As we make our way through Great Lent, our attention constantly shifts to food. Every hamburger commercial is a reminder of food we’re abstaining from, of delicious treats we’re setting aside for a few weeks.
There’s a certain pain, or at least discomfort, that comes with fasting.
Choosing to join with the rest of the Church and fast from meat and other animal products is not easy.
Which is interesting because, practically speaking, fasting has never been easier. It will not put our health in danger. Abstaining from meat and dairy will not result in malnutrition or otherwise hurt us; if anything, it will probably help our physical health. There are a great variety of cheap and nutritious foods we can sustain ourselves on during the course of the Fast without any trouble.
Yet we still set rich foods aside with great reluctance, as if our lives depended on them.
While our ancestors may have reserved meat and cheese for special occasions, rich and heavy foods are a staple of our everyday diet, something we’ve grown accustomed to. We can fill our stomachs with a variety of animals products for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Each and every day.
It seems that the more food we have available, the more we want. And the harder it is to say “no” to it.
There’s an old saying you’ve probably heard before: “you are what you eat.”
It’s a phrase normally associated with health: our bodies are built up based on our diets and the food we choose to eat, so we had better choose wisely. Yet there’s a theological resonance to this saying, too, one that especially comes to mind during Great Lent.
For many of us, food has become a luxury: we eat, not because we have to, but because we choose to. We snack because we’re bored; we eat because we crave a particular flavor. Sometimes eat out of nothing more than habit.
At its most basic, food is a tool we use to ensure our survival. It is a substance designed to meet our most basic and existential needs: to give us the calories and raw materials that our bodies need to keep functioning in the world. We eat because, if we do not, we will starve.
Yet even when we are well fed, when we eat because of choice rather than necessity, food still fills a need in our lives. Even if it doesn’t satisfy a need for our stomachs, it fills a space in our hearts.
Food becomes an emotional crutch, a source of comfort and stability. It is company when we are lonely, reassurance when we are feeling down, entertainment when we are bored. It becomes a pain killer that numbs our dissatisfaction, a medicine that hides our symptoms without the need to determine what’s wrong in our lives.
The things that we place in the center of our lives begin to shape the very character of our lives. If our existence revolves around our next snack, on the next time we can eat our way to comfort or happiness, then our lives begin to be shaped by this false view of comfort and happiness. If our days are spent building up false alternatives to true communion and joy, then our lives will never be full of the real thing.
As we remove food from the central place it occupies in our lives, we can challenge ourselves to see it in proper context. We don’t need another slice of pizza or hamburger. We will survive, and even thrive, despite the lack of meat and cheese on our tables. And, as we strip out the things that we don’t really need, perhaps we can refocus on what we do need.
No longer numbed by the misleading comfort of a full stomach, perhaps we can work to give our hearts the true rest they so desperately need: surrounded by people rather than things, sustained by the authentic and never-fading love of our Lord.