As I was leaving for work I told my husband that I would pick up some fish for supper, and my daughter asked if it was not one of those post-feast “you get to eat meat” days. At that point we entered in a discussion about the why of fasting on Fridays, after a few jokes being made about the seemingly arbitrary rules of the Church on this issue. (FYI –the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church still retains the Friday abstinence rules—done away with in the Latin Church.) Our discussion
continued… why fish? Why not just vegetables? Why Friday? Why should the Church govern what we eat, anyway? Then our discussion turned to how completely foreign and silly this seems to people living in the world today, but then God and Church are foreign concepts to most people.
So where do we start? My son’s complaint about the whole thing was that there was no real rational explanation that could be given for fasting or abstaining from meat on Friday. This of course applies to faith in general, as well. My response was that as an Eastern Christian I personally did not approach it by looking for rationalistic explanations. It is about the inclinations of the heart—it’s about love and our response to love. This is how my Baba approached this question. She loved God. She was convinced of His love for her. She was also convinced about the wisdom of the Church in leading her to God and directing her to live a life that would be pleasing to Him. So if the Church said ‘no meat on Friday’ that was the way it would be. Done deal.
Of course, today that convinces no one. It presupposes a life of faith. That is a whole other blog. However, there are very rational reasons for abstinence and fasting other than this blessing that is received by the very innocent and childlike faith of my Baba. These arguments presuppose faith but offer us faith with understanding—in other words a theology of fasting and abstinence. The Church Fathers, who started these traditions, had great wisdom about the spiritual life and how one could make progress, in one’s spiritual journey, in becoming more Christ-like (Theosis).
Turning first towards scripture we see Christ fasting for 40 days in the desert. He was tempted by the devil—“turn these stones into bread” Matt. 4:3. Clearly it was within Christ’s power to do so. We are dependent on food. We need it for life. Yet we are often unaware of this dependence until we are deprived, hungry and thirsty. The very fact that we have the things we need is miraculous. Scientifically who cannot help but marvel at the life-sustaining atmosphere on the planet we call home, which as yet we have not found replicated in any other of the planets of our solar system. If this does not evoke wonder and gratitude in loving and life sustaining Creator, and a sense of responsibility for correct use of the resources we have been given, perhaps it is because we have never ever really experienced going without. Yet it is precious few of us who are willing or interested in going without, even for a short time. Our faith suggests to us that we should do this regularly—every Friday.
In fairness giving up meat does not seem like a very big sacrifice–especially if you are like me and not a big meat eater anyway. On the other hand it is huge for someone who is a “meatatarian”, like my husband. After all Christ died for us on a Friday, the ultimate act of love. This small sacrifice seems like such a pittance in the face of such overwhelming love. It also seems like a small discipline in attaining virtue and overcoming our inclinations to do things that are contrary to our own good—to sin. However, it brings to mind how the Church Fathers continually advise the taking of small steps in the spiritual journey rather than trying to do too much and becoming discouraged. Also even a small deprivation can feel enormous just because it is a denial of our appetites.
The final thing I think is relevant to this reflection, which really is only scratches the surface on this issue, is the fact that teaching our children to fast or abstain from small things helps us to teach them that even good things, in fact especially good things, are worth waiting for. The objects of our appetite or desires such as food, drink, and sex are all good things. However, if they are taken out of the context that God intended, and our desires rule all our decisions and actions, they can become such intense distortions that they become destructive and death-dealing, instead of life-giving, the way they were intended by God.
So it is time to go get that fish for supper. Hope this helps in understanding at least some of reasons for our “fish Fridays”. I would love to hear from you—what questions remain? What additional perspective would you like to add?