The relationship between Christianity and food: abstinence from meat, when and why / Answers from theologians / Chronicles / Home

On Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all other Fridays in Lent, we abstain from eating meat. Does this also apply on Christmas Eve or is it not compulsory for this holiday? (Marco Giraldi)

Father Valerio Mauro, professor of sacramental theology, responds

The reader’s question acquires a particular meaning in this time of Lent, which the tradition of the Church presents as a time dedicated in a singular way to this penance which should facilitate a sincere and deeper conversion to the Gospel. This dimension of faith risks being devalued in the concrete practice of the people of God, just as fasting and abstaining from certain foods become customary in other experiences, not just religious ones. The bodily dimension mediates each of our relationships, in which the relationship to food plays a fundamental role. The famous phrase of the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, for whom “man is what he eats”. Food, in fact, has a great symbolic value, different traditions are reflected in it, both in the quality and preparation of food and in abstention. This universal anthropological dimension is experienced in various ways by the various religious expressions with which we come into contact as a result of globalization and immigration. The Jewish tradition, already present in the Tôrah (cf. Islam also provides for a ritual towards food. The Koran designates as halal what is lawful, both in behavior and in food: only halal slaughter allows consumption meat from halal animals. The basic principle to follow is moderation. In this perspective, there is the fasting of the month of Ramadan, “the month in which the Koran was sent down as a guide for men and clear proof of good direction and salvation” (Sura II, v.185). It is one of the five pillars of the Islamic religion. Fasting is an important dimension in Eastern traditions. For Buddhism, it is is one of the sacrifices or renunciations (dhutangas) that help discipline desire. Monks often practice it as a step towards enlightenment. Although not strictly forbidden, meat is not recommended in the discourses of the Buddha. For Hinduism, abstinence L from food is an instrument of self-discipline to promote a harmonious relationship with the absolute. Meat is also discouraged for Hinduism. Going beyond the borders of great religious experiences, we are well aware of the spread of vegetarian or vegan habits. There are traces of an exclusion from the flesh as early as the sixth century BC. Instead, for veganism, born in 1944, renunciation extends to milk, eggs and derivatives for ethical reasons, according to a way of life that involves all personal experience. At the end of this very simple and general overview, it is worth recalling how the Bible distinguishes the relationship between man and animals in the two original “moments”, before and after the flood. In God’s original plan, mankind receives as food all the fruits of trees that come out of the ground, but not animals: “God said: Behold, I give you every herb that produces seed and is on all the earth, and every fruitful tree that produces seed: they shall be your food. To all the wild animals, to all the birds of the sky and to all the beings that crawl on the earth and in whom there is the breath of life, I give all green grass for food. And so it happened” (Gen 1:29-30; cf also Gen 2:9, 16-17). Instead, after the flood, although God blessed Noah and his sons, promising a covenant that would never fail, even the flesh of animals was given as food, although with a limitation in the act of eating: Fear and terror of you be in all the animals of the earth and in all the birds of the sky. How much he crawls on the ground and all the fish in the sea are given in your power. Any being that crawls and has life will serve you to eat: I give you all that, like the green herbs already. Only, you will not eat flesh with its life, that is to say with its blood” (Gn 9, 2-4). The friendship which bound humanity to animals has been broken, history of the world is a process, intertwined with violence, through which the purpose of God must be realized.Based on this Word, the Christian faith has distanced itself from a food ritual meaningful for the relationship with God The words of Jesus are very clear: there is no food that can make a man impure, since the desires that arise from the heart are also impure (cf. Mk 7, 14-19) It is thus confirmed in the apostolic tradition ( cf. 1 Cor 10:25).However, this Christological reference to the value of food does not eliminate the anthropological value of abstaining from certain foods, including the practice of fasting, which retains an important biblical attestation. a preparation for the feast that awaits. And just as the symbolism of the feast manifests itself in the act of eating, the preparation Aration involves some form of fasting, which traditionally is often accompanied by abstinence from meat. These are two different penitential aspects although related. Historically, meat takes the symbol of luxury, it is a food to which the poor can rarely indulge. Therefore, abstaining from meat for a large meal of fish and other refined foods does not appear to be very consistent with the intrinsic value of abstinence. To conclude this excursus and answer the reader’s question, today Christmas Eve does not in itself provide for abstinence from meat, although this gesture is rooted in popular Christian tradition, confirmed by the Code of Canon Law of 1917, which provided for abstinence and fasting for several days on Christmas Eve, including Christmas Eve. Paul VI’s Constitution Poenitemini reduced the mandatory fast days, limiting them to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Throughout the year, however, remains a strong invitation to live every Friday in abstinence and fasting. Finally, today, the dimension of the relationship between food and social justice cannot be neglected, where voluntary fasting becomes an element of sharing with those who are constantly in food shortage.


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