by Ray Martin
Recently, I was enjoying a delicious Chipotle dinner with my family on a Sunday night and one of my daughters looked in panic at her chicken burrito bowl and said, “uh wait…Dad, is it okay that we’re eating meat for dinner? I thought we couldn’t do that on Sundays.” One of our sons interjected definitively, “No not Sunday, it’s on Wednesdays and Fridays!” *Sigh* I corrected them that it was ASH WEDNESDAY and Fridays during Lent. This of course launched a lengthy dinner conversation on what Lent was, why we choose to give things up during this season and what days we do it. What was interesting to me was the language that our kids used like, we CAN’T eat meat, or we HAVE to give something up as though it was a punishable offense for not following the rules. So, I went to a source to get some facts and here’s what I discovered in a letter from the US Council of Bishops from 1966 on seasons of penance, specifically Lent.
Why Do We Observe Lent?
Because Jesus did. Most of our Catholic traditions point back to something that Jesus said or did. The first Sunday of Lent is marked with the Gospel account of Jesus going into the desert for 40 days to fast and pray. This is where he was tempted and he did this prior to starting his public ministry which was a the major season in his life that led to his passion and crucifixion. Unlike Jesus, we all have sin in our life. We need to make ourselves better, especially in our spiritual life, healing and mending our relationship with God. Those needs and how we reconcile with God are totally different from person to person. Historically, the Church has held many seasons for penance that often date back to Hebrew traditions, but today there are mainly two that are observed in our modern era of Catholicism in the United States: Advent and Lent. Lent is around 40 days and we choose this time frame starting with Ash Wednesday because it leads to our biggest celebration of the Christian calendar, Easter.
What Do We HAVE To Do?
Nothing. But, we can choose to do a lot of things! Yes, we do have a commitment as active Catholics to go to Mass each week and on special feasts. If there’s a major sin that’s broken down our relationship with God we should clear that up through the sacrament of reconciliation, but that’s really the extent of “the rules”. We can choose not to do anything different during Lent, but the hope is that we make this a special season of penance or doing something to show we’re sorry for messing up and reflecting on where we need to make changes in our life so that we can get closer to God and really celebrate Easter with our church family. Many Catholics in the U.S. follow the old traditions of our church ancestors who gave up meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent. You don’t have to, but it’s a tradition. This statement I mentioned from the Bishops specifically mentions that meat used to be more of a luxury than it is today where it’s pretty common, so if giving up meat isn’t a big deal to you, then they suggest you find something else to do or give up. If people have special circumstances especially when it comes to their diet, then they shouldn’t feel obligated to participate in abstinence or fasting. They should use their best judgement. Again, the hope is that we take a day like Friday to be a special day where we think more about Jesus and how he died for us.
Why Does The Church Pick Certain Days To Be More Charitable Or To Give Something Up?
Ash Wednesday was chosen because it’s the “opening day” of the Lenten season. We give up meat on Fridays because Jesus died on a Friday. Even outside of Lent, Fridays are suggested as a day to be a little more solemn and reverent leading up to the weekend when we celebrate Mass. They refer to Friday as a “mini Lent” that leads into the Easter of Sunday every week. The Bishops caution against being high and mighty in your piety if you do follow the Church traditions to a “t”. It’s not a law and it would be unfortunate to judge others who don’t choose to participate in the same way as you do during Lent. Ultimately, there are many wonderful ways we can give God glory by serving and volunteering, especially for the needy in our communities.
Spiritual Extra Credit
Giving up something or not eating meat is really the minimum practice. Ideally, we should be doing some kind of charitable service or caring for people in need like the sick, the homeless, the poor, the imprisoned. Why? Because Jesus said so. He said that when we get to heaven, he isn’t going to ask us how often we failed to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent, (okay I’m really paraphrasing!) but rather that we will be judged for what we did for the least of God’s people. Basically, don’t get caught up in rules about food, go help someone!
Resources: A Statement Issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops November 18, 1966