It’s Lent. You pass on the steak and settle for shrimp.
It’s a small sacrifice — very small, even meaningless, some would say.
Others think we need to ramp up the mortification. Still, I don’t know if they want to go back to the beginning, to the Black Fast of the medieval Church. There was some serious purgation: one meager meal after sunset. Meat, eggs and dairy products were not on the menu.
By the 10th century, you could see the slippery slope begin to form. The one anticipated meal was moved to 3 p.m. and then to noon. People still whined (which without the “h” was forbidden during Lent) and the hungry hierarchy relented with an evening snack.
Within five centuries, they added a morning collation as well. Before long, the Lenten diet for the poor was pretty much the same as the rest of the year.
A big change came in the early 20th century. Abstinence was separated from fasting, and moral theologians jumped on an unprotected prey. Some argued that even a broth was mortal. Others set the bar in ounces, allowing a venial bite. You wonder about a God Who puts you on the eternal grill for a Whopper, but lets a White Castle slide.
It’s not about the meat, the purported sin or even the penance. Jesus didn’t tell the woman caught in adultery or the palsied man in Matthew to dress in sackcloth or make a novena. He just forgave their sins and lifted both to their feet. It is the grace of God and not our corporal acts that heal the heart.
Still, it’s good to forego the meat. It is repair, not reparation. It is something extraordinary to knock us out of the numbness of the ordinary, not a deprivation but a detour that opens us to a different way.
We know it’s working when the focus is not what we have given up, but what we have gained. When it works, there is a sense of something else, a tingle from tongue to toe with attentiveness to the presence of God.
That takes more than a tuna melt, but it is a place to start.
This reflection was originally published in March of 2010.