I remember when I stepped through the back door that Friday about a year or so ago,
I smelled something delicious. I had no idea what it was, but I knew it wasn’t pizza, a Lenten Friday staple.
“Fish?” I asked. A brilliant deduction if I do say so myself, given that every Friday on the calendar magnetically pinned to the refrigerator has a picture of a fish on it.
“Swordfish,” my wife said proudly pulling the thick, hearty-sized, meaty steaks from the boiler.
Along with the swordfish was a fine Caesar salad, lightly buttered asparagus, and mashed potatoes spiced with turmeric, cumin and paprika, coupled with a nice, but quite reasonable, sauvignon blanc.
After scooping up the last bits of asparagus with the adhesiveness of the remnants of mashed potatoes, I lay my fork down and pushed my chair back from the table.
“That was a wonderful meal,” I told my wife. “In fact, it was more like a holiday feast.”
She smiled in appreciation of my appreciation.
But then my countenance changed.
“What’s wrong?” my wife asked.
Nothing was wrong, I told her, but, at the same time, something was not quite right.
In our Catholic tradition, Fridays during Lent are days of abstinence. I began thinking about why we, why I, abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent.
Of course, being obedient to the teachings of the church is important. We abstain because we are told to abstain. But beyond that, why am I following this practice? Was I adhering to the rule, but missing the message completely?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the church’s penitential practice.”
Was eating a meal worthy of a high holiday really an appropriate commemoration of the memory of the death of our Lord? Was this feeling of savory satisfaction and fulfilling fullness a penitential practice? I participate in the Lenten activities of fasting and abstinence and attending Stations of the Cross because they help me get closer to my Lord, they help me move through time and space from his fasting in the desert to the moment of his passion.
The Catechism continues: “These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies and pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works)” (CCC 1438).
I was getting a sinking feeling in the pit of my gut that I was not in keeping with the spirit of the Lenten season.
While I was utterly appreciative of all the work my wife put into preparing the meal, I gently told her what I was feeling. She understood and proceeded to tell me about all the Friday fish specials at the supermarket and how crowded the fish counter was.
We then sat there rattling off other secular signs of Lent.
On my way to work I pass by a fish market that every year puts up a large yellow sign that reads “Lenten Headquarters.”
Daily commercials for fast food joints pushing their version of fish sandwiches.
Restaurant chains are touting their fish specials.
Advertisements for All-You-Can-Eat Fish Frys.
Fridays during Lent are not feast days, and yet many of us Catholics have a tendency to amp up our Lenten meals.
So we have decided to try to ignore the secular nets, hooks and lures. We will try to make our Friday meals consist of modest soup perhaps, some bread, glass of water, realizing that our sacrifice is modest, but reminds us of our Lord’s suffering, and serves as an example, a guide, to our children that we abstain not just because we have to, but because it is the least we can do. Oh, and maybe pizza —but not with extra toppings!
Dean P. Johnson teaches English in Camden and is a member of Mary Mother of Mercy Parish, Glassboro.