The first question which presents itself during the Lenten season is one of cuisine: “What on earth can I eat since the Church forbids eating meat, fish, and dairy?” It is a reasonable question, but must not be allowed to skew one’s understanding of what Lenten fasting is all about or give the impression that Lent is primarily about food.
For one thing, the Church does not have any food laws in the same way that Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism have food laws. Religions often have food laws, but Christianity is not a religion. Rather it is our participation in this age of the powers of the age to come, and as such it transcends religion with all its categories, including the category of unclean food. Religions have such a category, and both Judaism and Islam forbid the eating of pork. Hinduism (at least as practised by some) famously forbids eating cows, and some of its literature declares that no one who eats meat can have any knowledge of God. These are true food laws, and no one can obtain a dispensation from them to eat pork any more than they could obtain a dispensation from the law of gravity. They are not “food guidelines”, but “food laws”. Unclean food remains unclean, no matter what.
Christianity knows nothing of this. St. Paul declared that “nothing is unclean in itself” (Romans 14:14), and that “nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for then it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer”. To deny this in the Church, he says, is one of the “doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1-5). Our fasting rules are not food laws.
What then is the point of them? The rules and abstinence have less to do with the stomach and more to do with the heart. God originally made us as spirit, soul, and body, with these three hierarchically ordered: our bodies submitted to our souls and our souls submitted to the spirit. Now everything is topsy-turvy and inverted: our bodily appetites rule over us, with our souls and personalities following obediently these bodily desires. The spiritual life comes a distant third. Fasting is meant to overturn all this, and restore us to proper balance. By fasting from good things such as meat, fish, dairy, and wine, we train our appetites to submit. Have you ever seen a dog with a treat balanced on its nose? The dog longs for the treat, but has been trained by its master not to eat the treat until allowed. Lent disciplines us to imitate the obedience of the well-trained dog, and not to eat the treat of more luxurious cuisine until allowed at Pascha. Lent says to our imperious desires, “You’re not the boss of me—the Lord is”, and demands that it submit to the spiritual life.
The fasting rules fulfill another function—that of binding us together as one family. If simple ascetic abstinence were the sole function of Lent, then rules would not be necessary. Each person could decide for himself “what to give up for Lent” and proceed with his own individual programme of disciplining the desires. But Christianity is not a philosophy but a family. Nothing in it is individual and isolated. We do not baptize ourselves when we become Christians, but receive baptism at the hands of another. We do not take bread and wine at home alone, but come to the Eucharistic assembly along with our fellows to receive it from the priest. The New Testament epistles were mostly not written to individuals, but to churches, and the prayer the Lord taught us was not the “My Father”, but the “Our Father”. Christianity is relentlessly corporate, and it binds us together as a single body, a united family. That is why the Church gives a single set of rules for everyone to follow. If one gave up meat, while another gave up chocolate and a third gave up coffee, all might benefit from their asceticism, but corporate meals would become impossible. So the Church bids us become one, and to eat together, sharing not only the same Eucharistic Chalice, but also the same fellowship table. The food on that table must be allowed by everyone who approaches it—hence the single set of fasting rules for all.
Finally, the most important thing about the Lenten fasting cuisine is that it helps soften our heart and promote love. An old book once proclaimed, “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche”, and a wise woman I know once built on that and further proclaimed, “Real Christians Don’t Eat Each Other”. It is tempting to be cannibalistic. As St. Paul once warned his Galatian converts, “If you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:15). It is too easy to speak words which wound, and to destroy another by gossip, criticism, and insult. As Solomon once taught, life and death are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21), and we often use that power for death and not for life. St. James warned us that the tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. Man stands at the top of the food chain, and has tamed every other species—lions, and tigers and bears. But oh my!—no one can tame the tongue. If one has tamed the tongue, one has arrived, and is mature and perfect man (James 3:1-12).
Lent bids us tame the tongue and to love silence. Some people when they arise in the morning turn on the computer or the television or the radio, and leave it on all day. Most of us do the same with the tongue—when we rise, we turn on the tongue, and leave it on. Lent bids us turn off the tongue, and only turn it on when we need to use it—and then turn it off again. It’s hard work, just as fasting is hard work. But only by doing this can we achieve spiritual maturity.
Lenten cuisine is ultimately not about food, like an Orthodox version of Jenny Craig. It is about spiritual maturity, and drawing near to Christ and to each other. It will be over soon enough, as Pascha draws ever closer. All the more reason to use it while we have the chance.
Thank you Father for this post.ReplyDelete
Just reflecting on the significance of this I have two questions for you really.
1) Christ mentions that even the smallest act of love and mercy (such as giving someone a cup of water) shown to any human in need is an act of love to Him and such love is precisely the key to the Kingdom. It's clear that our 'good deeds' can never outweigh the sins which have contaminated us through our lives (and the thief of the cross certainly was an 11th hour conversion with, we must assume, little previous to commend him). Therefore it appears that bar for salvation is scandalously low. But, looking at truly evil people in history, there will have been times in their life when they presumably showed mercy out of love (since no-one is 100% evil all their entire lives) but we wouldn't expect such to inherit the kingdom. Is it then more an issue about how we finish the race? Or perhaps the general trend of our lives?
I guess I'm thinking of the Lady and the onion from the Brothers Karamazov where such a small deed of mercy would've been enough to save her but as her whole inclination was towards evil in general she wasn't even able to avail herself of this simple chance and thus self-condemned to stay in the lake of fire.
2) Your point about the world becoming increasingly fractured since the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ is interesting as I'm wondering if this explains the teaching about increasing wars/famine/tribulation etc. towards the end of this age since the fracture will become greater and instability will increase. I imagine the forces of this age aren't going down without a fight and the more the coming age intrudes the worse it'll get?
Richard: thank you for your comments.Delete
Regarding the first question, what the Lord said is not that the smallest act of love shown to any human in need would be the key to the Kingdom, but rather than the smallest act of love shown to His disciples because they were His disciples would have its reward (see Matthew 10:42, Mark 9:41). In other words, what brought reward from God was acceptance of the Lord's Gospel. Christ was a source of division in His day (and now), and He assures His hearers that God would reward any movement towards Him, no matter how small. The bar is not set as low as some might think.
Also, I do agree that the forces of this age are not going down without a fight. I think of Rev. 12:7-12: after Satan was cast from heaven at the Lord's ascension, he came down to earth in great wrath, knowing that his time was short. The last days, which began at Pentecost, are times of eschatological conflict--a conflict seemingly mirrored throughout the cosmos.