Friday, March 4, 2016

Why Don't Catholics Eat Meat During Lent?

The closer we come to Easter, the more people in this country tend to think about spiritual things. Obviously, that makes sense. The holiday commemorates the most important moment in all of time, when Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Every person’s reaction to that news is of cosmic importance. The annual celebration has enduring cultural impact, even drawing the attention of those who ignore church the rest of the year. It is not surprising to find people more curious now.

What’s interesting, though, is that it doesn’t just make people more curious about Christianity. It makes Christians more curious about each other. As the different denominations practice their varying traditions, it often makes us wonder. Why are there differences? What do they mean?

This week, we have one of those questions. A good friend of mine, who was raised Catholic, asks, “Why do Catholics believe that they shouldn't eat meat on Fridays during lent?”

Interestingly, I have somehow never had this conversation from this angle. Usually it is the other way around, with Catholics asking me why I do not fast during Lent. So I think it will be a good idea to look at both sides and the reason for each. Then we can talk about the differences and decide how important they are.

Catholic Tradition

So, what is the significance of the Lenten fast? Not as much as there once was, which was more than there used to be. Confused? Good, because that’s how I felt while trying to figure it out. But I’ll share what I learned in the hopes that it will be a bit clearer.

At the very beginning of Christianity, there was no such thing as Lent, and therefore there was no fast. It is completely unmentioned in the Bible, and was not practiced in the church’s first few centuries. At some point in the 2nd Century, regional churches began a practice of fasting on the day or the two days before Easter. This was a total fast, in which nothing at all was to be eaten. It commemorated the death and burial of Jesus Christ and was a time for subdued reflection to be replaced by the celebration of the Resurrection.

Sometime later, as traditions began to concretize and power began to come to the church through its link to the government, this practice of fasting morphed into something more formal, more complicated, and more compulsory. This was when the Lenten fast truly came to be. Apparently, the earlier Holy Week fast was lengthened in order to create an entire season of self-denial.

The forty-day period is still a bit confusing, though. The most logical explanation is that it was related to the importance of forty-day periods in the Bible. Particularly, there were the forty-day fasts of Moses (Exodus 34:28), Elijah (1 Kings 19:8), and Jesus (Luke 4:1, 2). The timeframe certainly had precedent, then, even though those fasts had nothing to do with the Easter season.

Of course, there is another important difference. Scripture makes it clear that Moses, Elijah, and Jesus were the three greatest prophets to ever live. Their long fasts were miraculous in nature, and therefore proof of the prophets’ commission from God (and in Jesus’ case, of being God). The average person, in following religious tradition, could not be expected to do this. The Catholic Church therefore created a less-than-total Lenten fast.

It was not the one practiced today, however. It has actually gone through numerous stages of development. Initially, only one daily meal was allowed (except on Sundays), to be eaten in the evenings, and to be vegan. As time went on, fish and poultry were also permitted, but other meats were still forbidden. Then, instead of having to wait until evening, the faithful were allowed to break their fast around midday. Eventually they were allowed to have more than one meal on every day other than Friday, but still without beef or pork. After some more time, Fridays got multiple meals, as well, followed by new rules permitting any type of meat once a day on Sunday. Er, well, Sunday and Monday. Ok, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. Yeah, actually Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Thursday was last to fall.

If history were any indication, the Lenten fast would be on the verge of being done away with entirely. Currently, though, it has the saving grace of deep-fat frying. People like fish enough that way to be fine with the fast (a concept now stretched beyond its absolute furthest limit and into the realm of farce). To be fair, there does also seem to be a renewed interest among Catholics in the Lenten “sacrifice.” Some luxury or vice is chosen and given up for the season, as a way of showing devotion to the church and inviting a reflective attitude. To the extent people do this and stick to it, they are approaching at least the principle of what inspired Lent in the first place.

Protestant Perspective

So much then for the history and purpose of the Lenten fast from the Catholic perspective. Or at least, the perspective most often associated with it. Many of the “high church” traditions, like the Lutherans and Episcopalians, also observe some form of it. But whether they mark it or not, all Protestants take a different view of Lent than Catholics.

The real point of contention is the compulsory nature of the fast. Protestants have a “sola scriptura” understanding of the faith, meaning that they hold the Bible as a higher authority than tradition. If something is not expressly commanded in Scripture, then one Christian cannot condemn another for refusing to take part in it. In fact, Romans 14 makes this point specifically in regard to food and Galatians 4:9–11 warns against imposing human rules as sacred law.

The Lenten fast falls squarely in that category for Catholics. At one point, Rome was far more severe toward those who dared to break the fast. Today, it doesn’t carry the same risk of being called a heretic. However, it is still technically sinful, and still something for which confession and penitence must be offered in order to restore the offender. Protestants feel that giving the fast this elevated status is actually the greater fault.

Bridging the Divide

There is really not very much more for me to say about the Protestant perspective. Lent isn’t biblical, and the Bible says no one should force anyone else to observe anything like it. Fairly straightforward. However, I think it would be worthwhile to caution my fellow Protestants against arrogance over this matter. If there is something wrong in the way Catholics observe Lent, there is also something salutary in it. Remember, Romans 14:3 doesn’t just say, “Let not him who does not eat judge him who eats.” It first says, “Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat.”

The period of Lent may not have much basis, and neither does compelling anyone to fast. But the early fast, the one-to-two day fast of the early church, has a bit more. In Matthew 9:14, 15, Jesus was asked why His disciples did not fast like other religious groups of the day. He replied, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.” When He said that, He was referring to Himself. While He was with them, His disciples had no reason to engage in the sorrowful reflection that accompanies fasting. However, when He died, it was unlikely they ate anything until they saw Him again that fateful following Sunday. In that time, when He was taken away from them, it is quite possible they did indeed fast.

No one should be compelled to follow their example, but no one should be condemned for choosing to do so, either. Though Christ is alive, we are not yet with Him. There are times when the knowledge of that fact weighs down on me, which in turn serves to draw me closer to Him. Fasting intensifies that feeling. Attaching it to the commemoration of the Lord’s death is certainly reasonable, if it is not commanded.

Surely that is all those early Christians did. It only gained a formal, legalistic shape as time passed and leaders began to impose on their followers instead of teaching them. But there was something good in it then, and there is still something good in it now.

I have never fasted for Lent. I do not intend to start, even after having written this. I do, however, think this can give us a point of contact. Many Catholics do not know why they observe Lent. They simply do it because they have been raised to—because it is tradition. If we can know the good reasons behind it, we can connect with them. Then we will have better grounds to discuss the bad habits encrusted around it. It can open a door to helping them find the truth, and decide what to do with it.

The differences between churches matter. They all come from somewhere, and we should work to understand them. But it isn’t just knowledge for knowledge’s sake, or so we can win arguments. It should always be so we can see the good in the people around us, so we can learn to be better, and so we can lovingly guide them to what is better, too. And if there is a time of the year better suited to that than Easter, I don’t know what it is. 

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