During Lent, Christians of the East and West will participate in abstaining from meat. Specifically, for the West, this abstinence takes place on Fridays. On Fridays, we are permitted to eat fish but not meat. In one sense, insofar as it is the flesh of an animal, fish is meat. However, we can eat fish because it is cold-blooded, whereas we cannot eat beef, for example, because it is warm-blooded. There is a two-fold purpose to this.
The first reason, unlike the second, is straightforward—namely, to remember that on Friday there is only one warm-blooded victim, the Lamb that was slain. The second reason we are encouraged to eat fish on Friday is for us to participate, symbolically, in Christ’s victory over death. Now, to understand how eating cold-blooded creatures is participating with Christ’s victory, we must properly understand three biblical stories.
The first story we must properly understand is in Genesis. Specifically, when God is pronouncing his judgment over the serpent and Adam. God says to the snake, “On your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat” (Gen. 3:14). Then, God tells Adam, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). God casting the serpent down to his belly has been understood to mean that the Evil One has been cast down to the netherworld. Furthermore, God commanding the snake to consume dust has been understood to mean that the serpent has been made the ruler of the underworld. Think about it, God tells Adam that he will return to dust, and the serpent is told that he will be the eater of the dust. With this unnerving context, we can now properly understand the second story, which is in the book of Jonah.
The tale of Jonah is connected to the previous story because it is the playing out of the judgment that was given by God in Genesis. Most misinterpret the story of Jonah thinking that the prophet was swallowed by a whale. However, this has not always been the general understanding. Traditionally, it was understood that Jonah was eaten by Leviathan, which is a serpentine sea-monster. Furthermore, in Judeo-Christian tradition, Leviathan has been identified as the Evil One. Therefore, with the Genesis narrative in mind, it can be understood that Jonah dies, because he is eaten by the serpent. Furthermore, the dead prophet prays, “Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice” (Jonah 2:2). Sheol, which is also known as the Netherworld, is the place where the Hebrews believed all the dead go. Additionally, ancient Hebrews believed that this place was located under the chaotic waters, or tohu wabohu. Therefore, it could not be made clearer that the prophet dies, since he is underneath the chaotic waters and in the belly of the serpent.
Nonetheless, although Jonah dies, he is resurrected by God, and is spit up by the serpent: “You brought up my life from the pit” (Jonah 2:6). It is important for us to regain this ancient understanding because it gives us greater context to the third biblical story, which is the key for us to understand how eating fish on Friday is a symbolic meal that participates in Christ’s victory.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that this generation will receive no sign except the sign of Jonah. As we know, Jesus is referring to himself as the new Jonah, and the sign he gives is his Resurrection. However, unlike Jonah, death is not just spitting Christ back up. Rather, Christ is swallowing death. St. Augustine writes, “Christ endured death like a lamb, but he devoured it like a lion.” Therefore, it is a reversal of the roles referenced above. Now, because of Christ’s victory, man is the eater of death, the serpent.
Therefore, we are encouraged to eat cold-blooded meat, like fish, because it is acting as a “relative” to the snake and helping us to recollect this victory that was won many Fridays ago. Have you ever noticed what Jesus is always eating after his Resurrection? That’s right, fish. So, let us keep this in mind the next time we go to our parish’s Lenten fish fry.
On Fridays I will eat,
no warm-blooded meat.
Save for me the cold blooded,
and that will be my treat.
Let me eat and so remember,
that serpent’s great defeat!
You may ask, why do you eat, on Fridays, only that which is cold?
For which I will say to you,
to remember the destruction of that serpent of old!
Let us be bold!
how hideous that beast
Whose relatives fall between my jaws
on a lovely Friday’s feast.
Let us commemorate this feast!
Won for us by the Great High Priest,
Whose kingdom is of the East!
Glory be to Christ the Lord,
Glory none the least!
For because of him, and He alone,
on our enemies do we feast!