I probably shouldn’t admit this in front of my grandchildren, but I am a fan of McDonald’s fish sandwiches. When I was a young lawyer in San Francisco, my firm’s office was right across Market Street from a McDonald’s, and every day for a year, I had two fish sandwiches and a chocolate shake for lunch. I am ashamed. But I still like them.
As it happens, the Filet-O-Fish was invented in 1962 for people like me. At that time, Catholics abstained from meat on all Fridays, not just during Lent. The owner of Cincinnati’s first McDonald’s needed something besides hamburgers to feed his largely Catholic clientele, and proposed the sandwich to Ray Kroc. It was a hit. Still is, with some people.
The business of fasting and abstinence has inspired some other, more theologically significant, menu alternatives too. The Swiss Reformation began in 1522 over “the affair of the sausages,” as it is called. Ulrich Zwingli, a pastor in Zurich, defended a local printer for eating sausage in violation of the Lenten fast.
This was long before the invention of the Filet-O-Fish, but I don’t think it would have mattered to Zwingli. For him, there was a principle at stake. He thought, as Luther did, that we are justified by faith and not by works; and that the guide to Christian life is Scripture alone, not church rules. Christians, he maintained, should do as they please about fasting.
It remains true that different Christian denominations have different Lenten observances. For most Protestants, fasting is optional, and abstinence from meat is unheard of. Zwingli’s anti-Lent streak is still a popular one. I recently read an op-ed by a thoughtful Reformed pastor encouraging Christians to “Repent of Lent.” Jesus, he wrote, “fasted for 40 days in the wilderness on our behalf, so we wouldn’t have to; not as a model, but as a substitute.” On this basis he argued against fasting altogether.
But if we’re going to look to Scripture for direction, there’s little doubt about what we should be doing. Ash Wednesday Mass gives us the words of Jesus himself. “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.” And again, “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”
These instructions are bracketed with commands about how to give alms (“Do not let your left hand know what your right is doing”) and how to pray (“This is how you are to pray: Our Father …”). Prayer, almsgiving and fasting. These are the playbook for Lent.
Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus foretold not only his own death, but also his disciples’ subsequent practice of penance and mourning: “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
The solid scriptural basis helps explain why Christians fasted from the very earliest days of the faith. In the mid-300s, the Synod of Gangra already treated “the fasts commonly prescribed and observed by the church” as ancient, established practices.
Our mortifications were once quite severe. They have been significantly relaxed. (I doubt I get half credit for eating fish sandwiches on Fridays.) But fasting is something Jesus instructed us to do.
We would look askance at a Christian who worked on Christmas Day instead of reveling in seasonal joy. For similar reasons, we should welcome the modest penitential practices that the church enjoins on us in the season leading up to Christ’s passion.