Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

A Brief Note on Fasting and How Christianity May Have Influenced Our Relationship with Meat

Posted in Fasting, Reflections, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 29 December 2018

While many Orthodox Christians have already celebrated the birth of Christ on December 25 along with Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians, by most estimates, many more Orthodox around the world (most, in fact) continue to observe the Nativity fast in preparation for the Christmas celebration on January 7. And by most estimates, the Orthodox of any calendar persuasion fast for more than two hundred days each year.

To be sure, the nature and strictness of fasting greatly depend on ethnic, cultural, and local traditions, health conditions, and personal preferences and opinions of individual lay Christians and clergy. Most people, however, agree that at a minimum, fasting includes abstinence from meat. Popular beliefs concerning the reasons for this abstinence are quite murky and range from some notion that meat dishes are best fitting for celebrations to an idea that we partake of animal passions when we eat meat. Naturally, such beliefs—as most popular beliefs—raise more questions than provide answers. A working man eating a cheap turkey sandwich he bought for his lunch at a gas station is hardly celebrating in the same way as someone who roasted a whole pig for his daughter’s wedding (or even as someone who enjoyed a vegan cake instead of the roasted pig). Likewise, when it comes to passions, it seems that cows are a lot less passionate than humans, and we should eat more beef during our fasts in order to attain their serenity and contentment.

Moreover, it may be that we abstain from meat a lot more than the early Christians did. According to Tertullian, for example, abstinence from meat was required for only two weeks a year: “…how limited is the extent of our “interdiction of meats!” Two weeks of xerophagies in the year (and not the whole of these — the Sabbaths, to wit, and the Lord’s days, being excepted)…” (In Opposition to the Psychics, ch. 15). Of course, the early Christians also fasted for various other reasons and occasions: mourning, fighting against temptations, fervent prayer, or preparation for baptism: “…you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before…” (The Didache, ch. 7). But would all of that put together come close to our 200-plus days a year? The early tradition was less established and more varied than ours; Tertullian and The Didache do not represent the fullness of the early Christian custom of fasting. But painting with broad strokes and overgeneralizing, it may be that, on average, we fast more today than most Orthodox Christians before us at any other time in the history of the Church. Are we now more righteous, more pious, or less passionate? Are we better at mourning or fighting against temptations? Answers to these questions are not necessarily obvious, since we have a tendency to idealize previous generations of Christians. But are we less passionate or less tempted than a contemporary observant Roman Catholic who replaces his steak with a lobster tail—but only on Fridays and only during Great Lent? What if we took a look at our disciplines through an evidence-based approach?

One important thing that may distinguish us from ancient people in general and early Christians in particular—and not in our favor, I would argue—is our attitude toward meat. The ancients understood that a life, including that of an animal, belongs not to them but to God or gods and goddesses. This belief was common to as many traditions around the world as my ignorance can think of at the moment. Whether Native Americans or Africans before a hunt or ancient Romans and Jews before a feast—all prayed and sacrificed before eating. An echo of this can be heard in the Apostle Paul’s dialogue with the Corinthians and the Romans. In what we now know as 1 Corinthians, Paul offers his reply to the practice of some who are “strong” eating meat sacrificed to idols and by doing so, tempting those who are “weak” and in their “weakness” eat only “herbs” (Rom. 14:2). The strong ones [in the faith] know quite correctly that “an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one” (1 Cor. 8:4). So, having no source of meat from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem due to the difficulties with transporting fresh meat from Jerusalem to Rome or Corinth, strong Romans and Corinthians procured their meats from their neighborhood Pagan temples. The weak, on the other hand, may have noted that the Gadarene legion of demons begged to enter into swine—the animals raised for sacrifices in Pagan temples (just as lambs were raised for sacrifices in the Jewish Temple)—and very reasonably chose not to partake of meat but enjoy “herbs” instead. The fact is, there simply was no commercial factory-style meat production in the ancient world. All animal lives belonged to a deity, all were sacrificed on an altar, and only the “leftovers” from the divine meal were consumed by people. Even today, the ancient Jewish practice of shechita—the ritual slaughter of animals for food—requires that certain portions be given to a Kohen, a priest of the Aaronic priesthood, in a direct connection to the sacrificial worship in the Temple.

When the angel appeared to shepherds in a field near Bethlehem, the choice of the animal husbandry profession was not random. In essence, the angel announced to the shepherds that their employer—the Temple—was going out of business. The Lamb of God was born, the true and only sacrifice, the One who made the sacrifices of young sheep, including those the shepherds were guarding, obsolete. Unlike the Temple, however, the shepherds were not altogether out of work. Christians soon figured out that “meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse” (1 Cor. 8:8) and that “the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:17). And so, we de-divinized and de-ritualized the raising and slaughter of animals. We put them in factory farms and then processed them through a conveyer-belt slaughterhouse. Most Christians (at least, in industrialized countries) are so divorced from the entire process of raising and slaughtering of animals that to them, the meat they eat is a tasty food, or a good source of protein, or a potential risk factor for colorectal cancer, or a global warming problem—anything but a life that was taken.

Perhaps, those who lived in pre-industrial times as well as those who raise their own animals on small family farms today have a very different perspective. And certainly, Christian theology is not solely to blame for the ills of the modern world, including our lack of connection to the animals we eat. But maybe somewhere—in more fervent prayers before and after a meal, in a more ritualized approach to cooking, an a more thankful heart—there could be room for a re-kindling of the humble realization that “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1), that the lives we take are not ours to have, that we do not have some “inalienable right” to them, but one that was given to us by the Creator of those lives, and that a more conscientious approach to cooking the Thanksgiving turkey or the Christmas ham may indeed be a very good holiday tradition to contemplate.

Merry Christmas! God bless us, every one!

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