The public face of Orthodoxy presents the fundamental features of Lent. From the outside, it looks as if Orthodox abstain from meat, dairy, fish, wine, olive oil, entertainment, and sex during Lent. There is also a multiplication of Church services, a general call for repentance, and appointments for confession.
On the inside, the Church’s focus is narrow. Yes, most parishes have a faithful core that increases attendance at services, and many who participate beyond Christmas and Pascha will go to confession.
The Lenten Experience: Perception and Reality
Most people experience Lent in two ways: Sunday Liturgy and the appointed fast. The Church retains the Liturgy of St. Basil for the Sundays of Lent, which misleads people into viewing the Liturgy as Lenten. The use of St. Basil’s Liturgy on the Sundays of Lent belongs to a trend in liturgical history, when the Church retains older traditions on more solemn occasions.
In reality, Orthodox fasting practices are much more diverse than official publications would lead one to believe. A few people follow the rule strictly, but most folks attempt to adapt the rule to fit their lives in some way. One might choose specific weeks or days to abstain from meat. Another will reduce alcohol consumption or give up chocolate. Logging off social media accounts has become more common. Most nominal Orthodox don’t observe the fast at all.
Discussions on these matters within the Church can become heated. Stories circulate of arguments on the ingredients used for chocolate cake shared after choir rehearsal. Someone created an Orthodox fasting group on Facebook. Bishops visiting parishes during Lent will occasionally “inspect” the community’s faithfulness to the fast. Tasteless cartoons comparing Orthodox who fast with other Christians who don’t are shared indiscriminately.
The desire to observe the fasting rule in some meaningful way prompts some parishioners to ask the pastor for advice. I have overheard such discussions several times. In a memorable episode, the priest reassured a distressed laywoman that she had not sinned in eating chicken. To paraphrase his wise advice: “eating vegetables instead of meat is not fasting. It is adopting a temporary diet. Find a meaningful way to fast.”
Sadly, the everyday wisdom of this priest is a voice in the wilderness in the obsessive noise about correct fasting. He’s right. Jesus’ simple and blunt lesson from the sermon on the mount yields two rules on fasting that are constantly ignored by the insider Church community. Fast, presumably by abstaining from food and drink altogether. Keep your fasting private – don’t discuss it with anyone.
There are many ways to liberate the Church from its obsession with observing the rule to the letter of the dietary law. One way is to make fasting the partner of an ethic of food in an era of food insecurity.
Food Insecurity in the US
The pandemic did not cause the crisis of food insecurity – it exacerbated and exposed an existing crisis. The USDA defines food insecurity as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” In 2019, 10.5% of U.S. households were food insecure at some point, according to the USDA’s survey data. Feeding America, a domestic hunger relief organization, is projecting that the coronavirus pandemic will increase food insecurity to about 12.5% in 2021. This projection includes 13 million children.
If the startling statistics about children’s lack of access to healthy food does not startle you, consider a typical discussion point among school officials in the early stages of the pandemic in March and April 2020. Moving to remote learning protected people from contracting the coronavirus, but it also removed the breakfasts and lunches many students depended on. School districts looked for ways to deliver those lunches to remote learners, and to make them affordable for families that lost jobs or had reduced income throughout the pandemic. Demand at regional food pantries hit record highs, and continues to rage. Income disparities that block access to healthy food is one part of the larger ecosystem of food demand, supply, and pricing.
The Food (In)Security Ecosystem
Another integral part of this ecosystem is what families with food insecurities can eat in ordinary circumstances. Pricing plays an important role here. Processed foods with little to no benefits are affordable, from low-cost freezer burritos to the ubiquitous pre-packaged chicken, burger, and processed meal products. Families with food insecurity often work during traditional meal times, so preparing meals with numerous ingredients belonging to a recipe downloaded from a popular site is too expensive and time consuming.
