Melkite Greek Catholic Church
IN THE PAST ONE HUNDRED YEARS, meat consumption in the U.S. has risen dramatically. We now consume over 270 pounds per person per year. In contrast, a person in the countries of the former Roman Empire eats an average of from 167 pounds (Greece) to 49 (Syria) annually. What is a luxury in many parts of the world has become a necessity for many in our country.

In the Roman period, many ordinary people ate most of the meat they consumed at religious banquets In both Judaism and the pagan religions, animals would be sacrificed to God (or a god) and the blood would be poured out as an offering to the divinity. Certain parts of the animal would be given to the priests and the rest returned to the person offering the sacrifice to be served in banquets to friends and neighbors.

This created the dilemma for the first Christians which St Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians. Should a Christian eat the meat that his neighbor had offered to Jupiter or any pagan divinity? Would doing so be an acknowledgement that there were many gods and goddesses, as the pagans claimed? Would they be “taking communion” with these gods?

St Paul presents two important principles in his response. First, he affirms that the idols which the pagans worshipped were nothing, and that the food offered to them was nothing special either. Christians would not sin by eating their fill. But there was a more important consideration: what would less- informed believers think if they saw their leaders eating at these festivals? They may be led to think that the pagan gods are real and that their faith in one God may be weakened. “Therefore,” Paul affirms, “if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat again, lest I make my brother stumble” (v. 13).

Ordinary Christians vs. Gnostics

This controversy exposed a divide in the early Church between those educated in classical philosophy and ordinary believers. Some educated considered themselves to be “Gnostics,’ these in the know, and sometimes looked down on the rest. St Paul had little sympathy for their attitudes and spoke with some derision, “For if anyone sees you who ‘have knowledge’ eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols?” (v. 10)

St John Chrysostom spoke even more harshly: “Don’t tell me that such a man is only a shoemaker, another a dyer, another a brazier; but bear in mind that he is a believer and a brother. Whose disciples are we? – of fishermen, publicans and tentmakers! Are we not followers of Him who was brought up in the house of a carpenter; and who deigned to have the carpenter’s betrothed wife for a mother, and who was laid in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and who had nowhere to lay His head – of Him whose journeys were so long that His very journeying was enough to tire Him down; of Him who was supported by others?” (20th Homily on 1 Corinthians) Followers of an itinerant carpenter-preacher have no cause to look down on fellow believers because they do not know philosophy. By God’s grace, they know Christ.

Not a few groups of early gnostic Christians ended by devising their own belief systems, often denying that God was the source of the material creation, something they were too “spiritual to admit. One could rise above the material, some taught, by acquiring gnosis (superior knowledge) not obvious to the ordinary man. They found their salvation, not in their union with Christ, but in the acquisition of gnosis. Groups of Gnostics could be found in the East until the rise of Islam.

St Paul’s response to the elitism of the Gnostic Christians was to encourage them to put the welfare of the weaker brethren ahead of their own. Yes, Paul said in effect, it’s ok to eat the food at pagan festivals, but it’s not ok to scandalize brethren who don’t under-stand how this could be. And the reason for this is that we are all members of the one body of Christ: “But beware that somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. And because of your knowledge, shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ” (vs. 9-12).

St Paul would make this principle a cornerstone of his directions to the new churches he would organize. Not only should the intellectuals look out for th ordinary believer, those able to put their faith into practice should care for those who do not. As he told the Galatians, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks himself to be something, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6:1-3). Not only the intellectual elite, but also the spiritually adept, need an antidote to pride: caring for those less proficient than themselves, rather than looking down upon them.

A Matter of Conscience

St Paul characterizes those who may be scandalized at pagan banquets as having “a weak conscience” (v. 9). In every man there is an understanding of right and wrong. Conscience has been described as “man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (Vatican Council II). Deep within himself man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself, but which he must obey. When a person does this, he is said to be “following his conscience.”

Christians should feel obligated to form their conscience in accordance with the word of God rather than the dictates of the culture in which they live or their personal sentiments. Developing such a Christian conscience is one aspect of the believer’s interior life. A person who ignores self-reflection remains weak and susceptible to every changing fad. When faced with a moral dilemma, he is unable to make his decision based on clear principles – biblical or otherwise – and usually does just what “everyone else” is doing. Like their first-century forebears, they have a weak conscience.

