Holy Week is the most sacred time of the year for Catholics, who prepare for it with a 40-day period of fasting and penance known as Lent. Holy Week itself begins on Palm Sunday, with the triumphal entrance of Our Lord in Jerusalem, and ends with the celebration of Easter, the day of His Resurrection.
Throughout the days of this solemn week, the liturgical life of the Church leads the faithful through a re-enactment of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Savior. It is no wonder that both in the East and the West, Catholics have, since the beginning, established special customs and observances to better prepare the mind and heart to enter into the mysteries of this holy time.
The main practice to be observed is fasting, but the rules regulating it have changed considerably over time, concerning both the “what” and the “how much.” So what about drinking alcohol? Can you have a beer on Good Friday and still respect the Lenten observance?
A Brief History of Alcohol and Lent
In Western Christianity, Holy Week is the final period of Lent and thus falls under the same prescriptions as this penitential time; and although in Eastern Christianity, it is not technically considered to be part of Lent, fasting is still observed.
The penitential rules for all Christians used to be extremely strict, as can be gleaned from reading what St. Thomas Aquinas says about the Lenten rules for medieval Christians: no eggs, no dairy products, no animal meat or fat. Faithful Catholics essentially survived on a diet of vegetables, salt, and bread. There were also rules concerning the time allowed for eating: everyone was required to abstain from food before 3 P.M. every day. The rules were even stricter for Ash Wednesday and Black Friday, where a “black fast” was observed, meaning total abstinence from all food during the whole day.
These rules seem so extreme that most people would be led to conclude that alcohol, a rather unnecessary pleasure in the estimation of modern man, was certainly not allowed, right?
Actually, although in Eastern Christianity, there are strict fast days when even wine and oil are to be avoided, alcohol did not fall under the Lenten prohibitions in Western Christianity even during the days of strict observance. It might be surprising to the modern Catholic to learn that alcohol was widely consumed, in moderation, by many Christians in medieval Europe, including monks.
There were a couple of reasons for this. The first was sanitary. Alcohol kills many pathogens that can instead live and multiply in water, making it safer for human consumption. The second reason had to do with nutrition: the fast observed during Lent was so extreme that adding a bit of alcohol to the diet was a good way to provide extra nutrients to sustain and invigorate the body.
This second reason was so important that in the 17th century, a special group of monks, known as the Paulaner monks, actually attempted to subsist entirely on beer during the entire Lenten season. They brewed a strong beer, rich in carbohydrates and other necessary nutrients, which they drank exclusively to sustain them for the forty days of Lent. This special beer would eventually become the hallmark product of Paulaner Brewery, established in 1634.
Lenten Observance Today
Throughout the centuries, the Church gradually relaxed its disciplines on Lenten observance. This came about slowly, usually through specific adults, and then became common practice.
The observation of fasting until 3 P.M. during Lent was one of the first practices to be relaxed, and it became common to break the fast around noon. In fact, the very word “noon” comes from the Latin “Nones,” one of the hours sung by the monks during the Divine Office, which is traditionally prayed at 3 P.M. Monasteries during Lent began the practice of moving the reciting of this hour to 12 P.M. to give the tired monks an earlier break from their fast. Thus, in common parlance, noon came to be associated with 12 P.M.
With time, the other fasting rules were also reduced or abolished, and the variety of food allowed for Catholics during Lent increased considerably.
In fact, Catholics are now only required, strictly speaking, to observe abstinence on every Friday of Lent and to add fasting to the abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Abstinence consists of avoiding meat, although the use of condiments and cooking oils made from animal fats is allowed.
Fasting, on the other hand, has been made much easier and consists of having one regular-sized meal and two smaller meals, which together do not amount to a full meal; basically, one normal meal and two snacks. These fasting rules do not bind anyone under the age of 18 or over the age of 59, and invalids, pregnant, and nursing mothers are also exempt. There are no special recommendations for alcohol, so it is generally allowed for Catholics to consume it in moderation, even during Holy Week.
For the rest of Lent, before and during Holy Week, Lenten observance is left up to the discretion of the individual Christian. Generally, the Church encourages the faithful to practice the virtues of mortification and penance by giving up something that they are attached to, and this can be anything. Recently, there’s been a trend of giving up social media consumption, for example, recognized by many as a potential addiction that should be restrained by the virtue of temperance.
All of this considered, if you enjoy a regular beer or glass of wine with your meals and find that you’re a little too attached to this pleasure, it might be a good idea to give it up entirely for Lent or specifically during Holy Week. This would be a great way to strengthen your virtue and prepare your soul for the merriment and festivities of Easter when you can have a well-deserved drink of your favorite brew to celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord.
I am a passionate beer connoisseur with a deep appreciation for the art and science of brewing. With years of experience tasting and evaluating various beers, I love to share my opinions and insights with others and I am always eager to engage in lively discussions about my favorite beverage.