If you ask most Catholics why we eat fish on Fridays during Lent, you’ll probably hear that it’s supposed to be some kind of sacrifice. Funny enough if you think about it: some of Jesus’ closest friends were fishermen. The fish even became a symbol used by the early Christians to communicate safely with each other and to signal meeting places. Its place as a Catholic dinner staple is more like a statement of identity – we are Catholic; that’s what we do – just a test.
As authors Brian Fagan and Michael Foley have shared, the real history of our tradition of eating fish on Fridays is pretty crazy and involves the Vikings, King Henry VIII and, eventually, the Filet-O-Fish. But a main component of practice for most Catholics has long been that a meal of fish replaces the more decadent options meat offers. It represents a form of asceticism or mortification. It is “a simple meal”.
With that in mind, can we talk about our picks for Friday night meals this Lent? Because over the years, I feel like I’ve seen — and attended — quite a few Lenten Friday dinners that were every bit as fancy as any non-Lenten meal I’ve had. have never eaten. Tacos of trevally ceviche, Salmon steaks in macadamia coconut crust, Lobster Thermidor. Hey, that’s not meat!
Over the years, I feel like I’ve seen — and attended — quite a few Lenten Friday dinners that were every bit as fancy as any non-Lenten meal I’ve ever eaten. .
I don’t know of anything in the Lenten literature that says Friday food shouldn’t taste good. Nobody wants that. But when our Lenten fasts start to look like this recipe site’s announcement that “Good Friday fish doesn’t have to be a tired tradition. Treat your guests to (or treat yourself to) an impressive yet delicious fish dish,” I think we may be heading in the wrong direction.
So, frankly, Catholics: do we really believe in the idea of eating fish on Fridays as a form of self-mortification or solidarity with those who have less? Or do we see it more as paying our taxes? Yes, we will, but only by giving as little as possible.
A more important question underlies these others: Who are our Lenten practices for? Do we do things like avoid meat on Fridays or the Lenten fast because we’ve been told we have to and/or because we think God expects it? Or do we actually believe that there is something in this practice that could actually help us or others?
If we do these things just because someone says we have to, and we get nothing more out of them, one might reasonably wonder if it’s worth it. God certainly did not give us the brains, the agency, and the capacity for prayer and self-reflection to blindly do whatever we are told. And to paraphrase my former rookie manager: if Friday fish fingers aren’t helping you find God, maybe you need to try something else.
If Friday fish sticks aren’t helping you find God, maybe you should try something else.
But another option might be to actively experience the Friday fast itself and see if there is actually something ahead of us. Here is what I mean by experience: what if on Lenten Fridays we took our time eating our meatless dinner, we would sit at the table together rather than in front of the television and enjoy each other’s company and the real taste what we eat? How many times have I come to the end of a meal and realized I barely took the time to notice its flavors? Whether it’s cheese pizza or fish and chips, God has given us this gift and the gift of the other. Let’s savor this.
Or maybe we spend a Friday meal with a prayer for the people we know who are less or suffering right now or even imagine having that meal with them. It probably works much better alone than in a group. (Although I can tell you from personal experience that simply eating a meal in silence with others — no phones, no radios — can also be surprisingly meaningful.)
Or maybe we take the money we save by not indulging in fancy fish on Fridays—our Lenten Legal Seafood Fund, so to speak—and donate it to a different charity each week.
We could also try other experiences around our Friday fast: cooking together; make it a family night or an evening where we invite others for a meal; volunteer at a soup kitchen or try each of these different practices on subsequent Fridays and see what works.
The thing is, giving up meat on Fridays doesn’t have to just follow the letter of the law; it could be a doorway to something positive for ourselves or for others. It could be just that moment to breathe and reconnect with God that so many of us so often wish we had.
In the end, Lenten expressions of our faith probably shouldn’t look like Swiss tax shelters or banquets that Henry VIII would be happy to attend. But our goal during Lent is not to do things just because we have to, but because they can offer meaning and growth to our lives. “Finding God through local fried fish” might not be your cup of tea (or your pot of fish). But again, this might be the perfect adventure to try this Lent.