Fish on Fridays

Catholics are well known for their fish-on-Fridays tradition. Of course, we are not required to eat fish on Fridays; weíre required to avoid meat on Fridays, and fish are somehow not considered meat. (In the USA we may replace this Friday abstinence rule with some form of penance, except during Lent.) For some people, who donít like fish, this seems to be a kind of penitential practice. For people like me, however, who like fish, there is nothing penitential about it. Itís actually kind of nice.

What is the source of this tradition, which is widespread in the Church, both East and West? There have been so many speculative theories, generally pointing to some pragmatic condition of history. For example, a popular anti-Catholic story is of a medieval pope who invented the rule to help out his brother-in-law who owned a fish market. Itís a funny story, but this tradition started earlier than the middle ages, nor does this story explain why the Eastern Church also follows the practice. Another idea is that once upon a time people primarily ate meat, so giving it up was truly penitential as there was little else available Ė a sort of back-door approach into fasting. Yet we already have traditions of fasting, so we donít need a back door. The list goes on and on.

Letís look at the day of the week chosen to avoid meat: Friday. This is the 6th day of the week, a day with plenty of meaning in salvation history.

And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds." And it was so. 25 And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps upon the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 26 Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.Ö 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day. (Gen 1:24-27, 31)

For the ancient rabbis, the sixth day of creation was an important day. It was the day the beasts of the earth were created, and among the beasts was man. They concluded that, by nature, man is just another animal. But God used a phrase during His creation of man: He created man ďin our image, after our likeness,Ē which is a Hebrew idiom referring to the relationship between a father and his child. And as soon as He did this, God established the Sabbath, the seventh day. The rabbis identified the sixth day as the day man was an animal and they identified the seventh day as the day man was raised to divinity. (We might think man was raised to divinity on the sixth day, but letís remember the book of Genesis was written thousands of years ago in a very different land and culture. We must read it the way the people of that time and place read it; based on ancient rabbinical commentary, they saw animal-man on the sixth day and divine-man on the seventh. So should we.)

It is a basic doctrine of Christianity that humans are a hybrid creature composed of body and soul. No other creature shares this characteristic. Animals do not possess rational souls; angels have no physical bodies. We are, in fact, each an animal in which God places an immortal soul. Furthermore, thanks to original sin, the souls within us are spiritually ďdeadĒ unless they are revived by grace, through baptism. Before grace, I appear to be just another animal. After grace Iím a child of God. This is much as it was described above in the Genesis text. For Christians, then, the meaning of the sixth day, Friday, is a memorial of my effective animal life without grace. (And we can consider the Saturday Sabbath as a memorial of our resurrection into the life of grace, except that we have a new kind of grace in Jesus and weíve chosen to memorialize that in a new eighth day Sabbath. More on that another time.)

So, how shall we keep this Friday memorial to our former animal life without grace? Traditionally, we do so by not eating the flesh of such animals. If we are what we eat, then we are not what we do not eat. The animals of the sixth day of creation were those that walk or creep upon the ground. Note that it does not include the creatures of the fifth day.

And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the firmament of the heavens." 21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." 23 And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day. (Gen 1:20-23)

Our Friday memorial ought to allow us to eat fish and birds, then. We allow ourselves to eat fish on Fridays, but why not birds? I donít know, but Iíll speculate that birds also walk on the ground, like the sixth day animals, therefore were included in the prohibition.

Finally, I have to ask: Why food? Why donít we have a Friday memorial prayer, or candle-lighting ceremony, etc? Why do we abstain from some particular type of food? It seems almost ironic that we remember our break with the animals by feeding our animal nature. Food is chosen because ďyou are what you eatĒ is meaningful in religion and gives rise to several traditions involving food and drink. For example, the OT frequently invokes an aspect of covenant holiness that requires one to be set apart from others, to be consecrated to God instead of the world. The symbol of the covenant oath was a festive meal, eating from an animal that had been sacrificed to God; the sacrifice of the animal was effectively a consecration of that animal to God, the animal no longer having a worldly purpose, but a divine one. By eating of such an animal, we partake of the nature of the sacrifice, to be ourselves consecrated to God. Another example par excellence is the Holy Eucharist; we eat Christís flesh, so that we can literally become Christís flesh, His Mystical Body. We see, then, that eating or not eating food has always been used as an important religious element, going all the way back to Adam & Eve with a fruit on a tree they were told not to eat.

Summary: On Friday, the memorial of our primordial union with animals, we abstain from eating those animals that walk on the ground to remember that we are no longer one of them. Through grace, we are now children of God.

Can. 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. (Code of Canon Law, Collins Liturgical Publications, London, 1983)