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TALK ON THE APOSTLE READING
MEATFARE SUNDAY AND ON FASTING
Now as with all things in the Greek world this is another occasion for a family get together and celebration with the barbeques burning away and other meat dishes washed down with gallons of beer and wine. In popular language the day is also known as “η Πρώτη Σήκωσης” in other words “the First Lifting” which refers to the lifting of certain foods from the household larder. In this case it is the lifting of all meat products which have to be lifted from the larder and consumed before the start of “Cheesefare week” which begins on the Monday. From this Monday that passed we entered the week known as “Cheesefare Week” and as the name implies we don’t eat meat but cheese and dairy products, eggs and fish every day with the purpose of using up the surplus stored up in the fridge. The week comes to a climax with “Cheesefare Sunday” and another excuse for a family celebration. It is also known as “η Δεύτερη Σήκωσης” or the Second Lifting and again refers to lifting and consuming from the home all the non meat products that are not allowed to be eaten during the Lenten Fast. The main treat of the day which has come to be identified with Cheesefare Sunday are the “Bourekia”. These are pastries filled with the Cypriot soft cheese “Anari”, sugar and cinnamon. Similarly in the West there is Shrove Tuesday which in times when the West actually fasted they made pancakes and had the same purpose of using up the dairy products before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday.
In practice most people don’t observe Cheesefare Week and still eat meat until just before the fast begins. The actual fast is also not observed as it should be. Many observe only the first week of the fast and Holy Week leaving out the weeks in between. But as Christians we are obliged to do our best to be obedient to the rules of the Church. There are many reasons why we fast and many benefits that we can receive from proper fasting. Today I want to speak to you of these benefits, but first we need to understand that food in general is not a sin. Whatever God has created is good and if a sin is involved in eating meat it is not because of the food itself, but because of the disobedience to the Church’s rule for fasting. To understand this better I want us to look at last Sunday’s Apostle reading which talks about not eating meat although it has nothing to do with fasting. St. Paul was talking about the meats offered to idols which certain Christians ate without thinking it might be a sin and other who were scandalized by seeing these brethren eating and even tempted to join in, which many did, but with a heavy conscience that they were gravely sinning.
Let’s here the reading and then see its interpretation. The reading is from the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians.
“Brethren, meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. But take heed lest by any means this liberty of your's become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol's temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend. Am I not an apostle? am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? are not ye my work in the Lord? If I be not an apostle unto others, yet doubtless I am to you: for the seal of mine apostleship are ye in the Lord.” (Corinthians 8: 8-13, 9: 1-2)
The reading was chosen for Meatfare Sunday because it appears to be talking about fasting and especially about eating and not eating meat. As I already said Paul was not referring to the fasting of meat but of meats offered to idols, which was a big problem that faced the early Church as it spread into the idol worshipping world of the Gentiles. It was chosen for the reading for Meatfare Sunday for two basic reasons; the first because it contains words like eating and not eating, meat and scandalize, which has a direct relationship with fasting and the character of the day and the listener is left with the notion that it is talking about the oncoming fast and draws the attention of the faithful to the duty of fasting. The second reason is because it teaches about freedom and love, in other words the freedom of every Christian who as a member of the Church is obliged to live with love towards his fellow brethren the other members of the Church’s body.
So what exactly was the problem with the meats offered to the idols? All the great events in the lives of the gentiles, in other words those who worshiped the ancient gods, ended with sacrificial offerings which were followed by meat eating dinners. Of the slaughtered animals only the feet and the intestines were burnt and the rest were eaten at the dinners or were sold at the market place. Many of the Christians who came from the ranks of the gentiles found it difficult to totally break away from their family and social relationships and often took part in the dinners. Others who would buy meat from the marketplace were faced with the problem whether they were buying meat that was offered to the idols.
St. Paul separates the Christians into two groups: the strong in faith and the weak in faith. The strong in faith were those who understood “that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one” (1 Cor. 8:4) and because an idol is nothing they partook unhindered and ate of the meats offered to idols without having a problem with their conscience. But there were the other Christians of a weak conscience who had the opinion that anyone eating of these meats became contaminated by them. Because of their simple mindedness they couldn’t understand how it was possible for someone to eat of the meats and not be committing a grave sin. In other words they continued to feel that there was still something real in the idols and in the meats that were offered to them. There were others who seeing the strong in faith eating unhindered of the idol meats were also tempted to take part, but with a feeling that they were doing something holy and worth of respect.
