Wednesday, March 5 is the beginning of the season of Lent in the liturgical calendar. Popularly known as Ash Wednesday, it begins a season of preparation in which Christians seek to ready their souls for the festivities of Easter through traditional penances of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. By undergoing a little personal suffering we join in the sufferings of Jesus and unite our work to his salvific work.
Penances of course are not meant to be easy. They are meant to challenge us to grow. Ash Wednesday sees many Christians, and especially Catholic Christians, take on the mark of participating in a penitential season, an Old Testament medium with a New Testament symbol, ashes used to trace a cross on our foreheads, ashes made by burning the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday observance. That cross, written with ashes, is a reminder of our need to do penance, a striking reminder of our sinfulness, a somber reminder of the reality of death, a stark reminder of Jesus’ death on the cross, and at the same time a reminder of the cross traced on our foreheads at the time of baptism. Taking up the cross is part of our whole life. Lent makes us a little more aware of that. Lent helps look forward more eagerly to Easter, and one day to our own resurrection. That cross of ashes is ultimately a sign of hope!
Among the practices of Lent is abstinence, a custom closely related to fasting. As observed by Catholics, fasting means consuming only one full meal during the day rather than our customary three. The other meals are marked by much simpler fare, a glass of water, a piece of bread or toast, something sparse, that leaves us wanting, certainly not ‘full’. Abstinence is refraining from eating meat for the day. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday we Catholics are called to observe both fasting and abstinence. Exceptions are made for the very young, the very old, and the very sick, but for almost all it is a communal action of penance, an acknowledgement that we are sinners and in need of God’s mercy and salvation. All Fridays during Lent are also days of abstinence.
Reactions to abstinence vary. Some follow the older tradition of abstaining from meat every Friday. (Check out the Hot Lunch Menu at Little Flower School.) Some have taken up this older tradition as reparation for the sin of abortion. For some the foods of Lent, when it was 40 days of continuous abstinence, have a special place in their list of cravings (Schneidla noodla, dampfnoodla, cream peas on toast, or kraut knocha anyone?). One of the more challenging reactions comes from ranchers. “How come we get singled out? No other food gets discriminated against like this. This affects my bottom line! Tuna, polluck, salmon, cod are all a lot more expensive than beef Father! I never thought of eating shrimp, lobster, crab, oysters, scallops as being particularly penitential.” I don’t know the answer to the ranchers’ consternation, but it has caused me to reflect on a few realities.
Throughout the world, meatless meals are the norm. Through history and even into our own day meat has been a food of the rich, a luxury. Bacon and eggs for breakfast, a hamburger or cold cut sub for lunch, steak or a roast and potatoes for supper is simply beyond the imagination of nearly all generations while for us it is commonplace. Abstinence brings us closer to the more universal experience, especially of the poor. We don’t have to look far to see the pictures of the rice and bean meals being served up in refugee camps or developing world homes in our own day and age. Abstinence reminds us that not everyone knows the abundance we do. It reminds us to be grateful. It reminds us to share.
I’ve never seen an explanation of why abstain from meat in favor of fish, but I wonder if it has to do not only with consumption but also with our notions of ownership? After all, who owns a fish? It’s a question we try to address in modern times with things like off-shore limits, and fishing licenses, and in current cases with designer genetics, but who really owns a fish? There’s no brand or tattoo. No one can tell you, except in some very unusual circumstances, that you caught their fish. (Having grown up in Garrison, I do remember the days of the $100,000 walleye tourism promotions on Lake Sakakawea!) Fish don’t have barns, or pastures, or feedlots. They have creation to live in. They go to the one that catches them because no one really owns them or has responsibility for them. They reproduce and flourish or wane on their own usually with minimal human intervention. Abstinence reminds us that all things come from God. They are ours to fulfill our needs. I may want that ribeye steak or plate of ribs, but do I need it? It’s a healthy discipline to go without from time to time.
As for the monetary value of seafood in the Heart of North America where you can’t get any further from an ocean on the continent and the attendant hypocrisy, the ranchers have a point. Lent isn’t about giving up one indulgence for another, it’s about engaging in genuine sacrificial acts of penance prayer, fasting and abstinence, and almsgiving. Switching from turf to surf at your favorite supper club does indeed violate the spirit of Lent. So how about a simpler fare and a bigger donation to the food cupboard or international hunger relief agency of your choice? You’ll soothe a rancher’s calving season aches and pains a little. You’ll help someone less fortunate than yourself. Having taken up the cross for a few steps and sat among the ashes for a little while, you’ll find yourself a little better prepared to appreciate and celebrate Easter when Lent comes to an end 47 days or so down the road.
We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for helping us discover ways to share in carrying the cross and to participate in your work of redemption.
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