What one eats, then, matters. Those with means who try to maintain the fast can become aware of the pitfalls of preparing a meal that follows the rules. They find themselves buying seafood, depending on carbs, and spending more money on groceries than they did before Lent. The body does not always take kindly to a sudden shift in diet, especially if one is replaces their normal diet with lots of raw vegetables and breads.
Is it possible to reconfigure fasting rules so that they contribute to the amelioration of the food insecurity crisis, even in a small way? I believe it is, if one can accept a modest proposal that recognizes the enormity of the problem. In short, changing the fasting rules for all Christians wouldn’t come close to solving the problem. Revising the rule to change the mindset about fasting can make a difference. A proposal for revising the fasting rule needs contributions from a chorus of voices, so this is designed to be an invitation to a larger discussion.
Revised Fasting Rule: Public Engagement
The first part of the rule takes food outside of the Church’s inner circle and brings it into dialogue with the public. Certainly, people of good will know that others struggle to make enough money to feed themselves and their families, so they donate canned goods and money to food shelves and pantries. It is another thing to become aware of our neighbors’ struggles and needs through experience.
Eat in Solidarity with the Poor
Decades ago, a wise priest advised his parish to try to understand poverty by replacing one of their normal Lenten meals with the most inexpensive one. Once in a while, eat plain rice, beans, and corn for dinner. Don’t spice it up with scallions or cumin, either. Make dinner on a seriously reduced budget for a week, even if meat is on the menu. You’ll discover quickly why hot dogs have been a main course for people living in poverty for decades. (Personal note: my grandparents ate a lot of hot dogs – yes, during Lent. That was what they could afford).
Observe a True Fast
Or even better yet, exchange one meal for a true fast – don’t eat or drink at all (and no making up for it by binging on popcorn or chips before bedtime). It won’t be pleasant, but it will give you a sense – a small one – of solidarity with those with food insecurities.
This sense should awaken us to devote time and energy, as Christians, to studying the ecosystem of food that creates insecurity. Perhaps we can all agree that healthy food is an inalienable human right. If this is so, then the next step is to participate in the public discourse on making healthy food available to everyone. There are many ways to do this, both big and small.
Participate in – or Create – a Food Pantry
For most people, doing something small will be meaningful. Contribute regularly to your local food pantry, in person and monetarily. Create an alliance of parishes that partners with food pantries and grocers to give free healthy food to those in need.
Contemporary Lenten Fasting=Eating Inexpensively
And finally, practice what we preach by adjusting our grocery budgets during Lent so that we have enough affordable and healthy food at home, and will donate the rest of the budget to the food pantry. As we take this activity on, we remember that what we eat matters. So simplicity is a primary feature of our Lenten grocery budgeting. Our goal is the same as the one we want for those with food insecurities – to eat healthy, but simply enough that we’re not driving all over town looking for exotic, expensive, and hard-to-obtain ingredients (save it for the holiday!).
No Lists of Prohibited Foods
The hard part is to resist the temptation to propose a list of foods that observe this revised set of principles for the Church. Food supply and pricing is regional – it is wholly impractical and imprudent to take a one-size-fits-all approach. The point is not the line-itemed details, but the principles. Making a revised list of prohibited foods will lead faithful to focus on the detail of what they’re eating. Asking them to contribute to healing the food security ecosystem draws their attention to what their neighbors are not eating.
So, in summary, use two principles to govern Lenten eating and fasting: budget, and simplicity.
Food is God’s Gift – Sharing it is Eucharist
During Lent, Christians continue the tradition of receiving the gift of Christ through God’s gifts we create from the soil. Food and the soil that produces it is God’s gift to humankind. Christians receive this gift freely. Offering bread and wine to God at the Eucharist is a holy tradition. Sharing the bread and foods made from God’s holy soil is an act of worship and thanksgiving.
Lent calls upon Christians to confess their own sins, and serve their neighbors. Doing our part to ease public food insecurity is one way of beginning to attempt to observe God’s new commandment to love one another as he has loved us. What and how we eat do, indeed, matter, and rituals and practices that give are the most meaningful and beloved of all.