For the Church at the time the problem was damaging. Those who were weak accused those who ate that they were putting in danger the Christian faith by intermixing it with idolatry. On the other hand the strong in faith mocked the weak in faith accusing them that they were still not freed from the influences of the idols and that their Christianity was uncertain. In his attempt to bring an end to these arguments, Paul is called to bring unity to the local Church of Corinth by solving the problem and setting a rule that both sides would be obliged to observe.
The reading we heard is preceded by seven verses in which Paul lays down the theological base by which he will negotiate the argument and this is the role of love in having knowledge of God. The Apostle continues with the first verse of our reading
8) “Brethren, meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.”
Here he is defending the strong in faith who ate of the idol meats either by taking part in the common dinners or who bought the meats from the marketplace for their personal or family use. The first thing he underlines is that “meat commends us not to God”. Our place before God is not defined by what we eat. The natural use of food which in this case is the meats offered to the idols is something indifferent and neutral. Neither if we eat is our position improved with God, but neither if we don’t eat is our position improved.
Each person is free to eat or not to eat because it is not food that makes us worthy before God. St. Paul, in understanding the freedom of every Christian, does not take sides with the argument of the strong in faith that their free use of the idol meats showed that they totally disregarded the idol gods and saw the meats for what they really were which were just meats and nothing else. Thus they considered that eating of the idol meats was in fact a virtue and an accomplishment because by eating they showed their total belief in only one God. In contrast to this understanding Paul shows them in the following verse that their freedom is not without boundaries and prepositions.
9) “But take heed lest by any means this liberty of your's become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.”
St. Paul warns the Corinthians that maybe their liberty to eat of the idol meats becomes an obstacle and a cause for the weaker brothers to be scandalized and it is at this point that the Christian’s freedom has its limits. As Christians we are obliged to be watchful not to use our freedom however freely we would like, in case our freedom becomes a stumbling block which the weak in faith will trip over and be injured by the fall.
10) “For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol's temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols;”
To justify the correctness of his argument Paul gives them an example which the Corinthians came across on a daily bases. The example refers to the two groups of Christians; the ones who had knowledge and were strong and sat in the temple of the gentiles eating the idol meats and the weak Christian who seeing the other freely eating takes courage to do the same, the only difference is that the weak in faith is weighed down by his conscience because he still continues to recognize the idol meats as he did before when he belonged to the ranks of the gentiles. He saw the meats not as God’s creation but as sacrifices to the idol gods.
11) “And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?”
The great responsibility of the Christians who caused the weaker members to be scandalized by eating unreservedly of the idol meats is shown even more clearly in this verse as also in the next. Paul points out the specific danger. It is not just a scandalization of the weaker Christians but the danger of perishing by being draw back into idol worshipping. Thus the responsibility for those causing this loss was enormous because it concerned a weaker brother for whom Christ died for. They were destroying someone whom Christ had saved.
12) “But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.”
The actions of the Corinthian Christians who thought they had knowledge and therefore ate of the idol meats ultimately constituted a sin against their brethren. Defining the type and gravity of the sin Paul adds “and wound their weak conscience”. The conscience of the weak Christian needs to be dealt with tenderly with strength and support. When, instead of this, we not only scandalize but wound their weak conscience we are gravely sinning. Paul didn’t just say scandalize but used the word wound to show the harshness of the situation, because how more cruel can it be for a man to hit a sick person. And Paul adds that this sin is done against Christ. Firstly – because Christ identifies himself with his servants. Secondly – because they who are wounded belong to his body and are part of his members. And thirdly because the strong demolish the work that Christ built with his death.
As Christian we are not alone; we belong to the Church which is the body of Christ. Christ is the head and we the members of his body. Thus not only to scandalize but every sin we do, even the ones we think only harm ourselves, are sins that harm the Church; the body of Christ. By sinning against our brethren we sin against Christ.
13) “Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.”
This verse summarizes Paul’s argument and comprises the teaching he advices. If by eating meat it causes a brother to be scandalized then rather that having this sin on one’s shoulder it is better to rid ourselves of the cause which in this case was the idol meats. What he is actually saying is that we must exercise a limit to our freedom and the limit is defined by love for one’s brethren. And as he says elsewhere “We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” (Romans 15:1)
Freedom does not exist without love and is not defined without love. The coexistence of freedom and love is crucial to the unity of the Church and the harmonic life of her members. As already said we are members of one body; the body of the Church. We believe in one Lord; we received the same baptism; we live the same life of Christ; we have the same expectations and hope. That means we are bound by the same holy bonds; the love of Christ and the unity of the Holy Spirit. Thus in the Church we cannot do whatever we want or whatever it pleases us. We cannot ignore others and think only of ourselves. Our freedom must be governed by love. The scandalization of others through our own doing shows that our freedom is not genuine and that in our hearts there is no room for others. This is what St. Paul is underlining when he said “Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.”
Of course the Corinthians were free to eat or not to eat of the idol meats, however they shouldn’t have ignored the existence of the weaker brothers who through their actions were scandalized. Therefore Paul used the opportunity to teach us that in the Church our freedom has a boundary and this boundary is love.
I will skip the remaining verses because it doesn’t concern the subject of fasting.
How can we apply this teaching to our fasting? From what Paul says it is clear that meat in itself is not a sin therefore we do not fast from certain foods because they are harmful to our spiritual wellbeing. The Church laid down the rules for fasting and as members of the same body we are obliged to be obedient to these rules which help us keep in check our freedom. If for example someone eats meat during the fast and is seen by these so called weaker members and they become scandalized because of it then we are committing a sin against our brethren and therefore against Christ. Even someone who for medical reasons cannot keep the fast, he is obliged to be careful how he exercises his freedom to eat because the other person doesn’t know of his medical condition. In his home he can do whatever he wants but in public he is obliged to appear as though he is fasting lest he scandalizes someone with the food that he eats.
I too have my doctor’s orders not to fast but wouldn’t it be hypocritical of me to teach on the one hand that we must keep the fast and on the other hand to be seen by members of my flock gulping down chunks of meat and dairy products. They don’t know that my prescribed diet is in fact more difficult and more restrained because I am very limited in what foods I’m allowed to consume.
We have seen then that we are all obliged to fast but why do we fast and what benefits can we except to receive from fasting?
We often hear people saying that fasting is a man made rule so why should we be forced to keep it. Fasting is in fact as old as the human race. Fasting was practiced by pagan religions, Judaism and Christianity, and it was generally considered an important element of religious life. In the ancient religions of the East fasting meant a complete abstention from food for a certain period of time – usually one or two days. In fact the Greek word for fasting = Νηστεία means a total fast where nothing passes the mouth.
But regardless of which religions practiced fasting, the roots of fasting go right back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The very first commandment God gave to Adam was a type of Fast. God told Adam that he could eat freely of every tree of the garden, but not of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In other words, God instituted fasting in Paradise and from what we read in Genesis, it is clear that fasting existed even before the “original sin” of Adam and Eve, and that it was not ordered as a cure for their sin. The fasting in Paradise consisted of abstaining of a certain food — namely of “the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which was created by God as well as all other trees in Paradise. God’s commandment to Adam and Eve not to eat of the particular fruit was issued as a means for them to advance in the discipline of self-control and for spiritual growth. This means that the first man in Paradise was not perfect, but was good and capable to improve and develop his spiritual and moral personality.
By an act of disobedience, Adam and Eve violated the vow of abstinence and broke the living union of love with God. Adam’s fall was his free will; That is, he held in scorn the heavenly obligations of prayer and fasting by eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Lack of abstinence, then, was the cause of the Fall and because of this original greed, the soul became dimmed, and was deprived of the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Adam lost Paradise through gluttony, but now through fasting, through obedience to the rules of the Church regarding the use of spiritual and material goods, we may return to the life in Paradise, a life of communion with God. Fasting therefore, is a means of salvation, this salvation being a life we live in accordance with the Divine will, in communion with God.
Fasting goes hand in hand with repentance. Fasting understood in this way was practiced both in the Old and New Testament and throughout the entire history of the Church. Two events in the Bible have a great similarity and are interdependence on each other. One we find at the beginning of the Old Testament and the other at the beginning of the New Testament. The first is the ‘breaking of the fast’ by Adam in Paradise. This is how man’s original sin is revealed to us. The second event is with Christ, the new Adam, who prepares for his ministry by fasting. Adam was tempted and succumbed to temptation. The result of Adam’s failure is expulsion from Paradise and death. The fruit of Christ’s victory is the destruction of death and man’s return to Paradise. It is clear, that in this perspective, fasting is revealed to us as something decisive and ultimate in importance. It is not a mere ‘obligation’, or a custom; it is connected with the very mystery of life and death, of salvation and damnation. St. Basil the Great, said: Because we did not fast, we were chased out of Paradise; let us fast now, so that some day we return there.
