I was recently asked the following question: “What is the deal with the Church telling me not to eat meat on Fridays?” This question sparked a search into Canon Law and beyond, so that I could give as complete a response as possible.
First of all, let us look at what the current Code of Canon Law actually says. In Canon 1251 we find: “Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday.” By way of explanation, the “Episcopal Conference” a group of bishops (e.g. the USCCB) to which our Archbishop belongs. Furthermore, a solemnity is a special holy day in the church. It is in fact the highest feast we can celebrate as Catholics, as it commemorates key moments or persons of our faith. The solemnities in the liturgical calendar include Christmas, Easter, the Assumption of Mary, the Annunciation, Sts. Peter and Paul, etc.
Fridays are days of penance in the Catholic Church (cf. Canon 1250) because Jesus Christ was crucified on this day. It is good for us to remember the Passion of our Lord on a weekly basis. It helps to refocus our thoughts and actions since, let’s face it: we are often distracted from our true goal. In the light of the Cross, our sufferings and trials seem lighter. Moreover, because of His Cross, our crosses can be offered for the intentions of others. By this means, we are able to participate in the salvific nature of the cross. We have a great treasure here: our sufferings are united to His Cross, and offered with Him, to the Father! Talk about power-reinforced prayers!
But why meat? Why not soda, or sugary treats? On Good Friday, Christ gave up His very flesh for us. He felt the agony of those nails in his flesh. By refraining from eating meat on Fridays, I am reminded that flesh was offered for my salvation. But it’s not just a simple choice of peperoni pizza vs. a grilled cheese sandwich. In that choice, the focus stays on me and my fleshly (physical) needs. I need to look beyond what’s on my plate and consider the tradition behind the letter of the law. Flesh was sacrificed for me. Now I sacrifice my desire in memory of His great gift.
What about vegetarians? Are they excused from this prescription of the law? Not at all! It is for this reason that Canon Law includes that little part about “some other food”. Vegetarians are encouraged to refrain from something as well. Perhaps a preferred dish or dessert? It is crutial to remember, however, this fasting should never harm our bodies. It should, rather, serve to bring us closer to God. I wrote about this in a previous article. Fasting trains our bodies to hunger for the ultimate source of our longing—eternity with God.
And so, I encourage you to take up this challenge and do what the Church asks of us. After all, it is just one day out of 7 in a week. With the current prices of meat, you might even notice a slight decrease in your grocery bill! But, in all seriousness, Christ died for us on a cross. Let us unite our sacrifice and our intentions with Him each Friday, as an act of love for His ultimate sacrifice.