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: