Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
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)
 
BEFORE THERE WERE FREEZERS and refrigerators, preparing for the Great Fast involved cleaning out any meat or dairy products on hand. In parts of Europe meats would be cured for consumption after Pascha. Many Greeks observe what has been called “Roasted Thursday” – the Thursday in Meatfare week when all meats would be cooked to be eaten by the weekend. Many Slavs observe maslenitsa, the Slavic version of carnival, using remaining dairy products to make blini and other rich pastries for Cheesefare week. Another aspect of preparing for the Great Fast – which has nothing to do with food – takes place on the Wednesday and Friday of Cheesefare week. We observe the cycle of daily services using the Lenten form which will be our manner of prayer during the weekdays of the Great Fast. The Lenten forms of daily prayer include the following variations from our ordinary practice:
  • The Divine Liturgy is not served, so that the entire day may be a fast day;
  • Every service is longer than usual and includes the prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian, recited while making a number of prostrations;
  • Most daily services contain more psalms on fast days than otherwise;
  • Orthros (matins) includes Biblical canticles on which our canons are based;
  • Vespers includes readings from the Old Testament every day;
  • Another Old Testament reading is included in the Sixth Hour on fast days;
  • Other texts, such as patristic homilies or The Ladder by St John Climacos might be added in monasteries.

Great Compline

Perhaps the greatest variation in the daily cycle occurs in compline, the Church’s prayer for the end of the day. Like many of our daily offices, compline is the Christian’s personal night prayer which became formalized as a liturgical service with the development of monasticism in the fourth century. Its Byzantine title, apodeipnon (the after-supper prayer), reflects its monastic origin. The evening meal would be the day’s last common activity. The monks would disperse to their cells and recite compline there or before the door of the church on the way to their cells. Today compline ordinarily is served in church and concludes with an intercessory litany and prayers for mutual forgiveness of the day’s offenses. In this form it is often used in parishes after meetings or classes. The Lenten form – Great Compline – on the other hand, is a solemnly sung service with several hymns and refrains designed for cantors and choirs singing in response to one another. The first of these is a choral version of Isaiah 8:9-10 and 9:2, 6 with the refrain “God is with us.” This chant is often associated with Christmas. In fact, Great Compline is also served on the eves of Christmas and the Theophany, which are fast days. In Slavic churches this service is often joined to Liti hymns with the blessing of wheat, wine and oil and/or matins as an all-night vigil. The second hymn in Great Compline is a praise of God culminating with the words of the seraphim, also taken from Isaiah, “Holy, holy, holy, O thrice-holy Lord!” which is followed by a litany invoking the intercession of the saints. The final antiphonal chant is Psalm 150 sung with the refrain “O Lord of Hosts, be with us…” In Arabic-speaking countries Great Compline is popularly called “Lord of hosts” because of this refrain. Another unusual part of this service is the Prayer of Manasseh, King of Judah. We read in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles that Manasseh was one of the most idolatrous kings of Judah. Taken captive by the Assyrians, Manasseh repented and was eventually restored to his throne (see 2 Chronicles 33:15–17). The prayer is found in some editions of the Bible in both East and West but not in others. In the sixteenth century Pope Clement VIII included the prayer in an appendix to the Vulgate, stating that it should continue to be read “lest it perish entirely.” During the first week of the Great Fast a Gospel reading and canon may be included in Great Compline as well.

