Why, O why, would he ask such a question?
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The young man stood before Jesus, and acknowledged that he had indeed kept the commandment to love his neighbour. But something in his eyes, something in the way he lingered there expectantly, asked an unspoken question – “What more must I do to please God?”
We cannot know his motives from such a short exchange. Perhaps he was bothered by the religious enthusiasts in his community. These seemed to say that God expected more. So perhaps he wanted Jesus, the great Rabbi, to reassure him that what he was doing was enough?
Or did he have an inner itch, that ache called a Vocation, which means that something in the core of his being knew he was being called deeper? Was he unconsciously willing the Rabbi to challenge him, to put into words and make indisputable that invitation to go all the way with God?
Perhaps he sought reassurance. Or maybe he yearned to be challenged. But what we do know is that the reply he received was deeply challenging. Sell everything. Give all to the poor. Follow Me. Jesus, the living Word, had judged his secret emotions and thoughts, and spoke accordingly.
On my first full day as your parish priest, I was presented with a question no less challenging. Our Parish Council was beginning to plan our Christmas Dinner. It was explained to me that it had to be on a Friday, as this was the only night on which many people would be able to come. And being on a Friday, would it be OK to set aside the Friday abstinence from meat?
How your priest chooses to answer such a question will tell you a great deal about him.
I could start by pointing out that the bishops themselves have said the failing to abstain from meat on a particular Friday wouldn’t be a sin. I could suggest that a Christmas event was a good enough reason to excuse ourselves from abstaining. The letter of the law doesn’t absolutely require us to avoid meat.
But if I only give you that response, I’ll be sending you a subtle signal that the disciplines of our Church don’t matter very much, and certainly aren’t meant to put us to any trouble.
On the other hand, I could start by saying that since it’s a parish event, it’s something we should do together as a Catholic family following Catholic rules. It’s perfectly possible to have a decent meal on a Friday evening which doesn’t involve meat. I could stamp my authority on the parish by laying down the law, as parish priest, by decreeing that we are all going to follow the rules, and that’s that.
But if I did that, I’d be insisting on something more than the Church’s law requires, and making the decision on behalf of all of us that each one of us was going to abstain. Then your abstinence would not be a freely-offered sacrifice, but an imposition from me.
And there’s another problem. Jesus told us to fast in secret. We’re not supposed to show other people that we’re fasting. Should we hide our abstaining by choosing the turkey menu?
But I don’t think “other people” includes family. It’s almost impossible to hide from your own family the fact that you’re fasting. If I give up Jaffa Cakes for Lent, Mum knows within a week – the packet in the fridge suddenly doesn’t go down! So within our parish family, we should encourage one another in our Catholic practices of fasting and abstaining – but we don’t seek to trumpet what we are doing to a non-Catholic world.
Let’s take a step back and ask ourselves: WHY do our Church leaders ask us to abstain from meat on a Friday?
It was on a Friday that Jesus died upon the Cross. This followed an epic struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane. In his mind, he knew very well what His Father was asking of him. But his human will first had to say YES, a total, unconditional YES to God. “Not what I want, Father, but what you want.” Only in this way could the humanity in Jesus be totally obedient to God’s will, and only through perfect obedience could the gates of Heaven be opened for us.
We, as followers of Jesus, are invited to remember this epic struggle each Friday, by making our own choice to be obedient. It’s a small sacrifice – a sacrifice of not eating meat, but more importantly, a sacrifice of our freedom to choose. Not obedience to a direct command from God, but obedience to the Church leaders God has placed over us. Yes, it’s irritating. Yes, it does restrict our social choices – especially on a Friday night. If we choose to make the sacrifice and avoid meat, we have made a small but significant offering to God – and we have shaped our own personality away from self-will.
Why am I abstaining from meat on a Friday? Because I want to train myself to be a person who lives for God’s will, not to satisfy my own desires.
Why am I abstaining from meat on a Friday? Because on this day God saved the world by allowing his own flesh to be tortured and killed.
Why am I abstaining from meat on a Friday? Because I choose to remember that it was on a Friday that Jesus was put to death following the most important decision ever made by a human will.
But back the the question at hand – as a parish, should we abstain from meat on the Friday of our Christmas meal, a Friday which occurs in Advent, the season of patient waiting? I could have made the decision for all of us as a parish, and insisted that turkey stays off the menu. But I’m not going to do that. I’m going to do something much more terrifying! I’m going to remind you that each one of you is an adult Christian with the power to make a sacrifice out of love for God – and your sacrifice ONLY has value if it is made freely.
I suspect if we could ask Jesus directly what we should do, he wouldn’t have given us a straight answer; he’d have told a story. So here’s a true story.
A few years ago, an Archbishop and a Papal Nuncio – Vatican Ambassador – were invited to a civic dinner which happened to fall on Ash Wednesday. The Nuncio suggested that the Archbishop could exempt him from the fasting rules, since the dinner was in the Archbishop’s diocese. In return, the Nuncio could use his special authority from the Pope to exempt the Archbishop.
On the day of the meal, the Archbishop, who had put in a special request for the non-meat option, found himself served with a rather poor quality salad while all the surrounding diners were served lamb.
The Nuncio enjoyed the roast dinner.
Which of the two representatives of Christ chose the course of action more pleasing to God?
As for me, on December 14th, I’ll be having the fish.