Before we begin to fast we must understand what fasting is. It is a tool that the Church gives us to help us keep in check our free will, but it is also a means which helps us to free ourselves from the dependence of food and other material things with the aim of making us aware that our life does not depend on food but on God. This is clear from the account of Christ’s own fast in the wilderness before he began his ministry. “When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He became hungry”. (Matt. 4:2) Hunger is that state in which we realize our dependence on something else—when we urgently and essentially need food—showing thus that we have no life in ourselves. It is that limit beyond which I either die from starvation or, having satisfied my body, have again the impression of being alive. It is, in other words, the time when we face the ultimate question: on what does my life depend? It is also the time of temptation. Satan came to Adam in Paradise; he came to Christ in the desert. He came to two hungry men and said: eat, for your hunger is the proof that you depend entirely on food, that your life is in food. And Adam believed and ate; but Christ rejected that temptation and said: man shall not live by bread alone but by God. He refused to accept that cosmic lie which Satan imposed on the world, and by doing this, Christ restored that relationship between food, life, and God which Adam broke, and which we still break every day.
What then is fasting for us Christians? It is our entrance and participation in that experience of Christ Himself by which He liberates us from the total dependence on food, matter, and the world. By no means is our liberation a full one. Living still in the fallen world, we still depend on food. But just as our death—through which we still must pass—has become by virtue of Christ’s Death a passage into life, the food we eat and the life it sustains can be life in God and for God. Part of our food has already become “food of immortality’—the Body and Blood of Christ Himself. But even the daily bread we receive from God can be in this life and in this world that which strengthens our communion with God, rather than that, which separates us from God. It is only fasting that can perform that transformation, giving us the living proof that our dependence on food and matter is not total, not absolute, but that united to prayer, grace, and adoration, it can itself be spiritual.
All this means that deeply understood, fasting is the only means by which man recovers his true spiritual nature. It is highly significant that it was while fasting that Christ met Satan and that He said later that Satan cannot be overcome “except by fasting and prayer.”
Fasting helps us to place a boundary to our own egotistic desires, it is a voluntary self denial with the intention of disciplining ourselves to live according to what is truly necessary and not according to worldly pleasures. In this sense it is a real fight because we are doing battle not only with the devil but with our passions which can be stronger than any temptation he can hurl at us to bring us down. Self denial is a means to salvation: Our Lord Jesus Christ calls all of us to salvation through self-denial (Luke 14:26) “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” (Matt. 16:24) Thus, the Saviour calls man to the voluntary fulfilment of those heavenly obligations, which he himself freely forsook, of observing prayer and fasting.
Fasting is not just an exercise of giving up certain foods: if done properly it can bring about a spiritual change in us and if at the end of the fast we feel the same then we can be sure that our fast was not conducted correctly. There is a right and a wrong way of fasting and only if done correctly can it bring forth the fruits of the Holy Spirit. This Sunday’s Gospel reading gives us a warning on how to guard ourselves from unprofitable fasting. Christ said: “When ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.”
In other words when we fast, we shouldn’t fast as the Pharisees did who fasted because the law told them that they must fast and took pride in showing others that they were righteous because they obeyed the law and fasted. Two of the strongest passions we need to overcome is our pride and vainglory. Vainglory is the desire to be recognized by others, the desire to receive their praise and glory. We all suffer from it and it is what stimulates many of our daydreams and fantasies. The Pharisees were vainglorious because by fasting openly in front of all to see they pursued praise and recognition for their religious activities.
Vainglory is what its name implies - an empty glory, because it doesn’t join us with God: it is not a result of our relationship with him. Fasting with the intent of showing others how good a Christian we are is actually a diabolical trap, because it increases our pride, it seeks for human praises and becomes unprofitable and even harmful. Fasting is not an act of religiousness because we what to appear to others as religious. If our fast has the element of pride with the feeling that we want to be rewarded for our effort with praises from others, then we shouldn’t expect any reward from God: it is a false fast and we might just as well not fast at all. To avoid this diabolical trap it is essential to bear the Cross of humility, to observe an unseen fast, a fast that is kept in secret that only God can see. Only then is fasting pleasing to God. To be effectual fasting must always be accompanied with humility, prayer and repentance.
