One Man's Meat Is Another Man's Poison.
1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2;
The Third Sunday of the Triodion, known as Meatfare Sunday.
The Synaxis of the Holy Prophet Simeon & the Prophetess Anna.
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2:57 PM 2/3/2013 — Two weeks ago I attempted to explain for you the theory behind this ancient practice we call the Lenten Triodion—a preparation for the preparation, I called it—in which we ease ourselves into a both a spirit and a practice of self-denial. The week of Meatfare, through which we just passed and which culminates on this day we call Meatfare Sunday, is part of it. It was—and is for those who choose to keep the Traditional Fast—the last day until Easter on which meat was eaten. Last year, on this Sunday, I had gone into some detail about how the spirit of Meatfare week came about and how it was related to circumstances in the Eastern European communities where our Church had its origins; we also talked about the Gospel for this day, and our Lord's rather blunt and graphic description of the Last Judgment, which is really the theme of Meatfare Sunday. I've briefly summarized some of those thoughts for you in today's bulletin.
This year, just for the sake of being different, I want to take a look at the Apostolic reading for today, which is taken from St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, and which offers us some interesting observations about the nature of fasting, which is a big part of our Church's penitential observance during the upcoming Great Fast; and, in order to do that, we should know a little something of what this letter is all about.
Paul* established a Christian community in Corinth about the year 51, during his second
missionary journey. As a commercial crossroads, the city was a melting pot full of devotees of various pagan cults and was known to be a place of moral depravity not unusual in a great seaport. St. Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, tells us that Paul had some initial success among the Jewish merchants in Corinth, but they soon turned against him; he had much better success among the Gentiles there, with most of his converts being from the city's poor and underprivileged. When he left there, he was succeeded by a disciple named Apollos, a Jewish Christian from Alexandria, who seems to have had a little more success among the Jewish Corinthians, and St. Luke testifies to his preaching about how Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.
But while Paul was in Ephesus during his third missionary journey, he started to receive disturbing news about Corinth. The Christians there had become divided into factions, with the members identifying themselves with individual Christians leaders, including Apollos. Some of them began to preach Christianity as a kind of elitist philosophy for the superior few. There was one prominent member of the Church there who was in an immoral relationship, and the Church seemed to lack the moral force to do anything about it. Some of the members of the Church had become embroiled in legal disputes in pagan courts, and some of them had still not ceased to participate in ritual sacrifices at pagan temples. And there were liturgical aberrations as well: at this point in church history, the Divine Liturgy was still celebrated in conjunction with an actual meal, and some people were getting drunk during this meal. There were also disputes about who could be allowed to preach, and whether women should be required to have their heads covered during the Liturgy. There were even some serious doctrinal issues, as some members of the Church, despite their belief in the resurrection of Christ, were calling into question the Church's teaching about the resurrection of the body. All in all, the reports Paul was receiving was of a Church in complete disarray; so, he fires off this letter.
If you set aside for the moment the fact that this letter is part of Holy Writ and therefore the Word of God, from a purely historical perspective it raises more questions than answers since we're only looking at one side of the correspondence: Paul is answering questions and handing down decisions, but we don't have the actual questions before us; even so, this First Epistle to the Corinthians gives us more insight into what life was like in the Early Church than any other book in the New Testament.
But, as Holy Scripture, the letter provides us with some of the most important doctrines regarding Christian life: among them questions concerning marriage, conscience, the proximity of Christ's Second Coming, the nature of the resurrection, and even whether it was lawful to eat meat which had been previously sacrificed to idols in pagan rituals. It's with regard to this last topic that we can glean some reflections about the nature of fasting and penance and Christian living in general.
