Today we are blessed to hear from our correspondent in Rome, Fr. Ott, about fasting. Even though the end of lent it is very timely. Read at your own risk for now you will know.
To understand why Catholics (and many other Christians) don't eat meat on Fridays in Lent, we first have to understand the roots of the disciplines of fasting and abstinence in general. Then we need to see what it is about Fridays in Lent that make abstaining from meat an appropriate thing to do.
Fasting in the religious sense refers to consciously limiting the amount of food one consumes, for the purpose of arriving at a deeper spiritual awareness. It is a very ancient and biblical spiritual discipline (cf. 2 Sam 12:16; 1 Kgs 21:9; 2 Chr 20:3; Ezra 8:21; Jud 4:13; Esth 4:16; Joel 1:14; Jonah 3:5-7; Acts 13:4). So what does limiting my food have to do with my spiritual life? Eating is something that we generally do rather instinctively, without thinking much about it. I simply feel hungry, and so I go get something to eat, and then I don't feel hungry any more. But when I intentionally disrupt that cycle by fasting, it takes me off of "auto pilot" and helps me to realize what wonderful gifts our creator has given us. Life itself is a most amazing gift, as is the rest of creation, which sustains us and makes life worth living. When we fast, it causes us to stop taking things for granted. Thus it helps me to become more humble and grateful to God for his blessings of life and creation. This is why fasting and prayer are often linked together (cf. Lk 2:37; 5:33). The reordering of priorities, and the renewed sense of blessing and purpose that comes from this brings about greater mental and spiritual clarity, which is why it is often done to prepare for big decisions or life changing events (cf. Acts 13:4; 14:23)
Abstinence is a more specific kind of fasting, in which one completely omits a specific food or activity, often because of its symbolic meaning. This is also an ancient and biblical discipline, often requested by God himself (cf. Gen 32:33; Ex 22:30; Lev 11:4-11; Deut 14:7-21). We don't always know the reasons why God has asked for abstention from various things at certain points in history, but mystics and thinkers sometimes try to guess at these reasons, so that they might have a greater sense of purpose in obeying the law. Deut 14:21, for example, says "You shall not boil a kid goat in its mother's milk." Some have suggested that this is because this was actually a foreign religious practice, and therefore it was inappropriate for Israel to undertake it. Others reasoned that boiling an animal in the milk of its mother was just inhumane.
In the case of abstaining from meat during the Fridays of Lent, you won't find this specific rule in the Bible, because Lent did not exist yet when the Bible was written. But both the season of Lent and the discipline of abstaining from meat on Fridays are practices that are deeply rooted in biblical imagery.
The concept of a forty day pilgrimage is very well attested in the Bible. There are several periods of "forty days" in the world-purifying story of Noah and the flood (Gen 7:12, 17, 8:6). Moses spends forty days up on Mt. Sinai, receiving the Law from the Lord (Ex 24:18). Elijah journeys for forty days to escape Jezebel and get to the mountain of the God (1 Kgs 19:8). And of course, Jesus fasted and prayed for forty days in the desert (Mat 4:2; Mk 1:13; Lk 4:2).
It is out of this tradition that the Church established the forty day season of Lent. During this time, we seek to draw nearer to Jesus by going "into the desert" to fast and pray with him. And giving up meat on Fridays is part of this Lenten pilgrimage project.
To understand why this is, it is helpful to substitute "meat" with a more archaic word that means the same thing: "flesh." This gives a twofold mystical meaning to our abstinence. It can first of all remind us of the sacrifice of Jesus. On Good Friday, he gave himself completely for our sakes: flesh and blood, soul and divinity. When we give up "flesh" in this minor symbol of abstaining from meat, it is a small token reminder of the supreme sacrifice that Jesus gave up for us on the Cross.
The second meaning comes from the Bible, especially the Pauline letters. St. Paul likes to use the word "flesh" to mean "a proclivity to fall into sin" (cf. Rom 7:5, 25, 8:3-13, 13:24; 1 Cor 3:3, 15:50; Gal 4:29, 5:13-24, 6:8; Eph 2:3). In particular, he emphasizes that by conforming ourselves more perfectly to Jesus, we allow our "flesh" (i.e. tendency to sin) to be crucified (i.e., destroyed) along with his "flesh" (i.e., his body) (cf. Gal 5:24; Eph 2:14)
Now, to be sure, there were some cultural factors that led us to adopt this symbolic action. Eating fish instead of meat has at times been a symbol of solidarity with the poor, since fish was sometimes seen as poor people food, since you could catch your own for free. Some have even suggested that there was a time when politicians in areas of Europe with a large fishing industry promoted this discipline as a service to their constituents. But none of these reasons, if they ever existed at all, matter to us now, because these conditions no longer exist.
So, why do we give up meat on Fridays? The Church is just asking us to make a significant action each Friday to remind ourselves that the Lord died for us on that day, and that we should respond by continually asking him for the grace to turn away from sin. And I do mean EACH Friday. Before Vatican II, Catholics were asked to abstain from meat every Friday of the year. After Vatican II, this specific discipline was limited to Lent, but we are still supposed to do something sacrificial every other Friday of the year. I think the hope was that faithful Catholics would go beyond the "letter of the law" and more fully embrace the spirit of it, finding creative and meaningful ways to express their union with Christ through personal sacrifices. But I think that's been kind of a flop. Most Catholics probably have no idea what this is about.
But now, you can spread the word ;)