Monday, February 18, 2008

RE: Meatless Fridays and Legalism

One of the accusations I hear from Evangelicals about Catholics is “salvation by works.” Some former Catholics who come to personal faith in an Evangelical context say that was their understanding of Church teaching.

The official teaching of the Catholic Church is not salvation through works. Catholic theology bases salvation in grace alone that is activated by faith. But what does it mean to activate faith? Is merely “mouthing” faith evidence of a genuine faith? St James denounces this in his letter. James and Paul both make it clear that what one believes is made evident by what one does. Works cannot be separated from Christian life.

This is not to say that the outward things people of true faith do cannot be observed, codified and coached in others apart from faith. Regardless of the particular point of obedience, the real issue is attitude of heart — something one person can hardly see in another. Is a person who fasts during Lent exercising spiritual discipline for the purpose of drawing closer to God or is that person trying to “do something to impress God” (or others)? Merely looking at another, who can say? Or to push the context a bit, is a man who is faithful to his wife not only truly loving her but also honoring God, or is the man trying to justify himself by thinking how righteous he lives compared to someone else who is known for marital unfaithfulness? Not committing adultery can be one facet of a faithful, obedient heart — or it can be the prideful stubbornness of a miserable person attempting to establish righteousness through self-effort. I have known people who seem to exemplify each.

Not eating meat on Fridays is not an automatic sign of legalism. There is thoughtfulness and intent behind this practice. Early in the life of the Church, Friday was dedicated to the memory of the Passion of Our Lord. It is a way of recognizing that Christ suffered and died — spilled the blood of his human flesh — for our sins. Not eating flesh-meat on Fridays is meant to be a way to remember this in a tangible way. Mention is made of the practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays in The Didache (a document from the end of the first century A.D.), as well as by St. Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian in the third century. The teaching of the Church is clear beyond possibility of mistake on this matter.

Is eating meat on Friday, then, a real sin? Coming at it first from the other end, I would argue that fasting in this way can be a good discipline for all Christians, but the matter is heightened for Catholics. Here the issue is not so much merely eating meat or not (St Paul says quite a bit about eating and not eating in his letters, and the ultimate verdict is that this is a small sub-issue in the overall scheme of the kingdom of God). The issue for Catholic Christians is the implication of obedience to a Community of Faith to which they have pledged their belonging. The Church says not to eat meat on Fridays during Lent in order to reflect more on what it means that we are eternally lost apart from the blood of God’s Son being shed for our salvation. Ignoring or rationalizing what the Church tells us is a danger-sign of the anti-God attitude that I described in my last post: “I want what I want right now!” This is the very attitude toward God and his ways that is judged in the death of Christ.

Not eating meat is not meant to be an end in itself. It is not just something to (not) do in order to say to one’s self, “Now I’m being a good Christian.” (That attitude or understanding is what draws the charges of legalism.) Friday is the day the Son of God died for our salvation. A bit of inconvenience on our part as Christians is a good way to remember the great “inconvenience” it was for Jesus to die on the cross. When we turn our hearts to the greater meaning, all thoughts of legalism vanish.

Years ago the president of the Bible college I attended gave a sermon on the sacrament of eating. His point was that all of life is a sacrament (not Sacrament — my theology at the time did not go in that direction), and that food is an especially good illustration. The only way we can live, physically, is to eat; the only way to eat is for something to die for us. Even a vegetable gives its life when pulled, cooked and eaten. But with most of humanity having always delighted in a hunk of meat as the centerpiece of a meal, we are reminded that an animal’s blood was shed so that we can eat and live. This is precisely why the Church has taught us not only not to eat meat on Lenten Fridays, but also to reflect on the price of our salvation. The two are meant to go hand-in-hand, and when humbly embraced with that attitude it is not legalism.

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