Food Offered to Idols Today

A few years ago a group of Pentecostals in Australia mounted a campaign against Cadbury chocolates, claiming that the company was offering their candy to idols. Their “proof” was that the packages were imprinted with the halal insignia, evidence that the candy was offered to the “Muslim idol,” Allah. The insignia merely signified that there were no pork products or other prohibited substances in the candy (some cream fillings have gelatin stabilizers). As St Paul said, “… if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know.

We well may encounter groups in our multicultural societies today who actually offer food to idols. Hindus and hare Krishna devotees, for example, have the custom of prasadam (food transformed into the grace of God, as one writer expresses it). These would be vegetable offerings that are “acquired without paid or suffering on the part of any creature,” offered before an altar in a meditation rite, then mingled with other foods, once the god or goddess has had a chance to partake.

Could you accept such food in the spirit of friendship with which it was offered, without acknowledging the god or goddess to whom it was offered? What do you think St Paul would say?
SAY GOOD-BYE 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). 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. 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). 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. As the Jewish people developed, the meat of certain animals, fish and other sea creatures came to be 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” (Genesis 10:15). Gentiles and all foods were acceptable to the Creator and were to be received by the followers of Christ.

Food Offered to Idols

One of the issues facing the early Church was the question of food offered to idols, as described in the Epistles of St Paul. As the Church moved into Europe it encountered groups that observed religious meals in which food offered to deities, or even the spirits of the dead, was consumed. Some believers were scandalized to see other Christians sharing in these meals. Paul begins his response to this question by saying, “Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge” (1 Corinthians 8:1). By this he meant that we know that this means nothing because idols are nothing: “We know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one” (v.4). In essence, then, eating this food didn’t matter because all the idols in the world couldn’t make food anything other than God’s creation. There was another side to the question which Paul finds even more important. Some new believers didn’t understand this principle and so were shocked to see other – presumably more mature – Christians eating or thought that the idol must be real after all. So Paul recasts the question: it’s not about eating food but about the effect on new believers. “Knowledge puffs up,” he writes, “but love edifies. And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. … for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled” (v. 1-2,7). So don’t eat, not because of the idols, but because harming the faith of the weak is more unchristian than eating this food. We hear this 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.
Food Offered to Idols Today?
Recently a group of Pentecostals in Australia mounted a campaign against Cadbury chocolates, claiming that the company was offering the candy to idols. Their “proof” was that packages were imprinted with the Halal insignia, evidence that the candy was offered to the “Muslim idol,” Allah! The insignia actually signified that there were no pork products in the candy (some cream fillings have gelatin stabilizers). As St Paul said, “… if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know.” We well may encounter groups in our multicultural societies today who offer food to idols. Hindus and hare Krishna devotees, for example, have the custom of prasadam (food “transformed into the grace of God,” as one writer expresses it). These would be vegetable offerings that are “acquired without pain and suffering on the part of any creature,” offered before an altar in a meditation rite, then mingled with other foods once the god or goddess has had a chance to partake. Could you accept such food in the spirit of love with which it was offered without acknowledging the god or goddess to whom it was offered? What do you think St Paul would say?
“I AM THE WAY, THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE; no one comes to the Father, except through me” (John 14:6). The incarnate Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the only one through whom we have access to God, to live the divine life in this world and in the age to come. Many Christians take this to mean that, unless one is explicitly a believer in Christ, he cannot be saved. What, then, of those who have never heard of Christ? What is to become of them? The Lord gives us the answer in His parable of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46). Here, we are told, that when the Son of Man comes in his glory “all the nations will be gathered before Him” (v. 32). “The nations” here translates the Greek term ta ethnē, which in the Scriptures generally refers to the Gentiles, those who are not Jews. Jesus’ hearers would know that those being judged here are the Gentiles, the mass of peoples who were not believers in the God of Israel. The Lord’s teaching about true believers is recorded in Jn 5:24: “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.” Those who have put on Christ and live in communion with God through Him already share in the divine life. Those who maintain their union with Christ will continue in that life after death. In Matthew’s parable Jesus is speaking about the judgment of nonbelievers. People are separated, some on the right and others on the left. Those on the right are described as righteous because they fed, clothed or welcomed Christ; those on the left are condemned because they did not. Neither group recognized Him, but those on the right simply did to the least what they thought was right. And for this they were proclaimed as “blessed of my Father” (v. 34). In light of this parable the Church’s teaching has been that those who do not know Christ yet follow their conscience in doing good to their fellow-man are blessed. As the Fathers of Vatican II declared, “For they who without their own fault do not know of the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but yet seek God with sincere heart, and try, under the influence of grace, to carry out His will in practice, known to them through the dictate of conscience, can attain eternal salvation” (Lumen gentium #16). People who seek to close heaven to nonbelievers often quote the risen Jesus’ words on sending forth the apostles: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16). Those who hear the gospel preached to them have the opportunity to accept or reject it. What about those who have rejected a distorted image of God, perhaps gained second-hand from a negative experience in the Church? Are they truly rejecting Christ? Today there are many baptized who have lost their faith. Some have even requested that their names be removed from the baptismal register, “the Book of Life” (Byzantine baptismal rite). Are they condemned? Whatever their fate on the last day, it is not for us to condemn them! We may the reason they lost their faith! The anonymous author of the fifth-century Incomplete Commentary on Matthew writes, “Just as someone who is wearing splendid clothing avoids every filthy object lest it by chance get dirty, so everyone who receives God in his heart and spirit ought to be careful so that he does not contaminate God, knowing that if God has been contaminated among us, He will remain uncontaminated in His own nature” (Homily 14). The God rejected by many is one “contaminated” because of our actions. If anything we should pray for those who have rejected Christ as well as for those who have never known Him.

