Saturday, February 04, 2012

Fish on Fridays

Very often scruples concerning the form of our religious practices can distract from the purpose of the practice itself. Let me offer an example from my own tradition. Lutherans, together with many other Christians around the world, observe the season of Lent. This is a six week, forty day season of preparation, a journey towards the week when we commemorate Christ's death and resurrection.  These special final days--Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter (sometimes called the Triduum, or Three Days)--are the shape our worship takes to tell what Jesus then means for us as Jesus now.

The Lenten season begins with Ash Wednesday (February 22), a penitential day on which our churches mark the foreheads of the faithful with the sign of the cross in ashes, remembering our mortality. In some communities (most famously New Orleans), Ash Wednesday is preceded by Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), a time for carnivals and festivities in order to get fatty and rich foods and habits out of the system in preparation for the leaner Lenten journey.

Historically, Christians have observed various kinds of fasts during Lent, sometimes complete fasts (no food, only water), but more typically abstention from certain kinds of foods, especially meat. The most famous of these practices was a meatless Friday. Christians could eat fish on Friday, but not regular meats.

McDonalds knows that many Christians still give up meat on Fridays in Lent, so a few years ago they came out with a new sandwich, a double fish fillet meal. The first time I saw this advertised, it made me so mouth-wateringly hungry that I immediately went through the drive-thru and ordered some of that processed food goodness. There really is nothing like frozen fish deep batter fried and breaded and slobbered with tartar sauce in a pasty white bun. The whole thing just screams "Lenten Fast!"

However, as any rational person can observe (not me, I'm still ravenously chomping on my sandwich), eating a two patty fish sandwich does not really count as a "fast." It's an example of a practice that has come completely untethered from the original purpose of fasting during Lent. It's not at all clear how it honors the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

At this point, the pious anti-ritualists swoop in and say, "Hey, look, all of these rituals made up by human beings are wrong. Don't observe them. Just believe in Jesus." Or I think they say something like that. So there are many Christian communities that refuse to observe Lent or other church seasons because they perceive them as too ritualistic or distracting. There is some validity to their concerns, but by throwing the baby out with the bath-water, they divest themselves of a wonderful opportunity to live an embodied faith. As problematic as practices might be inasmuch as they distract us from the core purpose of the practice, they still are the primary way we live out our faith. Practices really do make us who we are, and reinforce what we believe in substantive ways.

Which is why I like my own tradition's approach to rituals. Our confessional document says, "Concerning church regulations made by human beings, it is taught to keep those that may be kept without sin and that serve to maintain peace and good order in the church, such as specific celebrations, festivals, etc. However, people are also instructed not to burden consciences with them as if such things were necessary for salvation. Moreover, it is taught that all rules and traditions made by human beings for the purpose of appeasing God and of earning grace are contrary to the gospel and the teaching concerning faith in Christ." 

Feel free to translate this insight into your own religious context. The point is this: keep your traditions and religious practices inasmuch as they strengthen your faith, and maintain peace and good order with your neighbors. But keep a close watch over them, and when they start to burden your conscience, take some time to revisit how and why you engage in the practice, and make sure it is furthering in positive ways the journey of faith on which you have been called. 

Is that a double fish fillet I hear calling?


  1. I ran into something similar a few years back. It has been my family's tradition to eat fish on Fridays (my father had been raised Catholic) and I always ate fish on Good Friday. Well, I had been having a hard time finding a place to eat on one Good Friday and so I ran to a local buffet chain. I have never returned. The notion of going to an all-you-can-eat trough on a fast day was ironically ludicrous. I ate a small plate of fish and a couple of sides and left.

  2. I should add that as a long time resident of Wisconsin, I am totally in favor of fish fries. And fries. And large bowls of tartar sauce. And I'm in favor of healthy Lenten fasts. I think that is an example of a Lutheran paradox.

  3. There is a Wendy's along the route to my Friday evening church, so their fish sandwich has become my Lenten tradition. There is a McDonald's not too far away from there, but I just can't bring myself to eat a sandwich in a shape that is not naturally occurring in the ocean!