The Old Testament Readings

During the Great Fast the readings at the Sixth Hour are taken from Isaiah while at vespers we read from Genesis and Proverbs. During Cheesefare week, however, we read from two other books. On Wednesday the readings are from the prophet Joel who called the people of Jerusalem to fast in response to a plague of locusts: “Now, therefore,” says the Lord, “Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm ... Blow the trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast, call a sacred assembly; gather the people, sanctify the congregation…” (Joel 2:12-16). Some interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, have seen the “locusts” as referring to those members of the Jewish people who, in the words of Isaiah 5:8, “join house to house and field to field,” devouring their country in the pursuit of excess. This understanding is particularly appropriate for the beginning of our fast when the Lord calls us to eliminate excess from our lives that we might fill them with Him. On Friday we read from the prophet Zechariah who lived during the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. He too speaks of fasting but in a joyful context: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be joy and gladness and cheerful feasts for the house of Judah. Therefore love truth and peace’” (Zechariah 8:19). Fasting here is joyful not somber because it heralds the blessings of God. The result of this fast, according to the prophet, is a people so transformed that others will be drawn to God by seeing His presence in their lives. “Thus says the LORD of hosts: In those days ten men of every nationality, speaking different tongues, shall take hold, yes, take hold of every Jew by the edge of his garment and say, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (Zechariah 8:23).
Cheesefare Week Hymns
Through greed we were once stripped naked, overcome by the bitter tasting of the forbidden fruit, and we were exiled from God. Let us turn back in repentance, fasting from the food that gives us pleasure. Let us purify our senses on which our Enemy makes war. Let us strengthen our hearts with the hope of grace, and not with foods which brought no benefits to those who trusted in them. Our food shall be the Lamb of God on the holy and radiant night of His Rising. He is the Victim offered for us, given in communion to the Apostles on the evening of the Mysteries, who scatters the darkness of ignorance by the Light of His Resurrection! The gateway to divine repentance has been opened. Let us enter eagerly, purified in our bodies and observing abstinence from food and passions, as obedient servants of Christ, who has called the world into the heavenly Kingdom. Let us offer to the King of All a tenth part of the whole year, that we may look with love upon His Resurrection. Let us hasten to wash away through fasting the filth of our transgressions. Through acts of mercy and compassion to the needy, let us enter into the bridal chamber of Christ the Bridegroom, who grants us His great mercy.
 
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 (Greece), to 49 (Syria) pounds 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 would be given to the priests and the rest returned to the person offering the sacrifice to be served in a banquet to friends and neighbors. This created the dilemma for the first Christians which St. Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians. Should a believer eat the meat that his neighbor had offered to Jupiter or any pagan divinity? Would that 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, so 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 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. The educated considered themselves to be “Gnostics,” those 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 tent-makers! 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 by acquiring gnosis (superior knowledge) not obvious to the ordinary man. They found their salvation, not in 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 urge them to put the welfare of the weaker brethren ahead of their own. Yes, Paul said in effect, it’s ok to eat food at pagan festivals but it’s not ok to scandalize brethren who don’t understand how this could be. And the reason for this is that we are all members of the one body of Christ: “But beware lest 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” (vv.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 the 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, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6 1-3). Not only the intellectual elite but 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 obliged 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 just does what “everyone else” is doing. Like their first century forebears, they have a weak conscience.
St Theodore and the Boiled Wheat
The last non-Christian ruler of the Roman Empire, Julian the Apostate (361-363) sought to revive the ancient glory of Rome by restoring its ancient pagan religion at the expense of Christianity. During the first week of the Great Fast, when many people were not eating for much of the week, Julian ordered the Prefect of Constantinople to sprinkle all the food in the marketplaces with the blood from sacrifices offered to idols. People would have to eat this food on the weekend and thus, he reasoned, honor the gods that he worshipped. Seemingly Julian had not read 1 Corinthians. In any case, St Theodore the Recruit, martyred some 50 years before, appeared in a dream to Archbishop Eudoxius, ordering him to inform all the Christians that no one should buy anything at the marketplaces, but rather to eat cooked wheat with honey (kolyva) instead. Eating Julian’s doctored foods would suggest to people that his idols were real. The faithful ate kolyva instead; there would be no return to paganism. Since the time of Patriarch Nectarios (381-397) the Byzantine Churches have remembered this event on the first Saturday in the Great Fast. The Canon to St Theodore is sung, then kolyva is blessed in memory of St. Theodore’s intervention.
 
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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