The Parable and Us

If feeding the hungry is so important that it saves people who never knew Christ, what can it do for us? Among other things, it can help free us from the grip of materialism so prevalent in our consumer society today. We “must” have the latest, the fastest, the most attractive – otherwise we have somehow failed. If nothing else, feeding others takes us out of ourselves and connects us with others in a very basic way. And, according to the Gospel, it joins us to Christ Himself. The life of Christians who take this parable seriously is very different from that of those who are in the thrall of greed. Recently a New Orleans couple was thinking of adopting a disabled newborn. They told a local reporter, that the “reasons against” column was the longer; the “reasons for” were shorter. But it was topped, Royanne said, by the scriptural injunction in Matthew 25: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” Catherine Doherty, the late founder of the Madonna House communities was raised in Russia before the Communist takeover. She describes how this parable was lived in her home: “My father was in the diplomatic service, so he entertained all the diplomatic corps at our home in Petrograd one evening. Big deal: tea and wonderful trays of cakes, and 250 people. Suddenly the butler opened the door and said, ‘Christ at the door, sir.’ Well, the French ambassador’s wife dropped her cup; she had never heard anything like that. “My father and mother excused themselves from the 250 VIPs and walked into the next room. There they found a wino at the door. My father bowed low to him and opened the door. My mother set the table with the best linen and served him herself with my father’s help.” Catherine herself was about nine at the time and recalls asking, “Mommy, can I serve the gentleman?” Her mother replied, No, you were disobedient last week; you can’t serve Christ when you are disobedient.” “Now that’s my background,” Catherine wrote in her autobiography. “That’s how we were taught.” Acting in the spirit of this parable need not be so courageous. In his 57th homily on Matthew St John Chrysostom notes that we are not asked for much. “Mark how easy are His injunctions. He did not say, ‘I was in prison, and you set me free; I was sick, and you raised me up again;’ but, ‘you visited me,’ and, ‘ye came unto me.’” Making sandwiches for a homeless shelter or delivering meals to an elderly neighbor are not monumental or heroic actions, but they can number us among the blessed if done in the spirit of Christ. Almsgiving along with prayer and fasting in a spirit of repentance are the mileposts on our Lenten journey to Pascha. The spirit in which we fulfill them shows us how close we are to living the life of Christ in our world… or how far.
Knowing the commandments of the Lord, let this be our way of life: let us feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome strangers, visit those in prison and the sick. Then the Judge of the earth will say even to us: “Come, you whom My Father has blessed, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you!” From the Midnight Service

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