For some 1.3 billion Catholics across the globe, the Biblical account of Christ’s 40-day fast in the wilderness is an invitation to sacrifice. During his temptation, Jesus didn’t need physical “bread.” Nor do they.
Lent, a 40-day season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, begins on Ash Wednesday and ends at sundown on Holy Thursday.
That’s just before Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion, and Easter Sunday, the day of the resurrection.
During Lent, Catholics make sacrifices of several kinds. They may voluntarily give up virtually any pleasure, from hard candy to the Xbox, or commit to giving their time to helping others.
And in the United States, Catholics are asked to observe meatless Fridays. (No meat on Fridays was once a year-round custom; more on this below.)
In this article we’ll examine the relationship between Lent and meals, and offer some suggestions for Lenten meals that honor the intent of the season.
Feast before the fast
Before that sacrifice season of Lent comes Fat Tuesday, when Christians were instructed to use up all the fat in the house as preparation for the lean time.
In traditionally Catholic New Orleans, Venice, and Rio de Janeiro. the party famously lasts far longer than a day. While people eat plenty of meat during Mardi Gras and Carnival, seafood is as plentiful and beloved.
In New Orleans, celebrants gorge on overflowing po-boy seafood sandwiches. If you’re in Rio, there’s bolinho de bacalhau, deep-fried codfish balls. In Venice, bars are judged by their tiny plates called cicchetti, notably baccalà mantecato, creamed cod on polenta, and sarde in saor, fried sardines marinated with sweet vinegar and onion, perhaps with raisins and pine nuts on top. (Read more about Mardi Gras seafood traditions.)
Then, when Lent arrives, on Ash Wednesday and every Friday American Catholics eat only one meal during the day (or two small ones) and abstain from meat — which tends to mean they eat more seafood.
Note that there’s seafood for the party and seafood for the purifying time. Fact is, eating seafood was once something of a sacrifice – in pre-refrigeration days, it was dried, salted and rather self-denying to consume. Refrigeration and freezing has changed that somewhat, but fish meals can still link us to old and important traditions.
So, how have meatless meals evolved in the Catholic faith?
This gets a little complex.
Until 1966, Church law prohibited meat on Fridays all year long. The custom set in, with Friday fish frys in American parishes and American Legion and VFW halls. It was a way to honor the Church commandment, build Catholic community, and raise money for their causes. Even the fast-food franchise McDonald’s joined in, offering the Filet-O-Fish sandwich to improve declining Friday sales.
During Lent, the Church asked believers to abstain on Wednesday as well.
The rules loosened over time, though. As of 1983, canon law required the one-meal day and abstinence from meat only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, at either end of Lent. However, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops has extended this law so now it includes all Fridays in Lent.
Christian tradition provides many reasons for restricting your food, to quote the Conference. Among them are a symbolic fasting from sin, a means of saving resources to give to the poor, and a “means of self-discipline, chastity, and the restraining of the appetites.”
Many religions call for sacrifice to practice self-discipline and turn one’s thoughts to God. Muslims fast for the month of Ramadan. Jews fast on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (and if you’re more observant, five other days in the year). Buddhists may abstain from meat on the new and full moon or more often. Hindus have a variety of fasting practices, some of them rigorous.
The spirituality of eating fish
But that doesn’t explain why Christians chose fish rather than beans. As we explained in “Why Do People Eat Fish on Friday?” fish had been linked to sacred holidays before Christianity; it was also an early symbol of the faith.
There are practical historical reasons, too: For medieval Christians, who did physical labor while adhering to a rigorous fasting schedule, salted dried fish was an available and much-needed protein.
Fish also may induce feelings of peace.
As you tuck into your seafood meal, might you make it your one meal of the day and perhaps restrict your portion? Choose to give a bit more to charity? Or simply enjoy your delicious salmon with a bit more gratitude.
For a Friday in Lent, we suggest a nod to Rio’s Carnival with Brazilian moqueca, an everyday fish stew served across the country with regional twists. In Bahia, for example, you’ll get an African flavor, with prawns and cod in chile-laced coconut milk.
Or to keep your portion small, make a light dinner of two soft boiled eggs over a layer of anchovies on toast.
Or, solve the problem of meatless meals with one of Vital Choice’s new complete meals. You’ll get both top-quality seafood and a delicious, complementary side-dish, all delivered straight to your doorstep.
We hope you’ll enjoy your seafood during this Lenten season. Most importantly, may your fish meals in Lent bring you peace and a deep joy.