It’s easy to observe Ash Wednesday and Lent and totally miss the point. We’ll discuss here what they are truly about and how to follow them with an authentic faith that makes a difference in our lives.
I’d like to share some thoughts I have about our Lenten penitential practices. First of all, there is a common misunderstanding going on for many years now that penance is only for Lent. This is not true at all. There are other penitential days of the year, such as All Souls’ Day, January 22nd in reparation for the sin of legal abortion in the United States, and every Friday of the year! THE CHURCH NEVER REMOVED THE OBLIGATION TO PERFORM PENANCE ON ALL FRIDAYS OF THE YEAR!!! What happened was that, for several understandable reasons, the Church allowed people to replace abstinence from meat on Fridays outside of Lent with another form of penance without having to call their pastor and ask for his permission. But somehow that got commonly interpreted as “Friday penance is optional” or “You don’t have to do penance on Friday.” The only change was that, outside of Lent, while abstinence from meat is still the preferred form of penance, individuals are free to replace abstinence with another form of penance, but not to eliminate penance altogether! Not doing something penitential every Friday is something that should be brought to confession. During Lent, we are obliged to observe that Friday penance by abstaining from meat.
“Okay, so I’m good to go in that department; I never eat meat on Fridays!” Great! But now let’s take it one step further: what is the purpose for abstaining from meat? It is so that we do penance. Since we all like meat, we give it up as a sacrifice. Lots of people, however, don’t eat meat but instead go out to a seafood restaurant and have lobster. I don’t know about you, but I’ll give up a hamburger for a lobster any day! While technically we obeyed the letter of the law: “lobster is not meat, so I did not eat meat on Friday,” neither did we do any penance. We obeyed the letter of the law but ignored the reason for the law. Now imagine you’re eating a succulent lobster dinner and say to the waiter, “This glaze on the lobster is delicious! What’s in it?” and he tells you, “Oh, the cook uses several herbs and a chicken bouillon base!” You gasp, “Oh, no! I ate chicken on Friday! I’ve sinned!” To be honest, the chicken bouillon in the glaze that you didn’t even know was there is not nearly as sinful as skirting the obligation to do penance by eating a lobster. Or imagine you decide to have a lasagna dinner but make sure it’s cheese lasagna instead of meat lasagna. Well, again, the letter of the law is fulfilled, but where is the penance? So instead, I recommend having something you don’t like as much. I remember my mother making lentil soup, pasta e fagioli (a.k.a. pasta fazool!), buttered noodles & fish cakes, or other items that made us look forward to having our meat again. So let’s all try to observe the true meaning of going meatless – to do penance – and avoid succumbing to the temptation to get around the requirement by having delicious meatless meals. After all, that’s what Jesus blasted the Pharisees for doing and called them hypocrites. Let’s be sincere and keep our Friday meals simple.