Before looking at why we abstain from meat as a common penance, we should examine why we even do penance in the first place.
The disciples of St. John the Baptist commonly fasted as a way to express sorrow for their past sins, as well as to help them to learn to say “no” to future sins. They were dismayed, however, when Jesus and His disciples didn’t fast, but feasted regularly. Some approached Jesus to ask Him about this. He responded: “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15). While most of the time we rejoice that Jesus has come, the days of Lent are the days Jesus prophesied about when the bridegroom is taken away from us as we remember His passion and death. Thus, in this time, we fast.
The period of 40 days for Lent is quite scriptural, with Moses, Elijah and Jesus all spending this same amount of time in prayer and journeying with God. This time was accompanied by a total fast from food and drink. While each was sustained only by God’s power during their complete fast, our fast helps us to more fully enter into the spirit they model for us.
Early on, Christians were already giving up meat on Good Friday. This was a spiritual reminder that as they gave up meat on this day, Christ offered His flesh on the cross for us. As time passed, this practice expanded, until recently, to all of the Fridays of the year.
Flesh is also a term used by St. Paul in describing our deeds of sin. In Romans 8:13, St. Paul writes that if we live by our flesh, we shall die, but if we live by the spirit, while mortifying our sinful flesh, we shall live. While it appears St. Paul is talking down the material for the spiritual, he is not. Rather, he is saying that we need to put sarx to death. This is the sensual part of our body that gets cravings to indulge in food and pleasures: some of which are good, others of which need to be limited or eliminated all together. Giving up flesh meat, then, is symbolically saying that one is putting this part of their flesh to death so that life in Christ may arise.
For some, giving up meat means very little, especially with many non-meat choices available. While we can certainly do more, the Church asks us to practice this common penance in solidarity with one another. On the other Fridays of the year, when the Church asks us to do any act of penance we may choose, we might then choose something which may be more meaningful to us personally.
This column appeared in a previous edition of the Review.
Father Mayo is pastor of St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in south St. Louis.