No, Catholics are not allowed to eat shrimp, or any other meat, on Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, which is a 40-day period of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that leads up to Easter. During Lent, Catholics age 14 and older are required to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent. Fish is allowed, so shrimp and other shellfish are off limits.
What is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent in the Western Christian calendar. It falls 46 days before Easter, and can occur anywhere between February 4 and March 10, depending on when Easter falls that year.
Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice of blessing ashes made from palm branches blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday, and placing them on the foreheads of worshippers in the shape of a cross. The ashes symbolize penance, mourning, and mortality.
The ashes are accompanied by the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This highlights the dual themes of repentance and mortality that define the meaning of Ash Wednesday.
When is Ash Wednesday 2023?
In 2023, Ash Wednesday will fall on February 22nd.
Here are the dates for Ash Wednesday for the upcoming years:
Ash Wednesday does not have a fixed date like some other significant religious observances because it depends on the date of Easter, which changes each year. Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or just after the spring equinox.
What is Lent?
Lent is the 40-day period leading up to Easter Sunday. It begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. Sundays are not counted in the 40 days since they are considered “mini-Easters” and a day of worship and celebration.
Lent is a time for reflection, repentance, fasting, and spiritual renewal ahead of Easter. It replicates the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert while being tempted by Satan before beginning his public ministry.
Lent originated in the early church as a period of intensive preparation for converts who were going to be baptized on Easter. All Christians were invited to join this period of fasting and repentance. Over time it developed into a 40-day period for all believers to focus on simple living, prayer, and spiritual discipline before Easter.
The Lenten period is marked by fasting, both from food and festivities. Many Christians give up something during Lent as an act of self-denial and discipline. Common Lenten sacrifices include sweets, meat, alcohol and luxury items. Others choose to take on extra devotions like daily Scripture reading, prayer or charity.
Lenten Fast and Abstinence Rules
There are a couple key fasting and abstinence rules for Lent:
- No meat on Ash Wednesday or any Friday during Lent for Catholics 14 and older.
- Fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. This involves eating only one full meal and two smaller meals that don’t equal a full meal.
- The Fridays during Lent are days of abstinence from meat for Catholics age 14 and older.
So shrimp, lobster, beef, pork, chicken and other meats are avoided on Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent by observant Catholics. Many extend the Friday meat fast for the full 40 days of Lent.
Fish is viewed as acceptable on the Fridays of Lent since it is considered less luxurious. Some devout Catholics will also not eat meat, poultry or fish more broadly on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as part of the fast.
The Catholic Church asks the faithful who are capable to fast from food and festivities during Lent as a form of penance and spiritual discipline. But certain groups are exempt from strict fasting and complete abstinence during Lent – including young children, the elderly, sick, pregnant and nursing mothers. The Church just asks they practice some small act of penance or charity.
Why Do Catholics Fast During Lent?
Here are the main reasons Catholics fast during Lent:
- To repent and unite with the suffering of Christ – By fasting and sacrificing physical comforts, Catholics try to repent of sins and join in solidarity with the suffering and death of Jesus during his Passion.
- Spiritual renewal – Fasting is thought to clarify the mind, bring the body into submission to the spirit, strengthen prayer, and renew devotion and piety.
- Almsgiving and charity – Going without certain foods or luxuries encourages compassion for those who involuntarily go without everyday necessities.
- Prepare for baptism and renew baptismal promises – Lent originated as a preparation period for catechumens who would be baptized, and became an annual renewal opportunity for the baptized.
- Simplify life and self-discipline – Fasting helps strip away distractions and dependency on worldly things, allowing a focus on simple living and dependency on God.
By sacrificing things that provide comfort or entertainment, a space is created to focus more intently on prayer, Scripture reading, and other spiritual disciplines. Doing without certain foods develops self-discipline and mastery over desires of the body.
This is not done out of a rejection of God’s physical blessings, but to intentionally make space to grow closer to God and develop solidarity with those who lack adequate food and comforts. Participating in this form of penance humbles the soul and provides perspective.
What is the Purpose of Abstaining from Meat?
Here are some of the main reasons that abstaining from meat is part of Lenten sacrifice:
- Meat was considered a luxury historically, so abstaining displays spiritual discipline, self-denial, and solidarity with the poor.
