Got news? A fishy hole in all those Lent stories

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So it’s a Friday in Lent (only in Western churches, at this point), so what did you have for lunch?

As a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, I have always been interested in how other ancient churches — think Rome and, to some degree, Canterbury — handle the great fasting seasons. When you add them all up, including our normal fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays, practicing Orthodox Christians live as vegans or, at the very least, vegetarians more than half the year. The Catholic Church, in recent decades, has been having a lively debate about the relevance of fish on Fridays.

My point isn’t theological. Actually, I think there is an interesting story here, one that rarely shows up in the mainstream press (I mean, beyond your basic Lenten fast food stories, such as this item from Nation’s Restaurant News). Those stories tend to lead to this kind of reporting:

Every year restaurant chains focus their menu development and marketing to make sure they are not giving up traffic and sales between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, a 40-day period when Christians observing Lent abstain from certain vices or habits.

For most foodservice brands that means stepping up seafood and fish offerings for the season when Christians typically stop eating meat on Fridays.

This year several chains, including McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr. and Wendy’s, are finding new ways to market fish items typically promoted during Lent, which began on Feb. 13. Some chains are even thinking beyond the typical fried fish sandwich.

Well, it’s understandable that this story focuses on the dominant liturgical Christian tradition in our culture, which would be Catholicism. I get that.

However, this brings me to my main point: What is Lent, these days, even for practicing Catholics? What are the agreed-upon practices for keeping a holy Lent?

In particular, I’d like to ask for input from GetReligion readers, especially this site’s many Catholic readers: Does anyone know where this whole “give up one thing for Lent” idea came from? I dug into this five years ago for a Scripps Howard column and I couldn’t find anyone who knew the facts on where this universally discussed sort-of tradition came from.

It didn’t come from from Catholicism. We can’t blame the Lutherans or Anglicans. It’s sure as heck not from Eastern Orthodoxy.

This is important for several reasons, not the least of which is that it’s a great case study for the state of Catholic spiritual disciplines and practices post-Vatican II. Here’s an even more important question: How many American Catholics are going to Confession before receiving Communion at Easter?

But back to the “one thing for Lent” thing. Here is what I found several years ago, talking to one popular Catholic apologist:

When most people think of Lent, this “giving up one thing” concept is the one thing that comes to mind, even for many of America’s 62 million Catholics. Now, many Protestants have adopted the same practice. This is, however, a modern innovation that has little or nothing to do with ancient Lenten traditions, in the West or the East.

“There are Catholics who don’t practice their faith and they may not be up on what it really means to observe Lent,” said Jimmy Akin, director of apologetics and evangelization for the Catholic Answers website. “But active Catholics know there is supposed to be real fasting and abstinence involved in Lent. The question is whether they want to do more, to add something extra. That is what the ‘one thing’ was supposed to be about.” …

It’s impossible to know how or when the idea of “giving up one thing” came to dominate the Lenten season, he said. The roots of the tradition may date back to the sixth century and the influential monastic Rule of St. Benedict, which added a wrinkle to the usual Lenten guidelines.

“During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God … something above his prescribed measure,” states the Rule. “Namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter.”

The key, Akin explained, is that this was supposed to be an extra sacrifice.

In other words, the “one thing” was not a replacement for the Lenten disciplines and it was not the central or sole Lenten discipline. It was supposed to be an EXTRA sacrifice that was added to traditions that have lasted for centuries.

How did the “one thing” turn into the most popular image of Lent?

That’s my question. Has anyone seen coverage of this phenomenon? Have you seen stories that simply assume the “one thing” concept what goes on in Lent — period? Please share some URLs.

And speaking of URLs, a former student of mine who currently works at Christianity Today Online served up an interesting report the other day that mixes Lent, Twitter and the “one thing” thing. So what do people say they plan to give up, as part of this mysterious, out of nowhere Lenten sort-of tradition? Here’s the first half of this rather strange, depressing Top 100 list.

