Fridays, Meat, Lent, & Unbiblical Legalism

Few areas of the Judeo/Christian debate are as confused and debated as dietary legalism. At the same time, this would seem to be among the most ironic of dividing points. For some, it is a Jewish/pharisaical legalism based on the Old Testament dietary laws given to Moses and the Hebrew people, where even professed Christians in this camp still will not eat pork and other foods then condemned as “unclean” (in many cases, these also are “Sabbath-keepers” who insist that the only right day to observe as Sabbath and to assemble to worship is Saturday). For others, particularly in Catholicism, it is all red or “flesh meat” that is prohibited, and only on Fridays. Or maybe only specific Fridays throughout the year and during Lent. I’ve long puzzled these “rules” and where they were birthed. And while the pork/unclean views are obviously derived from a selective tunnel vision for the Old Testament, the rest of currently-practiced dietary “legalism” seem to be much less “based”.

As far as “unclean” meats/foods, for New Testament believers, the redeemed in Christ (elect, saved, regenerated, children of God, Sheep of His flock, etc.), the issue was dealt with in a vision given to Peter as recorded in Acts 10. Peter, who was guilty of hypocrisy and inconsistency, and a sad somewhat pharisaical stand when dealing with Gentile believers, fell into a trance while hungry. In that vision, the LORD showed him a bounty of clean and unclean animals, with the command to “Rise up, Peter, slaughter and eat!” While some interpret this strictly as a reference to the acceptance of Gentile believers, this is a poor hermeneutic. This vision serves as a type of parable, meaning that there is a clear and universal truth on its face, but with a deeper spiritual meaning and application. In this case, the plain-text reading couldn’t be more clear: “What God has cleansed, no longer consider defiled.” (Acts 10:15). The command given was to kill and eat of all things. God was declaring all meat suitable for consumption – even by this loyally-faithful (to the Law) Jew. But there is also the deeper picture – that Peter must drop his biases towards the Gentile believers. Gentiles were (are) not to be viewed as somehow second-rate Christians, treated as “unclean” and in need of some ritualistic and legalistic process or treatment.

But this brings us to the more current question – most prevalent among observant Roman Catholics. If you pay attention to restaurants, and most obviously fast-food establishments, that oddly add a fish offering to their menu during Lent, this is where that comes from. I have previously written about the observation of Lent here, but in-short, as a child growing up Episcopalian, in a family that observed Lent (but not the Friday meat prohibition – that seems to be a nearly exclusively-Catholic practice), I often questioned the purpose of Lenten observation. I do remember passing notions of it being a sort of commemoration of Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness for 40 days, but little more was ever explained. Today, as a Baptist, I grasp the idea of “sacrifice” and attempting to bring our minds and bodies into subjection by even a small, mostly symbolic gesture of “giving up” something, though I find no biblical president or command for such. And certainly, just as I view fasting as a personal choice, though the model is certainly biblical, Lent is a rather odd, legalistic expression for many.

But most puzzling, has been the Friday prohibition against eating meat, or more correctly – “flesh meat”, as I recently was corrected. This doesn’t include fish, thus the temporary menu changes mentioned at the beginning of this. Add in another complication – St. Patrick’s Day this year, where for the Irish Catholic (and many others who honor the tradition) corned beef is an essential part of the celebration, fell on Friday! But wait – Corned beef is… “flesh meat” – and prohibited on Friday. What would a good Catholic do? No fear – according to this article on The Christian Post, a special dispensation has been made available to temporarily exclude corned beef from being classified as a prohibited food on that day.

But this simply seems to complicate the matter. Where did the prohibition (aka – abstinence) from eating meat on Fridays come from? The official website of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul & Minneapolis, which lays out a brief history of the practice, claims the practice goes back to the first century as a reaction to the crucifixion of Jesus (Good Friday). They consider it a memorial of Jesus offering His flesh. Yet there is no biblical record of such a practice, nor any documentation of the practice until much later (some argue at least the 11th Century, just prior to the East/West schism among the Catholics). It also appears that the practice at one time also prohibited the consumption of milk, eggs, and other products derived from “flesh”. This helps to explain the gift of easter eggs, as it would be the first opportunity after Lent for them to have eggs.

Something you might find interesting – the Catholic Church use to require abstinence from meat ALL Fridays, but that was theoretically changed in 1983 (Canon 1251). I say “theoretically” because this is the change in Canon Law that is used to validate not abstaining from said meat the rest of the year. But what is fascinating – the actual text of said Canon doesn’t mention Lent at all!

Can. 1251 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. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

CODE OF CANON LAW, Title II, Chapter II, Canon 1251

But wait – Canon Law doesn’t reduce the observation to a handful of special days and Fridays in Lent? Then where does this come from? I suspect it is simply a selective interpretation, reinforced by American Bishops seeking to please partitioners.

But this still doesn’t answer why, for this year, some Biships gave a special dispensation for the consumption of corned beef yesterday on St. Patrick’s Day. That answer is found in that same line of Canon Law – “unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday“. Since St Patrick’s Day is considered an official church holy day, that offers a “way out” to the prohibition.

So where does this fit into the life and practice of a conscientious, Biblical Christian? First – understand that there is no biblical command or prohibition regarding eating meat on any day of the week, much less on Fridays (Lent or not). But, also we are given some guidance in Romans 14:5 One person judges one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. Just like fasting, it is a matter of conscience. I personally lump this prohibition/abstention under vanity as most practice it. Just like “giving up something” for Lent seems to be an excuse to advertise self-righteousness by many – pretty much rejecting what Jesus taught in Mathew 6:16-18 regarding making a big deal/advertising it (as part of our self-righteous works we are not to trumpet- which is pretty much the entire point of the first half of Matthew 6!). On the other hand – if someone desires to observe some kind of private (that should be underlined and emphasized) act between them and the LORD, then that is their prerogative. I would also generally hesitate to use Lent or abstaining from meat as a foundation for jokes, thought I will include at the end of this an old one that I first heard from a Catholic man.

But understand this – no matter how deep the dogma, insistence, or language used, there is no biblical basis for a requirement to abstain from eating meat on Fridays. Indeed, even the abstinence from eating “unclean meat” position would be easier to defend from Scripture, though still destroyed by Acts 10. May each be convinced in his heart and mind. But be sure you know WHY you do it, for without a clear, biblical purpose, it becomes nothing but a vain ritual.

A Baptist Man in a Catholic Neighborhood

On the first Friday of Lent, John was outside grilling a big juicy steak on his grill. Meanwhile, all of his neighbors were eating fish for supper. This went on each Friday during Lent.

One day the last week of Lent, the neighborhood men got together and decided that something just HAD to be done about John, he was just tempting them to eat meat each Friday of Lent and they couldn’t take it anymore. They went over and talked with him and were so happy that John agreed to join his neighbors and become a Catholic.

They took him to church and the priest sprinkled some water over him and told him “You were born a Baptist, you were raised a Baptist and now you are a Catholic”. The men of the neighborhood were SO relieved, now their biggest Lent temptation was resolved.

That Friday rolled around and just at supper time when the neighborhood was setting down to their fish dinners came the wafting smell of steak cooking on a grill. The neighborhood men could not believe their noses! What was going on??? They called each other up and decided to meet over in John’s yard to see if he had forgotten it was a Friday in Lent.

The group arrived just in time to see John standing over his grill with a small pitcher of water. He was pouring small droplets over his steak on the grill and saying, “You were born a cow, you were raised a cow, and now you are a fish.”

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