Friday Penance, the Octave of Christmas, and You

We are in the Octave of Christmas, that stoppage of liturgical time when we can rest in place and contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation from various angles.

During the Octave of Easter, we are not obliged to do penance on Easter Friday.  What about Friday in the Christmas Octave?

Days (other than Sunday) within the Octave of Christmas are not “heavy enough” (as a “solemnity” would be) to “outweigh” the Friday obligation to do some sort of penance as determined by the conferences of bishops.

In the 1962 Missale Romanum they are “II class”, which corresponds to the newer, non-traditional calendar’s “feast”. In the 2001 Missale Romanum they are categorized as second class, as “feasts”.  If, however you are today at a parish named “St. John the Evangelist”, it is your parish’s patronal feast.  You might argue that today you don’t have to stick to doing the penance we are obliged to do on Fridays.

Bottom line, the Octave of Christmas does not have the “weight” of the Octave of Easter.  Therefore, we have to do some sort of penance today.

Let’s also pay attention to can. 1245. You can ask your parish priest to dispense you or commute your act of penance.

Can. 1245 Without prejudice to the right of diocesan bishops mentioned in can. 87, for a just cause and according to the prescripts of the diocesan bishop, a pastor [parish priest] can grant in individual casesdispensation from the obligation of observing a feast day or a day of penance or can grant a commutation of the obligation into other pious works. A superior of a religious institute or society of apostolic life, if they are clerical and of pontifical right, can also do this in regard to his own subjects and others living in the house day and night.

Moreover, you can substitute another form of penance for abstaining from meat.  Make it penitential, however.  Abstinence from meat has good reasoning behind it.  For some, however, there abstinence from other things can be of greater spiritual effect.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Dang. I saw this just as I was tucking into a chicken burrito. Then I saw the bit about St. John the Evangelist. This is in fact the patronal feast of my parish. So, I’m going to finish that burrito.

  2. P.S. That burrito turns out to be mostly lettuce, so I guess the joke is on me.

  3. samwise says:

    Is it correct to say that Christmas is the “feast of the Incarnation” when March 25th’s Feast of the Annunciation is more fitting as “feast of Incarnation”?

    Isn’t Christmas just “Feast of the Nativity”?

  4. Suburbanbanshee says:

    samwise — Some of the ancient names for Christmas are “Feast of the Incarnation,” and even “Feast of the Incarnation of the Word.” There are many feasts out there that have overlapping themes; it’s not a biggie.

    But yes, the name of the Feast of the Annunciation reflects the importance of the announcement of the Word, which Mary heard and assented to — even though the Incarnation happened then. Likewise, Christmas focuses on the Incarnation’s descent from Mary’s womb into the rest of the world, even though the angels also announce the Word to the shepherds on that feast.

  5. LA says:

    Is it a grave sin now-a-days to not do a penance on a Friday? I think in the “old days” it was taught that it was a mortal sin to eat meat on Fridays. Has that been “relaxed”?

    Does the penance done, in lieu of non-abstinence from meat, have to be specifically intentioned as such?

  6. wmeyer says:

    Life is simpler when you simply do Friday penance. Having grown up with it, pre-Vatican II, it feels more natural.

  7. skywalker says:

    This is so strange, I checked up on the Friday penance for the octave of Christmas yesterday, and found the opposite answer. The article was “When is a Friday not a Friday” by Scott P. Richert. I don’t understand how well-educated and good intentioned Catholics come to the opposite conclusions about things like this. It’d be simpler if our bishop would just print something in the bulletin, like for Holy Days of Obligation. Heck, it’d be nice if the bishop would clarify anything at all about Friday abstinence.

  8. Uxixu says:

    I’ve shifted to meatless Friday year round so am abstaining from meat today. I love fish so might do a rosary later.

  9. Mike says:

    We’re exhorted to do something penitential on Fridays; doing without meat seems about right.

    At a Catholic business professionals’ breakfast a while ago (featuring heaps of steaming bacon), a fellow member marveled to me about one of his relations whose family is so devout that “they don’t eat meat on Friday!”

    “Neither do I,” I replied, honestly thinking it wasn’t that big a deal. It was, however, big enough to squeal the brakes on that conversation.

  10. HighMass says:

    wmeyer , I too like you grew up with meatless Friday’s…but sure blew it today….had a sand. with meat….darn!

  11. Stephen Matthew says:

    Would it be correct to say that in the USA that the bishops have allowed the individual to choose to substitute a work of charity or piety in place of the typical abstinence as per canon 1253? That seems to be the case so far as I can tell, but the US regulation predate the current canons, so hard to say, but that has certainly been my understanding. It is also my understanding that while there is a canonical obligation to Friday penance, that it does not bind on pain of sin under the present scheme.

    Having grown up being without anything being taught about this at all, up until a rather late age at which it was mentioned as a historical curiosity we had been thankfully freed from, it is rather difficult to even recollect on any given Friday that the day is supposed to be penitential at all, and in fact in the contemporary life of the parish community and individual Catholics, Fridays, particularly Friday evenings, take on something of a festive or miniature holiday vibe with extra social events, very often including additional food and entertainments rather than less. In a world with a 6 day work week, Friday penance likely fit reasonably well into the weekly cycle, but for a world where from 5:00 pm Friday until about 5:00 am Monday is likely treated as a sort of extended Sabbath or small vacation it lands in an awkward place, one that can easily leave you as the guest refusing the hospitality of a host or even refusing your own mother’s cooking in some cases (nothing like someone fixing a special meal to welcome you home and then not eating it to make for a strange dinner). For that matter, as one with a rather irregular schedule and calendar, I often don’t even notice that the present day is in fact a Friday in the first place, strange as that may sound. Once or twice as I was going to bed sometime in the early hours of Saturday the thought would occur to me “oh, today was Friday, did I do anything penitential? no? oh well, too late now…)

    Due to my general spaciness, etc., if I can remember to abstain from even one thing I otherwise may have wanted during one meal in the day, I consider that at least to be some minimal penitential act. Failing that I try to remember to offer at least one extra penitential prayer. Also when the opportunity presents itself, it seems that the sacrament of penance makes for a nice opportunity on Fridays.

  12. yatzer says:

    I usually do the meatless Friday bit just because it is easier. Today, however, I didn’t even remember it IS Friday. My schedule is totally off. I did some things that could be considered penance, though, so maybe I can offer that in retrospect.

  13. Laura R. says:

    Current demands on my life make it particularly difficult to abstain from meat on Fridays, so I pray the Divine Mercy chaplet as close to 3:00 as I can; it seems to strike the right penitential note. Wasn’t sure about today but am glad now I went ahead with it.

  14. Rich says:

    As I read the headline for this post, I was literally finishing a mouthful of peanut M&M’s. I would have to say I did have an incredibly modest dinner tonight; this was due to the fact, however, that I ate half a large ham & pineapple pizza for lunch. I guess you can tell how I feel about Friday penance during the Octave of Christmas.

  15. msc says:

    I know it sounds a bit relativistic, but we try to follow what we consider the spirit and intent of meatless Fridays during Advent by maintaining a modest fast on Fridays and often avoiding animal flesh altogether. In these days when fish can be very expensive, it seems a bit against the spirit of pennance to avoid all meat, even hamburger, but to able to eat sockeye salmon, arctic char, a tuna steak, etc.

  16. gracie says:

    “You can ask your parish priest to dispense you or commute your act of penance.”

    I’m afraid if I asked my parish priest to dispense me he’d look at me blankly and ask me what I was talking about.

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