1. Twitter
2. Chocolate
3. Swearing
4. Alcohol
5. Soda
6. Facebook
7. Fast food
8. Sex
9. Sweets
10. Meat
11. Lent
12. School
13. Junk food
14. Chips
15. Coffee
16. Candy
17. Bread
18. You
19. Smoking
20. Giving up things
21. Homework
22. Food
23. Social networking
24. Religion
25. Marijuana
26. Beer
27. Work
28. Stuff
29. McDonald’s
30. Virginity
31. Cookies
32. Masturbation
33. Ice cream
34. Shopping
35. Fried food
36. Boys
37. Sobriety
38. Coke
39. Catholicism
40. Cheese
41. Nothing
42. Carbs
43. Red meat
44. Procrastination
45. Desserts
46. Pizza
47. Pancakes
48. Sugar
49. Rice
50. Breathing

The hot new thing to give up? That would be, “Being pope.”

And No. 100? That would be, “Being nice,” which rather misses the point of the whole Lent thing.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia

    I don’t have a URL, but as a 68 yr old Catholic I have some ideas on this “one thing” business.
    1) Lent is a penitential time and thought ideal for actually embarking on changing for the good by quitting bad behaviors or starting good behaviors at this time. Examples: quit too much drinking or smoking, too much eating, begin exercising, being nicer to siblings, etc. These were to be permanent changes not just for Lenten time. Our pastor gave a great homily last Sunday suggesting things most people over-look: giving up having the last word, being the smartest person in the room, gossiping about others. The 6 week period, hopefully, leads to permanent change in behavior once Lent it over.
    2) The end of mandatory no meat on Fridays throughout the year has drawn more interest into giving up particular foods. Maybe that’s where most of the “one thing” business comes from. I never heard about that when I was young. If it’s not bad behavior that being given up, then it is supposedly meant to be a sacrifice and sharing in Christ’s suffering in some small way. These types of sacrifices are not meant to lead to permanent changes in behavior.
    Around the world there is a movement toward restoring the meatless Fridays. When it was made voluntary, Catholics were supposed to substitute some other penitential act in its place, but nobody really does that OR they were never told about it.
    On another angle, I continue to be amazed at the Protestant churches that have Friday fish fries during Lent. Why do they do that? That would make an interesting article.

    • Tyson K

      My small midwestern hometown is essentially half-Lutheran (MO Synod) and half-Catholic. The Catholic church/school has hosted fish fries on half the Fridays in Lent for many, many years. They’re such a big undertaking and so well-attended that doing it every Friday would probably be too much work. Maybe ten years ago or so, while I was in high school, we at the Lutheran church and school decided that a great idea for a fundraiser would be to host fish fries on the other Fridays, when there wasn’t one at the Catholic school. I was in high school by then, but my younger brothers were still in school and my parents volunteered at all of them. I never heard anyone express any thought that it was strange that us Lutherans were hosting a fish fry on a Lenten Friday, because we knew lots of Catholics would come, and it was directly set up not to compete with with the Catholic one. It just made good economic sense. My parents probably still go to a fish fry somewhere most Fridays in Lent, just because it’s what’s going on and it’s a small town. Also, my mom’s whole family is Catholic (she “converted” at marriage), and this is the sort of place where fish fries are a common type of fundraiser for churches of all types year-round anyway.

  • Anne

    I’ve always been amazed by the popularity of eating out on Lenten Fridays. When I grew up, we ate a single, simple meal of soup and bread on Fridays. My parents taught that this was for a variety of reasons: practicing the virtue of simplicity, growing in gratitude for the things we take for granted, living in solidarity with the poor, and saving money that would then be given to those in need. I realize that not everyone has that background, but it’s one that always makes me shudder when I see signs advertising things like “All You Can Eat Fish Fridays.” I think this points to a wider phenomenon: it seems that Lent, at least in the U.S., has been diluted of so much of its original meaning that it’s now more a cultural event than anything else – essentially a time for everyone to make their New Year’s resolution, part two. Except in very religious circles, I rarely see much difference between the “giving up one thing” pieces and the “what’s my resolution” pieces.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    Here’s a link to the site that the Catholic bishops put up to explain Lenten custons:
    http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-resources/lent/ideas-for-evangelization-during-lent.cfm
    I think the key word here is “popular.” The idea of what the bishops call “an external sacrifice” originated in popular spirituality, promoted from pulpits but not officially enshrined in the church’s magesterium That’s why you can’t find a record of how it was instituted, although someone must have an idea of when if first began to be heavily promoted.

