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WEEKLY REFLECTIONS

~ Penance and Obligation ~


To the amusement of many Christians, the Roman Catholic Church is still believed to require "sacrificing" the consumption of meat on Fridays. The amusement comes in the form of statements such as, "Sure, I'll sacrifice my meat in favor of a lobster dinner on Fridays!"

I suggest a guiding practice for all of us which has helped me in my learning: Don't ask a protestant source what the orthodox churches teach; don't ask an orthodox source what the protestants believe; don't ask a protestant or catholic what the U.S. Native Americans believe or about Indian Hindu spirituality; don't ask a German Third Reich army veteran about the Jewish experience of the holocaust; don't ask a holocaust survivor of the Third Reich's veteran's viewpoint; and don't ask someone else other than me what I believe. Ask the source.

Regarding this denial of eating meat on Fridays, I went to the source. I learned it was not intended as a "sacrifice" as we think of it. (I immediately understood, since the Psalms frequently refer to the "sacrifice of thanksgiving" and the "sacrifice of praise".) Sacrifice is not necessarily a hardship, but an act that brings us out of ourselves into God. So when I praise God, I am not praising myself, thus being self-sacrificing.

Giving up meat on Fridays would not be a "sacrifice" in the traditional sense for vegetarians. They do it every day. There are many days (frequently weekly) when I find myself not interested in eating at all. Some days I'm just immersed in work that food doesn't enter my mind's desire. I, myself, am amused at what some traditions considering "fasting." For instance, in some Christian circles "fasting" means eating only three small meals a day. In the Islamic Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown. There are many times I don't eat during daylight hours due to work! The Ramadan fast isn't a fast for me, but a way of life. So we poke fun at each other's proclivities.

The arrogance of poking fun must be transcended by understanding. Prior to the first session of the Vatican Council II that began on October 11, 1962, the prohibition of the Roman Catholic Church of consuming meat on Fridays was not meant to be a sacrifice but a reminder. If every Friday we abstain from meat, we are reminded of the special sacredness and historical significance of Fridays. It is a bookmarker in our liturgical cycle to remember Christ's passion, similar to the practice of attending church services every Sunday, a reminder of Christ's resurrection. These we celebrate weekly, not just during this Lent and Easter season.

The Roman Catholic Church is not easily steered away from its thousand plus years of tradition. And there still are protestant denominations who "religiously" (so to speak) cannot let go of claiming the King James version of the Bible (commissioned in the early 1600s) is the only true and authentic translation, despite its documented errors and archaic, difficult language. To its credit, the RC Church recognized 44 years ago that some of its traditions needed modernization. (Note that I am not speaking of its doctrines, which have not been "modernized," also to its credit.) One of them was the growing meaningless of congregants' denial of meat consumption on Fridays. So the Council redefined that "obligation."

So I quote from the source, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition, 2000: "[1431] Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, and end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one's life, with hope in God's mercy and trust in the help of his grace. This conversion of heart is accompanied by a salutary pain and sadness which the Fathers called animi cruciatus (affliction of the spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of heart.)...

"[1438] The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church's penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimage as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works)."

If you don't ever eat meat, then not eating meat on Fridays will not remind you of the significance of that day. If you are a meat eater, than deliberately substituting it for fish will remind you, the intent of which is to have your mind and spirit focus, weekly, not just yearly, on Christ's passion. I am not a Catholic apologist, nor one of any denomination, but I do appreciate the intent of such practices and incorporate them into my own life.

So the Vatican II Council wisely left such practices to the people, who are to decide, voluntarily, what "sacrifices" or practices helps them remember the significance of Fridays and Sundays. Enter human nature: When a church does not declare a practice as an "obligation," people tend to feel free to discount as important to incorporate into their daily living and forget to institute the voluntary spiritual practices. The Roman Catholic Church still mandates its obligations, as did the protestant Puritans. In the Puritan establishments in US history, if a congregant did not show up for church services, he or she was personally visited by the elders for an explanation, and, if in their judgment it wasn't legitimate, was punished. Protestant churches today have no such obligations, while the Orthodox churches still do. Which is the better practice?

Maybe that's modern thinking. After all, if I am obligated to attending a service or liturgical rite, modern thinking says "That is force, and if I am forced to worship God or participate in a communion service or whatever, it is not of my heart and therefore not right." Obligations are a bad thing today, at least in religious practices. However, even the secular world honors them. Are we not obligated to our spouses, to our friends, our children, our jobs, our nation and our beliefs? There are secular consequences to our neglecting these obligations. So why are we indignant when our churches obligate us?

Don't we embrace these obligations? If we consider them to contradict our "hearts" and "freedom," then we best not get married, have children, foster relationships, or enter into contracts with our employers. All these require obligations, good ones, and our churches should require them as well.

I recently heard a homilist joke, "Don't give up chocolate or coffee for Lent. You will only make others miserable with your moods." Indeed, Lenten practices are not about denying ourselves these trivialities. It is more about to what we are giving in and giving to than giving up, unless, of course, we are giving up our selves and egos, which is what Christ mandated in order to follow Him into eternal life.

Trusting that all of us, of the Orthodox and Protestant traditions, can learn from one another, I also trust we can all agree on this: "First he [Christ] said, 'Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them' (although the law required them to be made). Then he said, 'Here I am, I have come to do your will.' He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy trough the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all...'Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.' And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin" (Hebrews 10:8-10, 17-18).

Our voluntary Lenten practices are not sacrifices for sin, but a vital reminder of what was done for us. Thus we should institute them according to our personal dispositions and needs, just to remind us, not just on Fridays and Sundays, but daily, the reality of the Gospel and the Christ within and among us.


John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
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