What happens when a somber season of penance, reflection, and fasting is appropriated by secular culture?
We’re seeing it now. Witness Fat Lent.
Fat Tuesday, of course, which occurred last week, is the day before Ash Wednesday— Mardi Gras, in French. For centuries, it was the day the devout cleared out their pantries (and later, refrigerators) to prepare for the paucities of Lent, the six weeks before Easter.
While the particulars of the observance changed as regularly as the pope, it was generally recognized as a time to forswear animal flesh and its derivatives—milk, butter, eggs. Hence, on Fat Tuesday, pancakes ensued (this being the dark time before waffle makers) and penitents awoke on Ash Wednesday, their houses emptied of food that would spoil over the next six weeks.
The removal of temptation was a secondary goal. Jesus, after all, fasted in the wilderness for 40 days, resolute against Satan’s suggestion that he turn stones to bread. Lent posits that his followers should develop a backbone as well.
Or at least, it used to, before contemporary Christians surrendered it to non-believers.
Here’s what happened. As in any discussion of eating habits in America, McDonald’s is partly to blame.
For the first 1,900 or so years of Christianity, as Father William P. Saunders wrote in a column for The Arlington Catholic Herald, the pious fasted for either five or six days a week during Lent. Generally, they were allowed one meal, either at 3 p.m. or at the day’s end. This was gradually loosened to allow another small repast as needed so people could keep up their strength for manual labor.
“Eating fish was allowed, and later eating meat was also allowed through the week except on Ash Wednesday and Friday,” Father Saunders wrote. “Dispensations were given for eating dairy products if a pious work was performed, and eventually this rule was relaxed totally.”
In other words, do a good work, have a milkshake. It was a harbinger of Fat Lent.
Then came the one-two punch of 1962: The Second Vatican Council, and McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich, introduced because a McDonald’s in Cincinnati was suffering poor sales on Friday at Lent.
Lent could never be the same once a visit to McDonald’s became part of the observance.
Today, McDonald’s hawks a $5 special on the Fridays of Lent—two fish sandwiches and a basket of fries. You don’t have to be a bishop to note that consuming a single hamburger for dinner would be more of a sacrifice. In Pittsburgh, the big churches have turned the fish fries they host on Ash Wednesday and Fridays of Lent into fundraisers, selling platters of fish and pierogis (along with baked goods for dessert).
If the churches can do it, of course, so can the restaurants. Which is why a Pittsburgh chain, King’s Family Restaurants, can introduce a Lent menu featuring the catchy, if morally dubious, slogan: “Give It Up For Lent Without Sacrificing Yum.” Penitents can recall the temptations of their Lord while feasting on fish tacos, fried clam strips, and lobster mac and cheese—a tough job, but Catholics gotta do it.
Meanwhile, outside of Christendom, Lent pulses with new life and purpose. For the health obsessed, it has become sort of a Tough Mudder 30-day challenge—the chance for people to show off their willpower in the guise of quasi-spirituality. (I’ll raise you five almonds to your six celery sticks.) God is allowed, but not required.
Unless, of course, you’re an atheist celebrating Lent, which is a thing now. Having gotten wind of the fact that there might be something significant, maybe even important, in this whole religion thing, atheists are energetically embracing the deprivations of Lent, from giving things up to fasting. “I think little experiments like this are really important,” wrote Vlad Chituc in a post, “Atheist Lent: Why It Matters, and What Should I (And Maybe You If You’d Like) Give Up?” on Patheos.com.
So there you have it: Fat Lent. For Christians, a chance to sacrifice (wink, wink) and connect with their inner Pharisees while awaiting the happy release of Easter (because everyone will be tired of fried cod by then). For the secular, a chance to mock Christians by doing what Christians are supposed to be doing.
This might not be as calamitous as Pope Benedict XIV predicted in the 18th century, when he pronounced the observance of Lent “the very badge of Christian warfare” and said, “Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, of private woe.”
Then again, it might. It’s worth thinking about over a platter of fish this Friday night.