A few days ago, I mused about whether or not it is appropriate for one to take a respite from one’s Lenten fast on Sundays. The most fair answer, as far as I could see it, was that although one would not be obligated to take such a break, a respite from the Lenten fast is appropriate to the spirit of the day – the Resurrection – and thus could reasonably (and perhaps should) be undertaken.
Now today, as the eve of the Annunciation (March 25th) approaches, we have another rousing question sometimes discussed amongst my observant Catholic friends: what of solemn feasts that fall on Fridays in Lent? Solemnities are days of such great rejoicing in the Church, commemorating the Resurrection, or the great events of salvation history, while Fridays are the primary days of penance. How to reconcile those years when St. Joseph’s Day, or the Annunciation (or for those lucky dioceses with St. Patrick as patron, his solemnity) fall on a Friday in Lent?
Thankfully, this time I went straight to Canon Law before beginning my wild speculations. Here we have canon 1251:
Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
This brings up a lesser-known point that (I think) not even many of my observant friends realize and thus fail to practice: it’s not just Fridays in Lent but ALL Fridays that are days of abstinence, of penance. True, according to the norms set down in Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution Poenitemini, the local conference of bishops may determine that this penance need not necessarily be abstinence from meat. This is so apparently because meat is now so commonplace that it is not as much of a sacrifice*. However, according to this pastoral document released in light of Pope Paul’s by the USCCB in 1966, the bishops hold the opinion that
Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday… we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. (24)
So, all Fridays are still in essence days of abstinence from meat, unless you consciously sacrifice something else in place of eating meat. In my interpretation, I would say the conscious bit is a must – if you’re not giving something else up consciously, it isn’t really a sacrifice. Of course, this could be said for people who mindlessly travel to the fish fry on Fridays without thinking twice about it being a sacrifice, but that’s a discussion for that particular person and his spiritual director/conscience.
BUT, to get to the point already, Canon 1251 also notes that Fridays are days of abstinence “unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday.” This means, plain and simple, that Solemnities falling on Fridays are NOT days of penance or abstinence. So, you can eat meat. Even extend the point I made last post about your personal Lenten fast to solemnities outside Sunday. You SHOULD eat meat. Eat the candy, drink the beer, whatever. Celebrate! It’s the Annunciation, for cryin’ out loud – without this, Lent wouldn’t be happening anyways!
The philosophical point that backs all this up is that although the Catholic Church does (and should!) take penance very seriously, the Church is primarily a place of rejoicing, of celebration, of happiness. Thus, when a hugely important commemoration such as the day that Our Lady said “Yes” to God and allowed Christ to come into the world via her womb, we should be joyful and celebrate accordingly. Let that mean what it will for you, according to your conscience. But I do exhort you, celebrate and bring a little authentic penance-honed joy to this dismal modern world of ours.
For those who are uptight about the reprieve on Solemnities because it takes away from the fullness of Lent’s 40 penitential days, remember in the comments to the last post, where Andy pointed out there are only 38 penitential days in Lent anyways, when you exclude Sundays. Make it 36 because of St. Joseph and Our Lady, and you ain’t hurting the symbolic 40 all that much.
One final point. I realize that my last two posts have been all about how you can get around your Lenten fasts (if you want to look at it that way). This is only because, as I have argued, these days demand rejoicing (remember the reading from Nehemiah), yet so many people do not know. On all those ferial days in Lent, fast, fast, fast away until Easter comes! (But when it comes, rejoice!)
* As an aside, the relaxing of mandatory abstinence from meat on Fridays seems counterintuitive. Meat is more commonplace now, a part of everyday life, so it should be more of a sacrifice than it once was, right? It’s the things that are so commonplace yet not-so-necessary to us that are hardest to sacrifice. However, the point about giving up other things – in our day text messaging, Facebook, etc. – that might be more penitential for each particular person seems legitimate. Still, I think it is useful and salutary to the faithful to have a universal norm to give them guidance, especially when there is such an under-education on the nature of penance amongst modern Catholics.