Hey, Father! Why can we not eat meat on Friday during Lent? Where in the Bible does it say that? Also, isn’t fish meat? That seems to contradict meatless Fridays.
Not everything we believe must be found explicitly in the Bible. For example, we do not find the word “Trinity” in the Bible, but no true Christian denies the Triune nature of God. St. Paul often indicates that we are to follow not only what is written in the Bible, but also what has been handed down. For example, he says, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (II Thessalonians 2:15).
Not eating meat on Fridays is a form of fasting, and we find many instances of fasting throughout the Sacred Scriptures. Jesus, for example, expects us to fast, otherwise he would not have said, “When you fast …” (Matthew 6:16). The church gives us certain reminders by way of obligations to help us understand the importance of fasting. The Bishops have received the power of binding and loosing and so they can make rules and laws for the church to help us live together as a Christian society (see Matthew 16:18-19 and 18:18). For the good of the church and as a witness to the world, the Bishops have decided we are not to eat meat on Fridays during Lent because Friday is the day on which the Lord died for our sins. As Catholics, we try to keep Fridays as memorials of his death and not eating meat is one simple way for us to remember that Jesus gave his life for us.
For centuries, going as far back as ancient Rome, in most languages, the word meat never included fish, but only mammals and birds. Even today, the church tells us we are not allowed to eat carnis on Fridays in Lent, which, in keeping with the ancient custom, still does not include fish.
Writing in the later part of the 1400s, John Myre tells us in his Liber Festivalis (Book of Festivals), “For when God, for Adam’s sin, cursed the earth and the land, he cursed not the water; wherefore it is lawful for a man to eat in Lent that which cometh out of the water.” Some 800 years earlier, St. Isidore of Seville tells us in his De Ecclesiasticis Officiis, “We are certainly able to eat fish, because the Lord accepted one after the Resurrection. Neither the Savior nor the Apostles have forbidden this.” If we eat fish and not meat on Fridays, it can be an opportunity for us to remember the Lord’s mercy and the promise of the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.
Father Daren J. Zehnle, JCL, KCHS, is pastor at St. Augustine in Ashland, director of the Office for Divine Worship and the Catechumenate, and a judge in the diocesan Tribunal.