Why Do We Abstain from Meat on Fridays?

Abstaining from meat on Fridays and fasting during Lent are two practices of the Catholic Church that few understand and many simply disregard. It is certainly not one of the "fun" activities that Catholics engage in and requires sacrifice and self-discipline.

But why do we do it in the first place?

First of all, the practice of fasting or abstaining from certain foods has biblical roots. In the Old Testament, we see the fast proclaimed by Jonah, (Jonah 3:7), as well as many biblical figures like Moses (Exodus 34:28) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:8) fasting for forty days. Whatever type of fasting was done, it was associated with a spiritual cleansing that was either self-induced or commanded by God.

In the New Testament, Jesus himself fasted for forty days in the desert in preparation for His public ministry and St. Paul continued on the tradition of fasting when instructing the churches he founded (1 Corinthians 9:25). Fasting in this context echoed the Old Testament and added the dimension of a spiritual preparation that helped individuals prepare for a great work.

But how does abstaining from food help our spiritual life?

As humans, we are a body/soul composite. Whatever we do with our body, has a direct impact on our soul. For example, when we sin with our bodies it affects the state of our soul in a negative way. That is why we must do something positive, to counteract our sinful tendencies and gain better control over our sensual desires. Fasting and abstinence helps us progress in discipline, which in turn helps us to avoid sin and follow God's will. Additionally, fasting is a proper way to atone for previous sin, offering it as a sacrifice to God.

If we can't abstain or fast from food, it means our base desires are in control of us and our ability to resist sin has been greatly diminished.

Why meat on Fridays?

Traditionally, meat from animals was viewed as a "delicacy" and "expensive" and so in Europe it would be brought out on special days of celebration. Also, meat was theologically associated with the "flesh" and spiritually speaking giving up "meat" on Fridays is symbolic of avoiding sin.

Fish was always allowed as an alternative because fish was seen as a "lesser" food that did not hold the same taste or spiritual associations with sin.

The reason for fasting or abstaining on Fridays is very simple: Christ died on a Friday and so each Friday throughout the year and during Lent can be a memorial of that fateful day.

What about after Lent? Do we still abstain from meat?

The Bishops of the United States have said this:
24. Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday, even though we hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat.We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.
Abstinence from meat on Fridays throughout the year no longer has the penalty of sin, however, the Church still hopes that "the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice." Catholics are still obliged to make Friday a day of penance and so the Bishops have suggested other alternatives to abstaining from meat if someone can not do so for a particular reason:
27. It would bring great glory to God and good to souls if Fridays found our people doing volunteer work in hospitals, visiting the sick, serving the needs of the aged and the lonely, instructing the young in the Faith, participating as Christians in community affairs, and meeting our obligations to our families, our friends,our neighbors, and our community, including our parishes, with a special zeal born of the desire to add the merit of penance to the other virtues exercised in good works born of living faith.
In the end, fasting and abstinence is about a spiritual renewal of our soul and the Church gives it to us not to shame us, but to invite us to grow deeper in our relationship with Christ. That is the end-goal. We must not observe these practices simply to check them off a to-do list, but because our love of God compels us to do something for the greater benefit of our soul.

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