, the bishops have chosen the waive the Friday requirement to abstain from meat in light of St. Patrick’s Day. Since St. Patrick’s Day is not a solemnity in the United States, the requirement to abstain is not lifted unless a bishop chooses to do so in his diocese, which is the prerogative of the individual bishop. While you can choose to waive your own personal penance for St. Patrick’s day, you can’t choose to waive the penance the Church has instituted (assuming you, my reader, is not a bishop).
This prompted me to think about fasting and abstinence from meat in general. Why do we abstain from meat? Is it really a big deal?
In speaking on fasting, Pope Benedict pointed out that if we want God to be first in our lives, that has to be manifested “corporally,” or with our bodies. In a sense, it’s a way of putting our money where our mouth is. We can claim he’s first in our lives, but until we show that primacy in ways that affect our entire lives – body and soul – is he really first? The Holy Father said, “It is true that fasting is not all there is to Lent, but it is something indispensable for which there is no substitute.” He also pointed out that while we can fast personally from a lot of different things, and it is good to be able to customize our fast to our way of life, a “communal and public act of the Church seems to me to be no less necessary today than in past times, as public testimony to the primacy of God and spiritual values, as much as solidarity with all those who are starving.”
A “communal and public act of the Church,” which serves as “public testimony” … maybe something like not eating meat on Fridays in Lent? Why is that a stereotype of the Catholic life – fish frys on Friday nights in the parish hall? Why did the public school kids throw fish at my Catholic high school growing up and call us “fish eaters”? Because it is a public testimony of who we are and what we believe.
Maybe it seems silly to get worked up over something as little as a piece of meat on a Friday night. Especially in the days of vegetarians and vegans, perhaps fasting from meat seems shockingly outdated. But it’s not simply about the meat. It’s about the sacrifice and what that meat represents. Christians have been abstaining from animal flesh since the first century on various occasions – not because it was bad, but precisely because it was good. It was a luxury that was usually consumed at a feast. With the absence of the Bridegroom, we return to fasting, especially on the day on which he died (Mt. 9:15).
Perhaps abstaining from meat isn’t a big deal today. If it’s not a big deal, however, then why are we clamoring to have it waived for St. Patrick’s Day? If it’s not a big deal, then why do we find it so hard to stand out in a group of friends when Friday rolls around and everyone goes out to get hamburgers? Perhaps it’s because we don’t want to stand out as “that Catholic.” Or maybe because we don’t want to deal with the inconvenience.
If we can’t abstain from meat, especially in a country where seafood and vegetarian options are so readily available, how are we going to put God first in situations that are even graver or harder?
Yes, abstaining from meat seems like small potatoes. Why am I even wasting time and energy typing this post? When the Church has lost its credibility in the public square, when Christians are being killed overseas, why does meat matter? It seems like such a tiny matter. Such a little, inconvenient rule.
But where does that lead? If today we think abstaining from meat seems like a little, inconvenient rule, what’s to stop us from tomorrow deciding going to Mass every single Sunday seems like a little, inconvenient rule? And a few years from now, what about those rules the Church has made in regards to marriage? Or children? Or end of life issues?
Once we begin rationalizing disobedience of even the smallest things the Church asks of us, it becomes much easier to rationalize the bigger things. Yes, not eating meat may be inconvenient. But the Christian life was never supposed to be convenient.
Pope Benedict said, “Without fasting we shall in no way cast out the demon of our time.” If we are unable to make sacrifices in our physical lives that are a small as not eating meat, not eating between meals, or denying ourselves some some pleasure, we will find it far more difficult to fight bigger temptations or stand firm when our faith is under attack. If you want to find strength to fast, start reading accounts of our Jewish and Catholic brothers and sisters during the Holocaust. Read the story of Father Alfred Delp, SJ. Pick up Night by Elie Wiesel or Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Even the fiction work by Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See, is enough to make me realize that we have lost the notion of real sacrifice and suffering, just seventy years later.
We have become too soft. Yes, we need to discern what penance we can reasonably accept this Lent and not fall into the trap of scrupulosity or extreme penance. But I would venture that very few of us are likely to fall into extreme penances. It is much easier for me to rationalize my way out of penance and find good reasons to waive my own personal sacrifices when they become inconvenient.
We were never promised comfort or convenience in the Christian life. Fasting and abstinence from meat might seem like small things, but they are manifestations of a much greater thing: our relationship with our Creator, our knowledge of who we are and Who He Is, and our desire to serve Him to the end. If we are ever going to be the shining city on the hill or even the hidden yeast in the dough, we need to start putting God first in our lives- and those lives are spiritual and physical.