FOR THE THIRD WEEK IN A ROW the Church, through its selection of the Scriptures read at the Divine Liturgy, warns us against a false subjectivism or individualism in the coming Fast. First, in the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, we were warned to avoid self-righteous judging of others. In the story of the Prodigal Son we were confronted by the elder brother, whose faithfulness to his father was marred by his refusal to imitate the father’s forgiving heart.
Today we are faced with an attitude which, although the opposite in spirit to the view of the elder brother, has the same effect: casting a pall over others’ attempts at repentance.
Avoiding Meat in St Paul’s Day
The specific issue which St Paul confronted in his Epistles to the Corinthians concerned the meals connected to pagan sacrifices. In most ancient religions foods, particularly meats, were offered in sacrifice to the gods and goddesses being honored. Consuming the sacrifice was an important part of the ritual and people would invite their relatives and friends to these meals, particularly when a large animal had been sacrificed. St Paul’s converts might have been frequent guests at such meals before their baptism.
Strictly speaking, sharing in such a meal might be a sign that the participants believed in these pagan gods, which would have been unthinkable for a Christian. In Acts 15 we read how the apostles explicitly determined that Gentile converts to Christ were to “abstain from things polluted by idols” (v. 20).
For the first Christians, eating sacrificed meat at an idol feast was equivalent to practicing idolatry and therefore could never be condoned. St Paul went further and declared, “… the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons” (1 Corinthians 8:20).
As he became more acquainted with pagan practices in Asia Minor, St Paul came to make a distinction. He found that not all food sacrificed to idols was consumed in idolatrous feasts. Some was given to the poor, some was given back to the donors, and some was even sold in the marketplace. As a result, eating food offered to idols but not in an explicitly idolatrous feast was not itself idolatrous; it was the inevitable consequence of living in a pagan world.
Why Avoid Foods Offered to No-gods?
St Paul understood that the Greco-Roman gods did not exist: “We know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one” (1 Corinthians 8:4). Food which their devotees offered might as well have been sacrificed to the Great Oz. Yet, he counseled the Christians in Corinth to avoid eating such foods, but not for the sake of the food itself. No food is, by definition, unclean. As the Lord Jesus had said, “Hear and understand: Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man” (Mathew 15:10, 11). Nor did any food offer communion with a pagan god.
Rather St Paul taught that eating food sacrificed to idols should be avoided for another reason: the scruples of less informed brethren. As he wrote to the Romans, “Let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense. It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak” (Romans 14:18-21).
There were new Christians who would have believed that idols were real if they saw their more mature fellows eating foods from pagan sacrifices. Care for the brethren was more important that displaying one’s knowledge that sacrificial meat was nothing. And so St Paul affirmed, “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13).
Avoiding Meat in Our Day
We may never be offered food that has been sacrificed to idols. Nonetheless the Church reads this passage to us as we prepare to avoid meat and other foods for a different reason. During the Great Fast Byzantine Christians are presented with an entire range of foods to be avoided: meat (including fish) and animal products, such as eggs and dairy, as well as wine and, in some traditions, oil as well.
We do not abstain from these foods because there is anything wrong with eating them, as some contemporary vegans believe. Our Church fasts from these foods, particularly at this time, because we are limiting our diet to the “food of the Garden,” the foods of the earth provided at the creation, according to Gen 1. In that Biblical book the consumption of animal products and wine are described as arising later in human history. When we fast, we eat only the food of Paradise as a sign that we wish to recover our original union with God symbolized by the Garden of Eden.
In our Tradition there is room for customizing the practice of fasting for each believer, under the guidance of his spiritual father. According to her physical strength and spiritual growth, a person may be able to fast from all foods until noon; another may be able and led to fast until evening. The individual believer who does not have a spiritual father should follow the guidelines of their own eparchy without adapting them to personal taste.
People who envision a one-size-fits-all rule of fasting may be put off by seeing someone fast differently from them. This brings us back to the principle which St Paul taught the Corinthians: “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13). Our fasting should be informed by love. This may mean fasting the way my neighbor is fasting when in his company, whether this is more or less than my own rule prescribes. ‘Needless to say, we should not seek out such circumstances which would lessen our practice of fasting with that end in mind.
Sad to say, our fasting and other religious practices often mask our inner feelings of self- righteousness and superiority. St Paul would probably endorse these words of Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol in Cyprus (the “Father Maximos” of The Mountain of Silence and its sequels): “How is it possible to pray and still be full of bile against another person? How is it possible for you to read the Gospel and not accept your brother? … What’s the point if I eat oil today and don’t eat oil tomorrow? Though I may not eat oil, I still eat my brother day and night! They would say on Mount Athos not to ask whether someone eats fish. Eat the fish, but don’t eat the fisherman. Have a tablespoon of oil, but don’t eat the man who draws oil. To eat one another with your tongue is much worse than eating a tablespoon of oil” (from Therapy from the Sickness of Pharisaism). Fasting, like feasting, should be a communal celebration of the love of God.
O brethren, let us cleanse ourselves with the Queen of virtues. She has arrived, bringing us a wealth of blessings, quenching the rebellious fire of the passions and reconciling sinners to the Master. Let us welcome her joyfully, therefore, and cry aloud to Christ our God: “You are risen from the dead! Keep us uncondemned as we glorify You who alone are without sin!”
Meatfare Sunday evening vespers