Friday, 24 February 2012

Lenten fasting and Meat Free Fridays

Sermon on Matthew 6. 1-6, 16-21 and Isaiah 58. 1-12, Harris Manchester College, Oxford, Ash Wednesday, 2012

Today I thought I would talk about fasting. Our readings today are about fasting and Ash Wednesday – which we are celebrating today – is the start of Lent – when traditionally Christians have fasted until Easter. Of course very few of us fast during Lent anymore and the idea of a Lenten fast really only survives in the custom of giving up something for Lent. However when we do ‘give things up’ we often give up some specific type of luxury food – chocolate or alcohol, for example.

Today I want to commend to you the idea of fasting: even the giving up of certain foods for Lent. I want to suggest that fasting is a positively good thing and a custom we need to re-appropriate rather than abandon as something old fashioned and anachronistic.

By fasting I mean voluntarily depriving ourselves of food as opposed to say some other necessity or luxury. There are basically two types of fasting: firstly not eating at all or much less than usual - generally for a given period of time. The Islamic tradition of Ramadan includes fasting of this type. Secondly not eating a particular type of food – this can be for all of the time or again at particular times. Not eating red meat – as prescribed by St Benedict in his Rule would be fasting of this type, as would not eating meat but only fish on Fridays.

We may want to restrict the notion of fasting to food restriction with a religious or at least moral purpose. Some people, for example, do not eat wheat, because they are allergic to it. This doesn’t seem to warrant the description of fasting. Some people recently have joined Paul McCartney in his campaign for Meat Free Mondays. Is giving up meat on Monday – because of green-house gases associated with meat production - fasting? I would say so.

It is clear that the Church has largely abandoned the notion of fasting -as a religious practice. I can only really speak for the Anglican Church in the England but it also seems true of other denominations and in other countries too.

This is despite the fact that the Bible assumes that the practice is a normal thing to do and also that fasting has been part of the observance of Christianity for much of its two thousand year history. A legal prohibition on eating meat on Friday’s in this country was only repealed in the mid nineteenth century. And as late as the 1660s there were prosecutions for infringing fasting rules enshrined in English law. In the Middle Ages fasting was routine: not just in monasteries but on the part of ordinary people. There isn’t really time today to give you a history of Christian fasting which we in the Church seem to have largely forgotten as irrelevant – perhaps to our cost.

The best known Christian fasting practice is perhaps the Lenten fast with a long tradition going back to the early church. This has – over the years – involved both types of fasting I mentioned earlier – eating less than usual and only eating particular foods and not others. Red meat has been the food most generally restricted but so also have dairy products and eggs (leading to a surplus that then need to be eaten at Easter).

Lent has traditionally been viewed as commemorating Jesus’ 40 day fast in the wilderness at the start of his ministry but early Christian writers did not always make the connection. Athanasius, for example, makes no such association referring instead to various Old Testament figures who fasted. And indeed there are many: Daniel, Hezekiah, Ahab, Elijah, Samuel, Hannah, Moses to name but a few.

Our readings today whilst recording Isaiah’s and Jesus’ criticisms of fasting practices at the time assume that fasting per se is something a normal religious person would want to engage in: as normal as praying and giving to the poor. Both Isaiah and Jesus talk about how fasting should best be done. To summarise excessively: Isaiah suggests that fasting should not just be done for the benefit of the individual concerned but as a means of sharing food with the poor. Jesus tells us that when we fast we should not make a big deal of it.

But why did people fast? I guess this is a question like: why do people pray? Or even why do people give to the poor? The possible answers are many and varied.

You can explain fasting – as indeed you can explain prayer and giving to the poor on purely sociological or ecological grounds. Clearly one of the reasons why the Lenten fast got taken up in Northern European countries was because it made a virtue of a necessity. Food supplies in countries such as ours were – before we imported much of our food and developed ways of producing food that didn’t depend on the weather – were at their lowest in late winter, early spring. Meat was in particular short supply. At one level fasting in Lent created a way of providing for a fairer distribution of food when food was scarce. A point that has not escaped various Christian writers including Richard Hooker who echoing the Isaiah passage we heard today suggests that ‘much hurt hath grown to the Church of God through the a false imagination that Fasting standeth men in no stead for any spiritual respect, but only to take down the frankness of nature, and to tame the wildness of flesh’.

Of course fasting clearly has something to do with having control over our bodies – both individual and corporate – when those bodies seem – in different ways – out of control: ‘taming the wildness of the flesh’ as Hooker puts it. Those of us who give alcohol or chocolate for Lent are surely doing so, at least partly because we feel that alcohol or chocolate somehow exert some undesirable control over us.

And fasting clearly has some connection with one particular aspect of the wildness of the flesh: the sin of gluttony. Fasting seems to have developed – at least in part – as an expression of resistance towards the temptation to over-eat with all that entails. However nowadays when even Governments argue that we need to consume more to get us out of recession the sin of gluttony seems, in many quarters, to have been downgraded to a minor peccadillo or even a positive good.

But to my way of thinking there is an increase in gluttony, or as secular society prefers to frame it – of problems relating to over-consumption. I have in mind here the not just the problem of over consumption of food leading to obesity but also other problems relating to over-consumption of land, water and fossil-fuels – the latter leading in particular to the problem of global warming.

And lest anyone mistake what I am saying – when I say the sin of gluttony is on the increase I do not mean just gluttony as a problem for individuals but as a problem for society as a whole. Obesity is not just - or even mainly - the fault of the individual who is obese but of the food manufacturers and retailers who – with the permission of governments of all parties - sell us foods which make us fat. It is not just our fault that it is easier to use up the oil to get to work rather than work near to where we live.

Fasting as a means of doing something about the modern problems of overconsumption/gluttony does seem to be making a bit of a comeback in our ever more secular society just as the Church abandons it.

Yesterday – in my capacity as a researcher into healthy diets - I went to the launch of the Government’s latest initiative to curb obesity. The Government is challenging us all – both consumers and producers of foods- to make our contribution to cutting calorie intake in the UK by 5 billion a day. This means that we will all on average need to cut calories by about 5% which would be enough to halt the rise in obesity and even to reverse it. And similarly food producers will need to sell us 5% less calories than they currently do. The challenge seems a bit like the national fast called by Queen Victoria in response to the calamity of the Indian Mutiny. OK the crisis is different but the call for restraint in what we eat is similar.

So even the Government commends fasting of a type. Of course I don’t think that they have got it quite right. It is more important, in my view, to cut down on meat and dairy products and even eat more fruit and vegetables rather than cut down on food in general (here I think St Benedict would agree with me). But I do think that they are right to see fasting as not just the responsibility of the individual but of us all collectively. The Church has come to see fasting as basically a matter of individual choice: and this is surely where it has gone wrong.

None of this is to deny the psychological and spiritual benefits of fasting which I seem to have neglected in this sermon. I will try and deal with them on another day. At this precise moment I do not see how eating less calories or less meat and dairy makes us feel closer to God but I am sure it must.

So to conclude. It is time, think, that we within the Church recaptured Biblical notions of fasting. How are we to do that? Well for starters we need to see fasting as cutting down on foods, real physical foods, and not merely as a metaphor for something else – abstinence from something we consider a luxury, for example. Food is not a luxury. And after that I commend to you the old idea of not eating meat on Fridays and giving it up entirely for Lent.

With apologies to Meat Free Mondays and thanks to 'Theology on the Menu' by David Grumett and Rachel Muers (Routledge, 2010)

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