Each spring, Catholics observe Lent by skipping steak in favor of fish sticks & swapping a Big Macs for a Filet-O-Fish. But, why is that?
One legend says a medieval pope with connections to Europe’s fishing business banned red meat on Fridays centuries ago, to boost his pals’ industry. While that story’s not true, Sunday school teachers have a more Biblical answer: Jesus fasted for 40 days & died on a Friday. So, Catholics honor both occasions by making the small sacrifice of avoiding animal meat one day each week, over the course of 6 Fridays. So, why are only red meat & poultry banned, but seafood is fine?
Saint Thomas Aquinas thought fellow Catholics should abstain from eating land-locked animals because they were too darn tasty & would cause impure thoughts & actions. Lent’s a time for modesty, he suggested, and in the 1200s meat was a luxury. So, eating something as extravagant as beef was no way to celebrate a holiday centered on simplicity.
But, why fish isn’t considered meat during Lent is a bit unclear. Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in the Bible has been used to justify fasting rules, as he separated different kinds of meat (men, beasts, fish, and birds). That distinction possibly came from Judaism’s own dietary restrictions, which separates fleishig (land-locked mammals & fowl) from pareve (fish). But, neither the Torah, Talmud, or New Testament clearly explain the rationale behind the divide.
It’s arbitrary, anyway. In the 17th century, the Bishop of Quebec ruled that beavers were fish. In Latin America, it’s OK to eat capybara, since their largest living rodent there is also apparently considered a fish on Lenten Fridays. Churchgoers around Detroit, MI, can guiltlessly munch on muskrat every Friday. And, in 2010, the Archbishop of New Orleans gave alligator the thumbs up.
It’s thanks to King Henry VIII that Protestants don’t have to worry about their diet. And, it was Martin Luther who declared fasting to be up to the individual, not the Church. So, whether you fast or not, or eat meat or fish or not…that’s entirely up to you. It’s what’s in your heart & mind that count.
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