*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 27th of December 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
It’s time to go to the mailbag-
Hi Dan! Question for the mailbag: when did Fish Fridays start? Why was it decided that fish didn’t count in terms of fasting? Maybe a particular reading of scripture? Who decided fish wasn’t meat? Sam claimed that this was outside of her field and said I should put it in the mailbag.
You may wonder, who is Sam? Sam Leanza Ortiz, our intrepid guest host, is married to Patrick Ortiz, who I now know as a friend and former student. But a great question also lets me talk about one of my favorite animals: the capybara.
Quickly, the question is: why do some Roman Catholics eat fish on Fridays?
To start this answer- ask yourself to what extent eating is a moral action. Think of the world’s religions- almost all have a dietary code. Some are strict, some are archaic, and some are cultural. Ask yourself- is any food off-limits to you for moral reasons? I’ve had a few dishes I would not repeat, but I recognize my lack of moral peccadillos over the food I eat compared to the world's historical population. Part of this is being a modern fellow. Part of this has to do with being a Christian.
Christianity is pretty revolutionary here. Take Mark 7 with Jesus calling all foods clean, or Peter in Acts 10, who is given a vision of all foods being made clean, and Paul in Romans 14 observes that people can still have hangups, but food can’t defile you.
As for the question “why fish on Fridays” can lead us into some murky and uncomfortable territory for us moderns, in a post Enlightenment, Encyclopedia/Wikipedia age, we expect that questions have answers. And “the right” answer at that. And sometimes, stuff starts happening, and we can reverse engineer answers from custom, but that’s about it.
The most straightforward short answer is that from the 1st century, Christians began a habit of remembering and reliving the passion of Christ from Friday to Sunday. And thus, every Friday became a “Good Friday,” and therefore, fasting was called for. And since the early medieval era, we know that beef was a delicacy in many places where the church was nurtured and thus off-limits when fasting.
But as anyone with children knows- as soon as you make a rule, you have to start fending off the “what about” questions…
One of the earlier distinctions was between warm-blooded and cold-blooded animals. Jesus was warm-blooded, and thus, those are off limits, but not cold-blooded animals. I can’t tell you how cool it would be if, in honor of the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christians ate snakes, but that never caught on.
Soon a distinction was made in the new world between land animals and sea animals, and then the church had to answer for those land animals that spent much time near and in the water. Beavers and Capybaras were also prevalent, cheap, and favored to eat. And so the church made its call: beavers and capybaras can count as aquatic animals, thus making it kosher to eat them on penitential days.
Of course, the fish has a long identification with Jesus. He multiplied loaves of bread and fish. He called a fisherman. He ate fish after his resurrection to prove that he wasn’t a ghost. Early Christians drew a picture of a fish to self-identify, and they made an acrostic for the Greek word for fish, Icthus. Ίησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ (Jesus Christ, son of God, Savior).
In 1966 the United States Conference of Bishops declared:
“We hereby terminate the traditional law of abstinence binding under pain of sin, as the sole prescribed means of observing Friday, we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law.”
And despite McDonald’s Filet O’ Fish being explicitly created for Catholics to eat on Fridays, many in the Roman church have jumped to the burger on Friday. I say anything to save the cute capybaras.
The Last Word for today comes from Mark 7:
14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus, he declared all foods clean.)
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 27th of December 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who knows that the capybara eats its feces but can’t stay angry at those cute little guys… he is Christoper Gillespie
The show is written and read by a man who might recommend a panko-crusted barramundi to you with sweet potato fries and a vinegar Coleslaw. I am Dan van Voorhis
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.