It took a bit more effort to whip up my lunch today – and the irony was not lost on me.
The work (such as it was) involved gathering and mixing the ingredients for a tuna salad sandwich. Not an elaborate repast, by any stretch of the imagination. Still, the process required a noticeably higher level of engagement than the ham-and-cheese-on-rye…or warmed-up leftovers…that I typically consume at mid-day.
Ah…but today’s the first Friday in Lent. Which means “meat” is off-limits: “…no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice” said the US Catholic bishops in their Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence way back in 1966.
I’m happy to oblige with the requirement, even as I note that’s it not exactly a mortification. You see, I actually enjoy tuna salad. So in this case, I’m not “giving up” anything to mark the start of Lent. In point of fact, the tasty sandwich amounted to an indulgence…right down to the extra effort required to put it on the table.
Is it unholy, then…the fact that I enjoyed my not-quite-penitential sandwich?
It might well be, if I believed that an act of self-denial had power to remove the stain of sin or to heal my broken soul. That’s the work of grace, though, isn’t it? Redemption is Jesus’ job – not mine.
So what’s the point of fasting and abstinence, then? Why, for that matter, are we called to a deeper spirit of prayer and almsgiving during these 40 days?
There’s a clue, I think, in the very mindfulness required by these Lenten practices. As Catholic Christians, we are called to stop and think. ‘Hey, it’s Friday…’ We are reminded of our communion, our membership in the Body of Christ. The ashes on our foreheads set us apart…and we take note of that fact, if only for a moment.
The bishops put it this way:
We shall thus also remind ourselves that as Christians, although immersed in the world and sharing its life, we must preserve a saving and necessary difference from the spirit of the world. Our deliberate, personal abstinence from meat, more especially because no longer required by law, will be an outward sign of inward spiritual values that we cherish.
I love that word, cherish. It puts a whole new spin on our acts of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, don’t you think?
It means we can enjoy these ‘tuna salad days’ of Lent. They are reminders that we can be confident in Christ…the Bridegroom who never tires of inviting us to the feast.
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy & Merciful One.