Fishy Fridays in Lent
The symbol above which resembles a fish was used when Christianity was still illegal. It was a sign that Christians were welcome to meet, greet and eat with other Christians. Even if you do not read The Bible, certainly most know the story of how Jesus feeds a massive crowd of thousands with just two fish and five loaves of bread.
Lent is the season where Jesus fasted and wandered the dessert for 40 days before the Last Supper (Passover) and was put to death on a Friday (Good Friday) before rising from the dead, better known as Easter Sunday
Growing up in a strict Roman Catholic Italian family, we never ate meat on Friday, Lent or not. It was always homemade pizza night. Not a bad deal at all. I still dream of the day when I can even come close to how my mother made it. Our Sicilian cousins always ate fish and Saturday was pizza night. One thing is certain, no Italians eat meat on Friday, Lent or not. Sometimes my mother did put pepperoni on the pizza, but never on a Friday in Lent. The pepperoni was replaced with sliced black olives instead.
Outside of that, why Italians only eat fish on Fridays is widely open to interpretation based on myths and legends. There is one story where a Medieval Pope (the head of the Vatican and Holy Roman Catholic Church) wanted to boost the sale of fish and seafood. Seafood was something only the poor on the coastal regions ate because they could not afford meats like the rich in the mountains. My how times have changed. But just so you know or are keeping count, 3 days when Italian Catholics only eat fish, no meat outside of Fridays in Lent, are Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and Christmas Eve.
Now the intellectual and spiritual reason for fish on Friday is simple. Since Jesus died on a Friday, any observant Catholic should not be feasting on the flesh of red meat of a warm blooded animal. Jesus was given as the lamb that was put on Earth to take away the sins of the world. The other reason is far more simple and is just to keep in mind to make a conscious effort to avoid meat to remember your religion and spirituality. As far as I am concerned, no one is going to hell because they eat meat on Friday, just as Jews can eat bacon or lobster if they wish regardless of what the Old Testament of The Bible suggests. Any document that has been translated into hundreds of languages over thousands of years needs to be taken with a grain of salt, no pun intended. And no, that does not include exceptions murder, adultery, lying or stealing.
To this day I feel guilty if I eat meat on Friday even though I’ve had many personal issues with the Catholic Church and now just call myself Christian instead of a recovering Catholic. For me an all my friends who grew up at Italian Americans, we jokingly refer to Friday as the original “Meatless Monday”. Many of us still observe, others acknowledge that it was something our parents instilled in us but we only remember as a childhood memory growing up.
My dear friend Victor died in the Spring of 2012 after a bout with cancer and chemo treatments. One of the last times we had a great Calabrian lunch together was the first Friday in Lent, just weeks before he died. He brought out some homemade Calabrese salumi. He poured some of the wine we made last October and started to slice the delicious dry cured meat. I hesitated for a minute though I had not taken Communion in years. He looked at me and asked what is wrong. I told him it was the first Friday in Lent. He hesitated for a minute and said “As my mother always said… Non preoccuparti di quello che metti in bocca, preoccupati delle parole che ne derivano.” Which translated means “don’t worry about what you put in your mouth, worry about the words that come out of it”. Nearly 40 years my elder, and more of a father figure than a friend, I learned a valuable lesson. Obviously first never insult the host, but more importantly, watch what you say whether it be in the company of friends or enemies. You can never take back words. However, in this case I was glad I made a mistake because it taught me a life lesson and gave me a very great memory and moment with a man I admired.
There was one other instance I can recall where I learned a lesson but not as important. When I worked in New York by boss was a strict Irish Catholic. He sent out an email to the entire staff stating that since it was St. Patrick’s Day everyone was welcome to join him after work at the Irish pub downstairs at the building next door. This year it just so happened that it was also Good Friday. I got along well with my boss most of the time, and being a wise ass and a fellow Catholic I pointed this out to him (of course via email) and he shot another email back telling me that the feast of a solemnity took precedence over any day in Lent. Another lesson learned.
Years later I am filming a wedding and once again it is Good Friday. It is at one of the most famous catering halls in all of New Jersey (The Venetian), who are known for their food, of every kind and culture. The Monsignor gets up to the head table of the bride and groom and before he gives the blessing he tells us that many people came up to him asking him if it was ok to eat meat today. He explains that while it is important to be observant of season, the fact that there is a life celebration and we even have to ask or consider eating meat reflects the fact that we are already more observant that most of the rest of the population of Christians or Catholics.
The moral of the story, at least for me, is that yes, avoid meat, not just in Fridays during Lent, but don’t feel too guilty. The dietary law was man-made, perhaps after personal or economical reasons, and life’s great moments with friends should not be over shadowed by that. So if it is a wedding, sure, have those baby lamb chops being passed by waiters, but if you are home alone, definitely replace that pepperoni on the pizza with black olives just to remember that there are people who made sacrifices for us. More importantly, we should concern ourselves more about making sacrifices too like donating old clothes or canned food items to local food pantries rather than feeling guilty about eating pepperoni pizza.