The problem, basically, was this: when you're poor, you tend to buy your meat from the cheapest source, and the cheapest source in Corinth was a place that sold what was—for lack of a better term—“used” meat, that is, meat that had been used in some ritual sacrifice in a pagan temple, but which was now for sale at a discount. Some of the Christians were taking advantage of this discount, while others were claiming that, because this meat had been used in a pagan ritual, it was not suitable for consumption by Christians.** Paul's decision is a compromise: he says that, since the pagan religions are all false and their rituals empty, there is no moral implication to a Christian eating that meat; but, if by eating it, scandal is given to Christians who are not intelligent enough to understand this, it is better not to eat it than to give scandal. In other words, there's nothing wrong with eating the meat unless it offends someone; and, if it's going to offend someone and give scandal, then, even though there's nothing wrong with it, the charitable Christian will make the added sacrifice for the sake of his brother or sister.
It's a minor issue compared to some of the other topics he addresses, which is probably why he doesn't want to get too involved in it; nevertheless, it raises an interesting point. We are all at different places in our desire to follow our Lord. Some of us can pray for hours, while others can barely muster the attention span to say a single Our Father once a day; some can pray the Divine Liturgy in Church with attention and devotion, while some find it difficult to remain focused and find the time spent in church difficult to endure; some people struggle with moral issues and temptation every waking moment of the day, while others are not bothered at all. It's analogous to the people who can't seem to loose any weight no matter how severely they starve themselves compared to those who can eat all they want and never put on an inch. We're all individuals, and so the Christian life comes more easily to some than to others.
The principle behind the Apostle's point is that none of us can succeed in living a Christian life unless we help one another, and one of the ways we do this is by being patient and understanding with those who may not be at the same level we are. It doesn't mean we take a relativistic approach to Christian living; it does mean that we position ourselves to help rather than scold.
You might remember the homily I preach every year on Cheesefare Sunday, in which I speak about my time in a Carthusian monastery, and about the founder of the order, St. Bruno. Since I'm mentioning it now, I don't know whether I can use it again next week; but, you'll remember that St. Bruno had his wonderful counsel about judging others, where he says that, whenever you see a brother doing anything that is ordinarily forbidden, always assume he has permission. Perhaps we can pick up with that idea next week.
Some things never change. Reading about Christian life in Corinth and all the problems the Christians faced there in that enormous pagan metropolis, you'd almost swear you're reading about Christian life here in America. As we near the end of the Triodion and get ready to dive into the Great Fast, we should consider that it's difficult enough policing ourselves; we don't need the added burden of policing the lives of those around us.
* The fresco shown here is the oldest known icon of the Apostle Paul discovered to date. It was uncovered a few years ago in the Catacomb of St. Thekla, just a few minutes walk from the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, where the Apostle's remains are enshired under the altar. The icon shows a bald, bearded man with sunken eyes and thin face, and is regarded to be a true likeness. It was uncovered during the removal of limestone from the walls of the Catacomb with a lasar. The Catacomb of St. Thekla is full of frescos, and the Holy See has ordered the site closed to the public while the work of uncovering them continues.
St. Thekla was a disciple of Paul's who lived in Rome, and who was martyred by the Emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th Century. There are more than 40 known Catacombs or underground Christian burial places across Rome; and, because of their religious significance, the Vatican's Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archeology has jurisdiction over them.
** This peculiar sounding complaint may have been brought by some of the wealthy Jewish Christians converted by Apollos, who were uncomfortable at having to share the Eucharist with the lower-class, much poorer Gentile Christians converted previously by Paul, and who would have been most likely to have taken advantage of the less expensive meat discarded by the pagan temples following its use in a ritual. Another, perhaps more legitimate, interpretation may be that this "second hand" meat was being sold by the temples themselves as a kind of fund-raiser, so that buying it could be interpreted as a financial contribution to a pagan temple. In any case, there is no way St. Paul, far away in Ephesus, could have known which of these two concerns, one based on prejudice and the other based on a real religious concern, was the real motivation for the complaint; thus, he crafts a compromise solution which addresses the religious concern without giving any legitimacy to those who may have been motivated by a class-based bigotry. Thus, Paul's remark that those who are strong should be patient with the scruples of those who are weak, could be interpreted as an underhanded put-down to those making the complaint.