The aim of bodily fasting is the enslavement of the flesh, fasting bridles the lust of the stomach and of that below the stomach, meaning the removal of the passions. When we overcome the stomach then the healing process begins to subdue and then remove the deadly passions.
In fasting the flesh and the spirit struggle one against the other. True bodily fasting leads to the triumph of the spirit over the body, and gives a man power over the stomach, it subdues the flesh and permits it not to commit fornication and uncleanness. The fathers say that abstinence is the mother of cleanliness, the giver of health and is good for rich and poor, sick and healthy, alike. It strengthens the seeker after godliness in spiritual battles and proves to be a formidable weapon against evil spirits. As the Lord Himself said, concerning the casting-out of certain demons: This kind never cometh out except by prayer and fasting. (Matt. 17:21)
This fasting, however, is not to be done out of pride or self-will; It must be observed in the praise of God and must be in accordance with the canons of the Church, since it consists in the complete renunciation of self-will and of the desires. At the same time, we must realize that for fallen man to attain perfection, even intensive fasting is insufficient, if in his soul he does not abstain from those things, which further sin. Fasting is not only the abstinence from food, but also from evil thoughts and all passion, for, as the Saviour says: Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man... (Matt. 15:17-20) Thus exterior fasting, without the corresponding interior fasting is in vain.
Here we should mention that fasting in the Orthodox Church has two aspects: physical and spiritual. The first one implies abstinence from rich food, such as dairy products, eggs and all kinds of meat. Spiritual fasting consists in abstinence from evil thoughts, desires, and deeds. The main purpose of fasting is to gain mastery over oneself and to conquer the passions of the flesh. It is to liberate oneself from dependence on the things of this world in order to concentrate on the things of the Kingdom of God.
Fasting is a spiritual exercise of self-discipline and self-control. It is not at all an act of religiousness because we what to appear to others as religious. It is not a “little suffering” which is somehow pleasing to God. It is not a punishment, which is to be sorrowfully endured in payment for sins. On the contrary, fasting for a Christian should be a joyful experience, because fasting is a self-discipline, which we voluntarily impose upon ourselves in order to become better persons and better Christians. Fasting is essential for us to regain control over our bodies. We live in a society where Gluttony has become a way of life. We all eat too much, and fasting is the only way to end this unnatural obsession with food. Fasting puts food into its proper perspective. We must eat in order to live, but we shouldn’t simply live to eat.” The saints teach that for us to purify our hearts we must begin with the control of our bodily desires through fasting. But fasting involves a lot more than just giving up certain foods. St. John Chrysostom says that fasting implies not only abstinence from food, but from sins also. “The fast,” he insists, “should be kept not by the mouth alone, but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body: the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice.” It is useless to fast from food, protests St. Basil, and yet to indulge in cruel criticism and slander: “You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother.
True fasting means to put away all evil, to control the tongue, to forbear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury. Only if we renounce these things is our fasting true and acceptable to God. Let us keep the Fast not only by refraining from food, but by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions.
Prayer and fasting should in their turn be accompanied by almsgiving, by love for others expressed in practical form, by works of compassion and forgiveness. Fasting must be undertaken willingly and not by compulsion. God doesn't need our fasting. We don't fast as a kind of personal punishment for our sins. We cannot pay God back for sins but we can only confess them to Him to receive forgiveness.
Fasting with a willing spirit and not just with an attitude of fulfilling a religious obligation means that we keep the purposes of fasting always before us, which is to develop self control and to remember God and His Kingdom. That way we fast not only in what we eat but also in how much we eat. Fasting is simplicity of eating. We leave the table not with loaded stomachs. Being a little hungry during the day becomes a constant reminder of God, of our dependence on Him, and of the fact that the Lord alone can give us “food that lasts for eternal life”(John 6:27).
Fasting then is a powerful tool which can help us to rid ourselves of the bad elements in us. It purifies not only the body but also the soul and helps to lift the veil of darkness from our eyes to see the things that are really important for our salvation. This is why it is used as a preparation before Holy Communion, because when undertaken properly, fasting fills our hearts and minds with the task before us. It concentrates our spiritual energies and makes them more effective by constantly reminding us that our life depends entirely with God. This is why it is also used as a preparation before the Great Feasts such as the oncoming Feast of Easter. In this case it is not to prepare us for Holy Communion on Easter night because we can have Communion many times during the Great fast. It is to prepare us to enter and experience the Feast with spiritual eyes and to participate fully in the joy of the Resurrection.