  • Martha

    Catechesis, or rather the lack of.

    In my opinion, this is a remnant of what we all learned going to school, which was “Give up something you like for Lent”. The idea was that this was an addition to the normal fasting, that this would be a personal sacrifice, and it was pitched at children so it was along the lines of “Give up sweets/chocolate”.

    As you get older, of course, you are supposed to develop in your spiritual life and understanding, but too many of us are stuck on a twelve-year-old’s understanding of religion. Add in post-Vatican II popular practice, when the compulsory “meatless Fridays” were abolished and the laws of fasting and abstinence were relaxed, and instead of people taking up the slack themselves and adding meaningful penances and acts of mercy, instead it got left at the level of “It’s Lent, better give something up like chocolate or smoking”.

  • Julia

    For those not in the know: it is particularly odd to see “all you can eat fish fry” in Lent because we are only supposed to have one full meal each day. Gorging yourself is so not kosher.

  • http://www.truthandcharity.net Micah Murphy

    I think this custom developed as something over and above regular Lenten observance, before many of those observances were abrogated. Personally, I think the vegan Lent would be difficult and probably impractical in today’s world – it’s very hard to find foods without animal byproducts – but if the Church required abstinence from meat throughout Lent and all other Fridays, I would follow. I think our bishops need to ask more of us, lest someone think Christianity doesn’t make demands because it’s not worth the effort.

  • Arthur

    No real answers to the giving up one thing, but this lecture offers an overview of the Eastern Christian Fast with some notes about the tendency to lighten up the fast in the West: http://www.wyomingcatholiccollege.com/news/article/index.aspx?pageaction=ViewSinglePublic&LinkID=136&ModuleID=29&

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    Memory is failing me at this late stage of my life, but I seem to remember Lenten practices promoted in our small town (German-Polish) in Wisconsin when I attended Catholic grade school. As I recall, grade school children were not required to fast or abstain from meat during Lent in the forties and fifties (Before V2). Our teachers, good School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) promoted the notion that we children should “give up something for Lent”, also, so we might participate in the season. In our family of four, my brother and I ate no meat on Fridays, following the example of my parents. But I seem to remember our “fast” was moderated by a snack in the afternoon; otherwise, we ate as our parents ate, and carried peanut butter sandwiches for school lunches. As promoted by my Mother, abetted by my convert Father, and instilled by the good sisters, my brother and I gave up candy for Lent…..every year.

    I have been an “observant” Catholic all my life and followed the Church suggestions and guidelines and rules for Lent….like (practically) I was sleep-walking. But it took a retired Army colonel to shake my cob-webs. We both worked on the grounds team at our Parish, and I remarked one warm day in March that I was going to have a beer when I got home. Cheerfully, he said to me, “Mine will have to wait until Easter”. That simple statement affected both my appreciation of Lent, and my effort to prove I was stronger than alcohol for that forty-day period. That “one extra thing” should be something that is out of our “comfort zone”.

    I think that’s what the good sisters, My Mom and Dad, and the Army colonel had in mind……this is a special time; do something unique to make it so……something beyond the usual praying, fasting and almsgiving…..something you “owe” to G-d.

  • Bearing

    Julia wrote,
    “For those not in the know: it is particularly odd to see “all you can eat fish fry” in Lent because we are only supposed to have one full meal each day. Gorging yourself is so not kosher.”

    If you’re Roman Catholic, the “only one full meal” rule is for the two fast days, Ash
    Wednesday and Good Friday — not every day in Lent, and not even every Friday.

    Wanted to clear that up to avoid confusion. I do agree that billing it as “all you can eat” is rather against the spirit of the thing, but since it really just describes a pricing structure (you pay for entry, rather than á la carte), I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with it.

