The spiritual practice of Lenten fasting
Having married a Catholic and now being the only Protestant in a household of six, I’ve learned a few things in the past 20 years.
One of those things I’ve learned is how to bake really good macaroni and cheese during Lent. Like many families we don’t eat meat on Ash Wednesday and the following Fridays leading up to Easter.
A couple of decades ago, I thought these fasts were silly and overly legalistic.
In fact, early in our marriage, I had no problem eating a steak while my wife and kids munched on pasta. To her credit, my wife never said anything to me about it.
My kids, on the other hand, eyed me with envy bordering on irritation.
But as I’ve aged and learned more, I’ve changed my view. It’s a beautiful tradition that can be honoring to God if done not out of obligation but a desire to commemorate.
The problem is so many people don’t fully understand the spiritual practice of fasting. Growing up Protestant, I never once heard a pastor extol the virtues of even a partial fast.
According to abstinence rules within the Catholic Church, meat includes flesh from warm-blooded animals and birds. Fish and other seafood are OK to eat on Lenten Fridays.
There are exceptions. In the New Orleans Diocese, it’s permissible to eat alligator and in Detroit muskrat can be a Lenten Friday entrée. I’m not particularly keen on trying either exception.
Before Vatican II, Catholics abstained from meat on almost all Fridays throughout the year.
Even though I grew up post-Vatican II, my best friend’s family continued the year-round practice.
When I ate at the Reeds on Fridays, on good days it was cheese pizza and on bad ones, pea soup.
Being a rather inquisitive child, I asked my friend’s dad, just why they didn’t eat most types of meat on Fridays. He gave me a rather long explanation about a pope centuries ago wanting to help fishermen out.
Since my dad was a hog farmer, my 10-year-old-self worried that the pope had it in for folks like us. But, no, that isn’t the case.
While it is an interesting, oft-repeated fable within the church, it also happens to be nonsense.
Another explanation I’ve been told by some folks of a more progressive bent is that chickens, hogs and cattle eat grain, so if Catholics abstain from eating their flesh more food will be available for hungry people.
It’s a nice thought. But it also doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Modern aquaculture feeds soy, corn and rice to farm-raised fish. And some cattle, goats and sheep eat only grass.
Since I’m no theologian, I asked Springfield Bishop Thomas Paprocki to explain the practice.
“We don't have this visible presence right in front of us where we can actually see and talk to Jesus the way his disciples did,” he said. “So, there is that longing in our hearts to be with Christ, to be present with him. And fasting in a way is analogous to that. When we're fasting, we get hungry. Hunger is a longing for food. … We long to be with Christ. We look forward to the day when we'll be with Christ in his kingdom. But for the time being, we have to grow in the sense of patiently awaiting that day.”
That makes sense. And it’s something I’ll be thinking about as I participate in the partial fast with my family this year.
I occasionally hear folks pooh-pooh the practice. They’ll say a partial fast doesn’t amount to much.
This sort of disparagement of another’s religious practice is perplexing. Afterall, why should someone care what someone else is giving up? And let’s be honest, most of the folks critical of the practice are not giving up anything themselves.
In a self-centered age, it’s refreshing to see others sacrificing to remember something greater than themselves. Isn’t that the meaning of Lent?
Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at [email protected].