As you may know, I fast from meat during Lent. Often people will say ‘Well you eat fish or chicken don’t you?’ Within this question is the possibility that chicken and fish do not ‘count’ as meat. I have never understood why this should be so. It is all flesh of animals, as compared to plant material isn’t it? That is what I mean when I say I am not eating ‘meat’.
So the other day I was doing a tour of the monastery in Bebenhausen, near Tübigen. The guide said. ‘The monks who were priests were strictly vegetarian. But because the lay brothers had to work harderin the fields, they were allowed some meat, mostly chicken and fish. This is because the four-footed animals were created on the sixth day, the same day as human beings, and so were considered too closely related to us to eat. But fish and birds were created on the fifth day, and so could be eaten. ‘ So there you have it!
An interesting problem arose when it came to the possibility, to us unthinkable, of eating beaver. Beaver has a tail like a fish, but has four legs like an animal. They wrote to the pope who made a ruling that a beaver was a ‘fish’, and so could be eaten. The pope’s own wish to eat this animal was considered an element in his decision.
The idea of not eating animals that were created on the same day as us is an interesting way of making concrete our kinship with all life. It is a way of expressing our participation in ‘nature’ while at the same time recognising that human beings have a place of being responsible for nature. This choice was made by monks who wanted to live a proper Christian life. What is interesting is that the reason they gave, that of our closeness to animals in the order of creation, is one that served to locate the monks within the story of God. Being vegetarian was like a theological reflection on creation, made into a practice of life. I warm to this idea.
I began to think about other practices of which we still have the vestiges today. We went to ‘The Deck’ restaurant for a meal recently. ‘The Deck’ has a water feature that looks like a pond. Sure enough, people were throwing money into the pond! And you know the song ‘Three coins in the fountain’? People are always throwing money into water, and ‘making a wish’ (like a ‘wishing well’).
Anyone who has seen any of the popular archaeology shows on television will now be aware of the pre-Christian practice of putting valuable metal objects into streams as offerings to the gods. King Arthur’s returning of Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake is in this same thought world, as is Frodo’s returning of ‘The Ring’ to the fire in ‘Lord of the Rings’.
These images have the idea of ‘giving something up’ or making a sacrifice. Again, the people who did these things recognised that they were a part of something bigger than their own desires for wealth, and needed to offer back to the gods what the gods had given them: the people were just ‘minding’ these objects for their rightful owners.
In Church, the Eucharist is the place where this happens most obviously for Christians. We take bread and wine, we take our money, and we give it to God. We say in some offertory prayers ‘All things come from you, O God, and of your own have we given you.’ At the end of the Eucharist, as we are about to go out we also say ‘Father, we offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice’. There it is. Instead of a wishing well, into which a copper coin might be thrown and a wish for something made, we have the Eucharist that offers us the possibility of seeing our whole lives and our property as a gift from God, who receives them. Our lives are again framed not by our own desires and sense of ownership of things, but of our sense of being ‘owned’ by something else who makes claims upon us.
What is more, the capacity of ‘give up’ things represents the beginning of wisdom because the ability to ‘let go’ represents a trust that there will be more to come. If a person is frightened that their creativity will dry up, then they will never finish, or ‘let go’ of the work they are currently working on. If a Christian is fearful that God will not continue to love them and provide for them in the unknown, then they will never ‘let go’ of the homeland (what ever that may be) in order to engage with the desert. There will never be the ‘Promised Land’ because Egypt was never left. If the people of Israel did not trust God for the mana each day, it went rotten.
All these stories belong with the story of ‘offering to God’ what belongs to God and to throwing our ‘swords’ (power, capacity) into the depths of God, in order to trust God for what life will bring.
These vestiges that I have come across recently are a reminder to me that in our worship, we adopt similar practices to those folk practices and rituals that we have in vestigial form. The difference is that in Christian life, these practices are still living practices that have the power to hold and shape our lives still if we let them, and take them seriously. The ‘Offertory’ at the Eucharist still lives and shapes me much more than a ‘Wishing Well’ does. But how lucky we are to have available to us the possibility of making ourselves a sacrifice in a living tradition, by comparison with a practice which does not mean a great deal, and which is sort of ‘done and forgotten’. The same goes for the respect for creation that being vegetarian and regular fasting offers us.
It is clear that acknowledging ourselves as part of something other and more significant than our own desire is an important part of being human. The question is ‘What is worthy of our sacrifice? How do we know we are not offering ourselves to an idol that has no power to do anything?’ This is where I am glad that our main ritual is the Eucharist which connects us with the One True God in action and word which is deeply rooted in what it means to be a human being, who lives life in the knowledge of God.