  • Megan

    Interesting piece. I have no clue if this is connected of even accurate. Before I converted to Catholicism, I remember being told by a world history professor in college that giving up meat on certain days was the Church’s way of dealing with low food supply issues. My understanding was that there was a lack of food in the “dark ages” and the Church had people fast on certain days year round. Again, this was NOT from someone I would consider a theologian or religious apologetic.
    I don’t “give something up” personally. As a Catholic, I learned that this is a time to get closer, spiritually, with God. Not drinking a Coke doesn’t get me closer to God. So, I try to ADD prayer and listening to religious CDs or EWTN in the car. I also don’t “brag” or even share what specific things I’m doing with others. I also make it a point to get to confession at least once duri g this time. My husband and I try to get there before we experience Mass if we believe we have committed a mortal sin and don’t take communion if we can’t covet there before that week’s Mass.
    My guess the “give one thing up” is simply something that became an easy way to observe the meaning of Lent that molded itself into something that seems to have lost its meaning somewhere through our culture. I mean, let’s get real. How many people who consider themselves to be”devout” Catholics really follow all the teachings? Less than 5% from what I hear just on the not using contraception teaching alone.

  • Julia

    I was thinking of the days when there were fasting and abstinence rules with real teeth.
    I’ve read that since people who do physical labor – like most people back in the day – were allowed to eat enough to keep up their strength, the “one full meal a day” was aimed at feasting lords and ladies and other gentlemen who did not work with their hands. The rules have changed vastly since Vatican II – I keep forgetting that.

  • Deb Brunsberg

    Lent is a penitential time so my understanding is that we are do penance, by offering up things that may not be good for us or even things that are good for us. The giving up of chocolate or food items is the easy thing to do. Giving up gossip or impatience or doing something that we don’t like to do, but which benefits others is an even greater offering. Turning from sin even better.
    All Fridays of the year are to be penitential days and we should be giving something up on those days year round. Lent is just something more and more often.

    I would bet that most Cheasters (Christmas and Easter only) Church goers are probably also Non-Con Cheasters. (no confession)
    Confession is an incredbile Sacrament and the grace is amazing. I can’t imagine only going once a year. Then again, I am a sinner. I need to go often.

    • George Reioux

      Canons 1250/1251 (from 1983 Code of Canon Law) says all Fridays throughout the year, not just during Lent, are days of abstinence from meat. The entire section:
      Canon 1249 All Christ’s faithful are obliged by divine law, each in his or her own way, to do
      penance. However, so that all may be joined together in a certain common practice of penance,
      days of penance are prescribed. On these days the faithful are in a special manner to devote
      themselves to prayer, to engage in works of piety and charity, and to deny themselves, by
      fulfilling their obligations more faithfully and especially by observing the fast and abstinence which the following Canons prescribe.
      Canon 1250 The days and times of penance for the universal Church are each Friday of the
      whole year and the season of Lent.
      Canon 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.
      Canon 1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The
      law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth
      year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are
      not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.
      Canon 1253 The Episcopal Conference can determine more particular ways in which fasting and
      abstinence are to be observed. In place of abstinence or fasting it can substitute, in whole or in
      part, other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.

      So it remains a practice of the universal church, with certain exceptions allowed. I have never seen where it was in fact done away with. This is separate from any Lenten practices…

  • http://redcardigan.blogspot.com/ Erin Manning

    Julia is right. I share this old blog post of mine for those interested:

    http://redcardigan.blogspot.com/2010/02/when-you-fast.html

    I suspect, though I do not know, that the “give something up” notion (and I never heard it had to be only one thing) was meant as a way for those not bound to fast to participate anyway in the penitential season. Remember that in the past large numbers of people were exempt (children, the elderly, pregnant or nursing women, those who couldn’t fast for health reasons, and those whose work was physically laborious, for example), but the Church clearly encouraged these people to join in with Lenten sacrifices in a different way.

  • http://www.pilgrimwoman.com Sue Korlan

    I am old enough to remember the pre-Vatican II days. We all gave up something then beyond what was required, so this is not a post-Vatican II thing at all.


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