Well known for being the reason behind the creation of the McDonald’s Fillet-o-Fish, and the fantastic tradition of buffalo wings, fish on Friday is one of the more well-known Catholic fasting traditions. But why do Catholics eat fish on Friday?
From Jewish roots
In actual fact, fasting from meat on Fridays can be traced all the way back to the earliest Christian communities who continued many Jewish fasting traditions that were first laid down in the Old Testament (Leviticus 11 & 23:26-32).
Before the start of Christianity, pious Jews would fast from most animal products on certain days of the week, often determined by their own cultural background. The new Christian community adopted this for Wednesdays and Fridays. They did this because Wednesday was the day that Jesus was betrayed and Friday was when he was crucified. While Eastern Catholics tend to keep this practice for both days, in the West, historically it has only been important to fast on Friday, while Wednesday is suggested as a good additional day.
At this point, you’re probably wondering why fish is allowed if the fast is meant to be from animal products. It’s a good question and actually has a really interesting reason behind it.
The biblical links
The traditional Catholic allowance for fish on days of abstinence has a mystical relationship to the episode of the Great Flood of Noah, in which it rained forty days and forty nights. This has always been linked to Lent as both are forty-day periods of universal cleansing.
During this time, Noah and his family ate fish, since they were not permitted to eat the animals on board the ark. Moreover, the fish were preserved in the Great Flood (fish can swim), but land animals were not (they drowned). For this reason fish has always been exempt from meat-based fasts.
Amusingly, with this logic there have been several concessions throughout the years that the Church has said are also animals that can be eaten on Friday such as penguins and puffins, both of whom were considered to not break this rule.
The spiritual fruit
Lastly, we can often regard fasting as a burden that makes our days less fun, but at its core fasting is something that should allow us to live life more to the full. When we actively choose to deny ourselves something, it prevents that thing controlling our life. By cutting out a regular feature of our normal diet once or twice a week, we hope to prevent ourselves becoming enslaved to food. Essentially, we are fasting so that when we eat, we eat to live rather than live to eat.
Finally, while here in England and Wales we practice this every Friday, in other parts of the Catholic world, the Bishops have chosen to do other fasts instead. While abstaining from most forms of meat is a great regular abstinence, it’s not the only way we can learn to have a healthy relationship with our material goods!