Christians are now in the season of Lent, and we’re getting used to the absence of meat on Fridays (and perhaps on other days as well). I have often wondered why the meat of animals and birds were the subject of denial chosen by the Church during the season of fasting and penance. Recently I had heard that “fish was the poor man’s food” while “meats were the foods of luxury and the rich”. While this explanation seems to make sense to me, still some fish meals and caviar will bust anyone’s budget. I mean, I come from the Midwest, where beef is (I think still) the most normal dinner fare, not to mention chicken and pork. At least in this part of the world, these meats, one could argue, are not only the fare of the rich and famous. So, why the continued brakes on them?
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1275) offers a solution, and I theologically stumbled on it the other night. He connects the taste of meats, and the fact that animals are most like humans, to the vices of intemperance and lust. Simply put, he thinks that feasting on meats often leads to other satisfactions of the palate and touch (what big burger doesn’t go better with beer?) which can then slide into sexual desire and then lust. Of course not, that these desires are all evil, but that they need to be curbed in moderation, and thus become a “prime” target for the Church to aim its fasting sites. Let’s listen to Aquinas himself on the topic (Summa Theologiae II-II, Q 147, Art. 8), on “Fasting”…
…fasting was instituted by the Church in order to bridle the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connection with food and sex. Wherefore the Church forbade those who fast to partake of those foods which both afford most pleasure to the palate, and besides are a very great incentive to lust. Such are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and their products, such as milk from those that walk on the earth, and eggs from birds. For, since such like animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results…a great incentive to lust. Hence the Church has bidden those who fast to abstain especially from these foods.
Wishing you a continued happy Lent, and may all our fasting get us to Jesus…faster!