For a faith whose central act of worship is a shared meal, history records a surprisingly diverse relationship between Christians and food.
This month we will be invited to begin the observance of a Holy Lent through study of the scriptures, prayer and fasting, which, following Jesus’s example in the desert, is usually interpreted as abstaining from certain foods.
Clement of Alexandria decried those who practised what he described as the “useless art of making pastry.” Augustine of Hippo used dietary practices to distinguish between what he saw as ‘orthodox’ Christians and members of other sects. He reserved particular criticism for the Manicheans – who counted Augustine himself amongst their number prior to his conversion. Manichean elders (who gained their status through rigorous fasting) were exclusively served foods which were considered rich in ‘light’ (cucumbers, melons, lettuce and the like) during a complex ceremony. During the process of eating, the elders were thought to be able to release these light particles (believed to be the reincarnated souls of the dead) into the spiritual realm.
Such was the strength of Augustine’s attack on this vegetarian sect that it became important for orthodox Christian communities to be seen to consume some meat, to avoid being branded as heretics. Had Augustine not carried such baggage from his past, would all Christians today be vegetarian?
Whilst Saint Benedict encouraged his monks to live a life that was Lenten in character at all times, his Rule permitted a varied diet including poultry and fish – but abstaining from red meat, except for the ill and young. It wasn’t until relatively recently - when agricultural practices have permitted the widespread consumption of red meat - that it has become associated with being macho and strong, rather than weak and infirm.During the Middle Ages, fasting during Lent and at other seasons of the year was enshrined in law. In 1538 Henry VIII is said to have had to repeal the ban on the consumption of dairy products in Lent to relieve pressure on fish stocks. The Book of Homilies published a few years later calls on the wealthy to strictly observe Lenten fasts because this leaves more food available and reduces the price to allow its purchase by the poor.
Even the church Reformers, who rejected the formulaic approaches to fasting advocated by Rome, saw personal fasting – abstinence on our own terms - as a means of contributing to a greater good; a concept that is seeing a revival today at a time when our food choices and their environmental impact are better understood. The Veg4Lent campaign in the late 1990s is known to have been successful in claiming at least one high profile convert to vegetarianism – a certain Richard Chartres, former Bishop of London - as I discovered when trying to force feed him a sausage roll at a parish buffet!
Perhaps it is understandable, for a faith which has declared all foods to be clean, to refrain from dictating what we should and shouldn’t eat, but to emphasise the important relationship between what we believe, what we pray and how we live our lives.It is from this context that we might best approach the appeal to ‘fast’ in the season ahead, whether we decide to refrain from certain foods or drink or choose to give up something else which fills our lives. What we give up is immaterial. It is what takes its place that matters.Like Jesus in the desert, it is only when we are famished that we can be completely filled by the grace and truth of God.