Fasting: Beyond the consumption of animal products.
Haile Tessema, March 4, 2019
During the Dergue era – owing to the endless Marxist-Leninist indoctrination at school and in endless youth association discussion meetings – very few young people were religious. In fact, without fully understanding the concept, just about everyone subscribed to the theory of Darwinian evolution.
When the fight against the Dergue was intensified, and towns and cities fell in the hands of EPRDF’s freedom fighters, I heard from abroad how people – including young adults and the youth – started to turn to God and religion.
Years later, as a fresh returnee to the country, I was at a coffee shop in Addis. Three teenage girls were sitting not far from me, and I was intrigued by their conversation on an upcoming fasting season / ዓብይ ፆም. One went, “እና ያን ነገርም እፆማለሁ እያልሽ ነው?” To which the other replied, “እንዴ! ከወገብ በታችማ ፆም የለም። (Roughly: Are you saying you’d fully fast? No way, the fasting doesn’t apply to below the waist).
And I thought to myself, so much for a country turning to religion! Here they are young girls, who most likely are unmarried, openly and loudly talking about fornication contrary to their religious teaching that forbids sex before and outside marriage. Yet, they are making a fuss about animal product consumption.
Then the fasting season arrived, and the “fasting buffet” in hotels and restaurants came as a shock. A variety of stews made of beans, chickpeas and lentils; cooked vegetables, salads, pasta, rice, pizza, bread, cakes, cookies and what not served at once. After seeing one of these bonanza of feasts, a Canadian business partner of a friend noted, “You call this fasting! If this is fasting, I can fast every single day”.
Nonetheless, although I’m neither an Ethiopian Orthodox Church follower nor a theologian, I don’t think the religious founders had it wrong in their fasting teachings, which was likely based on the biblical story on ancient Babylon.
When Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were selected to serve in King Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, they politely declined “the king's meat, and of the wine which he drank”. Instead, they pleaded with the steward to be served “nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink” (Daniel 1: 6-12).
Indeed, meat and other animal products were the richest food / affluent diet in ancient times, while vegetables and water evidently is a non-rich meal. For that reason, the Orthodox religious pioneers were evidently against the former and in favor of the latter during fasting.
However, since pasta, pizza, other dishes and cakes were unknown, they obviously couldn’t have been mentioned for restriction during fasting.
So, in this time and age, religious leaders and believers should’ve used their common sense to discern what is rich food and what’s not if they sincerely are after seeking their God in prayer and fasting, and wish to cleanse their body at the same time. But it seems that this whole thing has lost its meaning to become a religious ritual and often a social relations show-off. “I’m fasting” is carried as a badge of honor, while “Why aren’t you fasting?” is asked in bewilderment, even with a scorn at times.
Another thing, the abovementioned four young followers of God did refrain from alcohol. And there are several bible scriptures that teach against alcohol consumption (more than the ones that are often quoted as in favor of) in everyday life. Yet, the traditional Orthodox fasting teaching and custom doesn’t condemn alcohol consumption during fasting or at least religious leaders are not heard teaching against that.
Lastly, but certainly not least importantly, Jesus taught “It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matthew 15:10). By that, Jesus obviously didn’t mean that anything that is not good for the body – which the bible honors as the temple of God – is admissible (1 Corinthians6:19). Rather, it’s to emphasize that – while what goes in is harmful to oneself – what goes out has the potential to harm and destroy others including a community and a nation.
Yet many of those who claim to fast – including religious leaders – are heard spewing profanities against individuals; disseminating lies on people and spreading hate against an ethnic or religious other during fasting, which defeats the whole purpose as fasting is intended not only to bring believers closer to God, but also peace and harmony among humankind.
After all, the bible clearly states, “If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).
Thus, as the fasting season kicks in, may Ethiopian Orthodox Church leaders and followers think of refraining not only from animal product consumption, but also from human emission of profanity, offensiveness, hate, lies, false accusations and viciousness.