- Jesus gave up his flesh and blood, so Christians symbolically give up flesh meat in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice.
- Develop mastery over bodily desires and cultivate a spirit of humility and repentance.
- Use mealtimes for prayer instead of indulging appetite and enjoying meat.
- Almsgiving and donating money saved on meat to charity.
- Join in the communal fasting and penance of the Church in preparation for Easter.
Meat has long been seen as a luxury, so abstaining is a way to depend more on God and less on fleshly appetites and desires. Avoiding meat symbolizes a willingness to discipline natural desires and turn away from self-indulgence.
Giving up meat also serves as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice of his flesh for the salvation of humanity. As Jesus gave up his body, Christians temporarily surrender flesh meat in remembrance. This highlights the importance of spiritual nourishment over physical nourishment.
Overall, abstaining from meat aims to cultivate greater love for God by mastery over the desires of the body. This clears the mind and heart to be filled with prayer and the spiritual gifts God offers.
What Foods Are Allowed?
So what foods can Catholics eat during Lent? Here are some acceptable options:
- Fish – Fish is considered acceptable on all days of Lent, including Fridays and Ash Wednesday since it was historically considered less of a luxury than other meats.
- Shellfish – Shrimp, lobster, crab, oysters and other shellfish are allowed on most days of Lent, except Ash Wednesday and Fridays.
- Eggs and dairy – Foods like eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, butter and other dairy products are allowed.
- Fruits and vegetables – Fresh produce like fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds are totally fine for Lent.
- Grains – Breads, pasta, rice, quinoa and other grains are acceptable Lenten fare.
- Meatless dishes – Meals centered on the above foods, like shrimp pasta, grilled fish, roasted vegetables, beans and rice, egg sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly, and grilled cheese.
As long as Catholics avoid meat completely on Ash Wednesday and Fridays, the other days of Lent allow for a fairly flexible diet of fish, dairy, eggs, produce, grains and meatless dishes.
Many Catholics will choose additional sacrifice and fasting above the minimum requirements, or give up other foods beyond meat for spiritual discipline. But the dietary rules create space for a simple, plant-based diet focused on renewal.
Sample Lent-Friendly Meals
Here are some meal ideas that meet the guidelines for Ash Wednesday and Fridays during Lent:
- Tuna sandwiches or tuna salad with bread or lettuce wraps
- Grilled or baked salmon with roasted vegetables
- Shrimp or crab cakes with a side salad
- Vegetarian chili over baked potatoes
- Eggplant parmesan over pasta or polenta
- Cheese ravioli or tortellini with marinara sauce
- Portobello mushroom fajitas with peppers and onions
- Macaroni and cheese
- Bean and rice burritos with guacamole
Simple pasta, sandwich, salad, and veggie-based dishes make it fairly easy to comply with the Lenten meat abstention on fast days. Going without meat on Ash Wednesdays and Fridays opens up space for getting creative with seafood and vegetarian cuisine.
Are There Exceptions?
The Catholic Church does outline certain circumstances where people may be exempted from the typical fasting and abstinence requirements during Lent:
- Children under age 14
- Elderly people over 60 years old
- Those who are ill
- Expectant mothers
- Nursing mothers
- Those with physically demanding occupations
These groups are not required to fast completely or give up meat entirely on Ash Wednesday and Fridays of Lent. The Church just asks that they set aside some additional time for prayer or practice an appropriate penance or act of charity.
Catholics should speak to their priest or follow their conscience when determining if certain circumstances may exempt them from strict Lenten fasting and abstinence. Those with medical conditions requiring more protein or calories would not be asked to avoid all meat.
But even those who are exempt from the full fasting requirements are encouraged to join in the Lenten spirit with some sacrifice or acts of spiritual discipline over the 40 days. This helps unite the Church through communal fasting and penance in preparation for remembering Christ’s passion and resurrection.
What About Lent Fish Fridays at Restaurants?
Many restaurants, especially seafood and fast food chains, advertise special menu options for Lenten Fridays and Ash Wednesday. Here are some things to know about ordering fish and seafood at restaurants during Lent:
- Fish sandwiches and fish entrees on Fridays during Lent are popular, especially at fast food chains like McDonald’s.
