I remember visiting my grandparents when I was in my early twenties. My grandfather was a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. As immigrants from post-WWII displaced person camps, they always lived on the border of poverty. One day during Lent, I dropped by their house for a visit. It did not take long for me to notice the smell of meat baking in the oven. I had learned long ago to be wary of challenging my grandfather, but since he welcomed discussion, especially when it concerned the Church, I asked him quite bluntly: “why are you having meat for dinner during Lent?” His response was equally blunt: “our Lord teaches that it is not what a man puts into his stomach that causes him to sin; it is what comes out of his mouth” (Mark 7:15-23)
I knew that it was time for me to shut up, but I thought about that episode for many years since then. It occurred to me that my grandparents were on an incredibly strict diet. They did not have a “Lenten cookbook,” and they did not know what “Whole Foods” is, much less Trader Joe’s. The turkey thighs they baked were inexpensive, served with a plain potato and iceberg lettuce salad. They were living within their means; this particular meal was remarkable in its utter simplicity. Their observance of the fast was more faithful than my own because they did not talk about what they were eating; they did what they could.
I thought of this story on Monday when I spent over an hour preparing an eggplant meal that fulfills the fasting requirements. In my zeal to fulfill the dietary requirements, I spent an enormous amount of time focusing on the details, time I could have spent praying, reading, sitting in quiet, or playing with my daughter. The story is one of tradition: when we inherit tradition, we must consider its inner content and allow it to shape the external observance. In this instance, my grandfather continues to teach me an important lesson about fasting.
We might identify two elements of the inner content of fasting that are relevant today: the desire to become like Christ by literally imitating him, and preparing to meet the Lord in eschatological anticipation. We might allow these principles to shape our fasting by posing the following questions: when we meet Christ, who will he meet? Does Christ want to meet a community that perfects dietary modification for one season? Or does Christ want to meet men and women who have prepared to live in his community for eternity? The Lenten season is all about intense preparation for life with Christ, with the hope that he would come again.
Anyone can create a fasting discipline that facilitates preparation for this eschatological encounter. I would like to quote Metropolitan Volodymyr of Kyiv, who sums up the point of Lent succinctly: “During Lent, it is most important to not eat one another.” Imagine for a moment prioritizing a fast from hurting the other with words and deeds, and applying this fast to the entire year; not just Lent. Such a fast would observe the inner content of Lent and has the capacity to prepare communities to meet Christ. Perhaps it is time to prioritize how we treat one another over the ingredients we use to prepare meals this Lent.