Giving up certain types of food dates back to Biblical times
The season of Lent means no meat on Fridays. However, that leaves plenty of fish. And muskrats and beaver tail.
Church law in the United States follows canon law and requires Catholics over the age of 14 to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and the Fridays of Lent.
In fact, the Code of Canon Law (lasted revised in 1983) says Catholics are to abstain from meat on all Fridays (can. 1253). However, the code also allows local bishops' conferences to determine how this is practiced. So, in the United States, we follow the Lenten norms. Of course, people are allowed to abstain from meat on Fridays, or other days as a sign of penance or reparation.
Not long ago, abstaining from meat on Fridays was just the Catholic thing to do. We ate lots of fish — or cheese sandwiches — on Fridays, especially in Lent. All sorts of customs developed to accommodate the rules.
In the Midwestern U.S., the Friday fish fry — complete with fries, coleslaw, bread and butter and dessert — became a weekly fixture. Back in medieval Wales and Ireland, beaver tail was a substitute for fish, according to the Welsh 12th century historian Gerald of Wales. Why beaver? Because beavers swim like a fish. In Michigan, with its history of fur traders, a similar tradition developed, with muskrat feasts — also because muskrats live in the water like fish. A 2007 Catholic News Service story reported the muskrat tradition alive and well. (No recent report on beaver tails.)
The traditions of abstaining from meat varied widely, and was not something started by Christians; numerous instances in the Old Testament tell of abstinence from foods. Samson abstained from grapes and wine (Jgs 13). David not only abstained, he gave up food entirely as repentance when his child by Uriah's wife was dying (2 Sam 12:16-24). And, of course, Jewish tradition forbids eating pork at all times.
Wednesday and Friday
Early Christians first fasted on Fridays in memory of the Lord, who died on a Friday. The second century Christian teaching, the Didache (also call the "Teaching of the Twelve Apostles"), called upon followers of Christ to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.
In 866 A.D., Pope Nicholas I made Friday abstinence from meat a universal rule of the church. And, by the 12th century, abstinence and fasting, for penance as well as a memorial, were common Lenten practices. Most people were bound by the rules, even children as young as 12. However, many exemptions were allowed: for travelers, students, the sick, even those with "physically demanding jobs."
Not just meat was forbidden. For centuries, any animal byproduct fell under the Lenten ban. This included lard, butter, cheese and eggs. (That is where the tradition of Fat Tuesday — Mardi Gras — started. Everyone had to eat all the meat and animal-based foods before Lent began on Ash Wednesday.)
But why meat?
St. Thomas Aquinas, the great 13th century theologian, explained that, since animals walked on land and breathed air, they were more like humans than fish and therefore their meat provided greater enjoyment and nourishment. And that, he added, might lead to "a great incentive to lust" (Summa Theologica, question 147, article 18).
It wasn't all about lust, of course. Fasting during Lent reminded Christians of what the Lord had given up for us. It also was about a desire to become more like Christ.
Imitating Christ was the hope of Pope Paul VI when he, in 1966, issued an apostolic constitution, "Poenitemini", easing the rules of fasting and abstinence. The pope said that Catholics should have greater latitude in determining their penitential practices on Fridays. He left it to each country's conference of bishops to set the required days of abstinence.
That was when the U.S. bishops set up our current regulations. When they relaxed the rules about fasting on Fridays in November 1966, they echoed Pope Paul. They expressed the hope that people would use Friday as a day for acts that substituted for fasting and abstinence, acts that imitated Christ's self-sacrificing love: volunteering, visiting the sick and elderly, and teaching the young, all "with a special zeal born of a desire to add the merit of penance to the other virtues exercised and good works born of living faith."
This is the whole point of Lenten penance — to help us admit our need for healing, and show us how to bring that healing to others through Christ. Giving up meat – or anything else we find really enjoyable, even fish fries or muskrat dinners — helps us remember that we are weak and need to turn back to God for strength.
Sources: Code of Canon Law; Summa Theologica; Vatican Web site at www.vatican.va; the U.S. Bishops' Web site at www.usccb.org; Catholic News Service; The Catholic Encyclopedia; "The Itinerary and Description of Wales" at www.archives.org