The Food of Paradise

SAY GOODBYE TO MEAT. In the fasting practice common to all Byzantine Churches Meatfare Sunday is the last day on which meat would be eaten until Pascha. This is the first step towards the fuller discipline of the Great Fast when dairy products would not be eaten as well. This is why next Sunday is called Cheesefare Sunday (good-bye to dairy products).

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. 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.

Fasting from Meat

Why is meat targeted in the Fast? Certainly in most places meat is a special festive dish. We think of the fatted calf which the father ordered slain to welcome his prodigal son back home. In some disciplines other festive items like wine and oil are avoided as well. As Christ said when pressed by the Pharisees about His disciples’ behavior, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15).

In many cultures to this very day meat is a luxury. Numerous people regularly get their protein from beans or pulses, not meat. It’s too expensive. One of the reasons why American fast food has become so popular throughout the world is that it makes meat affordable to more people than ever before.

The Food of Paradise

There is another reason why we avoid meat on fast days. During the Lenten season we seek to focus on restoring the likeness to God within us, to stress the quality bestowed on us at the beginning and lost at the fall. During the Fast we seek to return to the Garden of Eden, as it were, to return to Paradise, and no one ate meat in the Garden.

According to the Book of Genesis, “God said, ‘See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food. Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food’; and it was so” (Genesis 1:29-30). In Genesis the consumption of animal products and wine are described as arising later in human history; we were all vegetarians in Eden. By avoiding meat we are symbolizing our desire to return to Eden, to recover our nature as God meant it to be.

The Book of Genesis paints a picture of human history in a downward spiral to the time of Noah and the flood. According to Genesis, after that catastrophe, God began restoring humanity on the earth. Part of that restoration included the addition of meat to our diet. God said to Noah, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as [I gave] the green herbs”(Genesis 9:15). Our fasting from meat, then, is not to avoid something bad but to express our desire for something better. In this kind of fasting we glorify God in the body by limiting ourselves to what has been called the “food of paradise.” In this way we are saying that we value above all things the communion with God that our first parents had.

As the Jewish people developed, the meat of certain animals, fish and other sea creatures was considered as “unclean,” unfit for God’s Chosen People. This served in part to stress their particular relationship to God and distinguish them from others. In the New Testament we see that this distinction is abolished; there would be no separation between Jews and Gentiles and no unclean foods. This is expressed in the Acts of the Apostles which records St. Peter’s vision of a sheet lowered from the heavens containing all kinds of animals. Peter was told to eat but he refuses on the ground that these animals were unclean. Then a voice from heaven told him, “What God has cleansed you must not call common” (Acts 10:15). Gentiles and all foods were acceptable to the Creator and were to be received by the followers of Christ.

In our Tradition there is room for customizing the practice of fasting for each believer, under the guidance of his or her 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.

Fasting from Sin

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.

We hear St Paul’s teaching today to remind us that our fasting is not about right and wrong food so much as it is about supporting the faith of our fellow believers. The Church’s fasting days and seasons are shared experiences, actions that we are meant to do together. There are times when a person may fast privately and this fasting should be done in secret. Fasting seasons, however, are common activities and if I denigrate them or excuse myself from them I am weakening the resolve of others. In addition, I am missing out on an experience that will heighten the joy of Pascha, when the Bridegroom is with us again.

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)