Why Penance? Why Friday? Why Fish?
I grew up near Lake Erie. Every so often our neighbor Joe brought my mother some fish he caught. She was grateful, except for the fact that she would have to clean and debone them.
You might wonder why we Catholics eat fish on Lenten Fridays. It began when Christians gave up meat as a penance, a way to atone for sin. In those early days, meat was expensive, the food of the wealthy, and a treat enjoyed mostly on feast days. Therefore it would hurt to give it up. On the other hand, fish, which was cheap and abundant, made a good substitute for meat. (Meat comes from mammals, not fish.)
Today, fish can be more expensive than meat. Besides, many people actually prefer fish to meat. There’s not much penance in going out for a lobster dinner. Better to eat liver or kale as penance.
Why do penance on Friday? That was the “good” day Jesus died for our sins. You might recall that Catholics used to abstain from meat every Friday of the year. Because this is no longer much of a penance and a growing number of vegans don’t eat meat anyway, in 1966, our U.S. bishops declared that some form of penance be practiced every Friday in honor of our salvation, but it needn’t be giving up meat.
Although it’s possible to eat macaroni and cheese or a vegetable casserole dish instead of meat on Lenten Fridays, fish has become popular. In fact, fast food chains and restaurants have taken advantage of this and compete with our church fish fries. Fish is the Friday meal of choice for several reasons. (One reason is NOT that the pope commanded it to boost the Portuguese fishing industry. That is a fish tale!)
Fish play an important role in Scripture. Jonah was saved and repented when a big fish swallowed him. Tobias caught a fish and banished a demon by burning the fish’s innards. Then he cured his blind father, Tobit, with the gall of the fish. The New Testament is swimming with fish. There are no less than six Gospel accounts of Jesus multiplying loaves and fish for thousands of people to eat. Almost all of the apostles were fishermen, and Jesus called them to be “fishers of people.” After the apostles had no luck fishing all night, Jesus, the carpenter, helped them catch boatloads of fish. And after the resurrection, Jesus made it possible for seven discouraged apostles with empty nets to catch fish—153. Someone must have counted them. That day the risen Lord cooked a breakfast of bread and fish (what else?) on the shore for his friends.
Moreover, the fish became a symbol of Christianity. This is because the Greek word for fish, ichthus, consists of the initials of Iesous, CHristos, THeou, Uios, Soter—Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. Supposedly, in the days of persecution, Christians secretly identified each other by the sign of a fish.
If you will enjoy fish meals on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent, you might adopt something else as a penance on these days, maybe an act of mercy in this Year of Mercy—like cooking a meal for the poor or a homebound person.
What have you done as penance on Fridays? What will you do?
I grew up eating fish on Fridays year round. I still do it, mostly because I don’t want to forget to do it during lent. I know, bad reason.
I have to agree with you on adopting something else for lent. I guess I will have to set some time aside for some discernment.
One thing though. That 153 is significant. Do you know why?
Hi Mark! This is a quotation from my book “The Catholic Companion to Jesus”:
“Scripture scholars think that because the story makes a point of saying that the fish were large and gives the exact number it must have been relayed by one of the fishermen present. The number 153 has been explained to be the number of known species of fish and therefore symbolized that the apostles were to “catch” the whole world.”
Have a holy and blessed Lent!
I once heard 153 were the number of nations around the world that the “fisherman” we’re to cast their nets.
Interesting. Thanks for adding that explanation, Joe.