- Some restaurants serve special shrimp or lobster dishes on Lent Fridays and advertise Lenten specials.
- Order fish tacos, crab cakes, ceviche, smoked salmon and other seafood dishes to enjoy meat-free Fridays.
- Be aware that battered fish may be fried in the same oil as fried chicken or other meats.
- Let your server know you are abstaining from meat for religious reasons and ask about preparation if concerned.
- Going to a fully vegetarian or seafood restaurant is safest for avoiding cross-contamination.
Catholics who observe Lent by avoiding meat can take advantage of expanded seafood offerings at restaurants on Fridays and Ash Wednesday. Just take reasonable precautions by asking about preparation and potential cross-contamination with meat products if that is a concern for you.
What is a Good Prayer or Devotion for Lent?
Here are some meaningful prayers and devotions that can enhance spiritual growth during the Lenten season:
Stations of the Cross
The Stations of the Cross trace Jesus’ path from Pilate’s court to his crucifixion and burial, stopping to meditate on 14 key events. Many parishes have Friday services walking through the Stations of the Cross. This is a perfect devotion for Lent Fridays.
The rosary meditates on the life of Jesus and Mary. Adding a daily rosary can be a simple but powerful Lent devotion.
Divine Mercy Chaplet
This shorter prayer said on rosary beads asks for God’s divine mercy. It is often prayed at 3 PM, the hour of Christ’s death.
40 Days with Scripture
Take a Scripture verse or passage with you throughout each of the 40 days of Lent. Meditate and memorize the verses through Lent.
Fast from Distractions
Choose something to give up like social media, TV or sweets, which can create more time for prayer or service.
Attending Mass more frequently and receiving the Eucharist can bring many graces during Lent.
Spending quiet time in Eucharistic Adoration is a peaceful Lent prayer practice.
Picking a meaningful prayer or devotional practice enhances growth during the Lenten preparation for Easter. Fasting goes hand-in-hand with feasting on spiritual nourishment.
Does Lent End on Holy Thursday or Holy Saturday?
Technically Lent ends on Holy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. Holy Thursday begins the Easter Triduum, the three days leading up to Easter.
The Triduum spans:
- Holy Thursday
- Good Friday
- Holy Saturday
Holy Saturday has a unique place as both the final day of Lent and the first day of the Easter season.
Even though Lent liturgically ends Thursday evening, the Triduum marks one liturgical celebration. So continuing your Lenten sacrifices through Holy Saturday has merit.
The 40 days of Lent are calculated as follows:
- Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday: 40 days
- Not counting Sundays: 6 days subtracted
- Total days of Lenten fast: 40 – 6 = 34 days
This shows that Lent technically ends Thursday but is connected seamlessly with Easter through the Triduum.
- Lent ends on Holy Thursday evening, when the Triduum begins.
- Holy Saturday bridges Lent and Easter as one liturgical celebration.
- Continuing fasting on Good Friday and Holy Saturday has merits, since it is part of the Triduum.
- Lent lasts 40 days counting Ash Wednesday through Holy Thursday.
So it makes sense to continue your Lenten sacrifices like fasting and abstaining from meat into Good Friday and Holy Saturday, as the culmination of the 40-day Lenten season.
In summary, shrimp and other meat is not allowed on Ash Wednesday or Fridays during Lent for Catholics. This abstinence from meat is part of the penitential practice of fasting and self-denial during the 40-day preparation for Easter.
While fish is permitted, shrimp and shellfish are prohibited on fast days like Ash Wednesday and Lenten Fridays. But Lent allows for a rich array of seafood, eggs, dairy, produce, and meatless dishes on the other days.
Observing the Lenten fast is ultimately aimed at spiritual renewal – turning from sin, growing in spiritual disciplines, identifying with Christ’s suffering, and being mindful of those in poverty. The abstention from meat serves as a tangible reminder of the purpose of the season.
Exceptions are made for those unable to fast for health reasons. But Lent calls all Catholics to some form of self-denial and repentance to unite more closely with Christ. Those who participate in the communal fasting join the Church throughout the ages in anticipation of the celebration of new life at Easter.