What a Lenten Meal Really Means


by Stephanie Colello

“God created the world and blessed it and gave it to man as his food and life, as the means of communion with Him.” – Fr. Alexander Schmemann

As we find ourselves towards the end of Lent, confronting food at every corner and contemplating the meaning of true fasting, I remembered this essay I wrote for a class on Orthodoxy last year about Father Alexander Schmemann’s explanation of the Orthodox sacrements in his book, For the Life of the World. He touches upon the significance of food in the Garden of Eden – how food itself was supposed keep the ever-hungry man in communion with God, but then after the fall man began to separate into man-made categories of the “material” and “sacred,” casting the original means of communion, food, to the side.

In For the Life of the World, Fr. Alexander Schmemann attempts to liberate the word “sacrament” from the Western meaning of specific acts of the Church. He recalls the first scene of Adam in Genesis where Adam is a hungry being, as created by God, and is given the entire world for food. He is to name the plants and animals, and to use them to feed himself and his family. In doing so, he is communing with God, who made both man and the cosmos, his food. Man was created as a priest, when he takes the food, God blesses it, and man blesses it in return, communing with God, “The world was created as the ‘matter,’ the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.” This reality is what separates man from animal; man alone has the ability to participate in this priesthood, in this offering of the offered back to the Creator Himself. Every action in the Garden was “sacrament,” for man still wholeheartedly acknowledged that “all that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God.”

When Adam and Eve fell from Paradise, however, man began to make several fatal errors. He no longer viewed all of earth as God’s Creation, and a means to be in constant communion with the Creator. Instead, only parts of his life served his purpose of natural priesthood. Schmemann believes the greatest error of modern Christianity is not the “secularization” of the Church or the materialization of man, but the fact that man chose to establish the world as “material” and the Church as “sacred”. He chose to take all that was given by God as means for communion with man, and to separate it into the broad categories of the divine and secular, the sacred and profane, the material and spiritual.

God created the entire world for man so that we could be in constant communion with Him. Food was never meant to be considered “material” or “profane,” and therefore separated from God who is “spiritual” or “sacred,” but instead food was supposed to transform the consumer to realize the greater truth and reality of the world, to give thanks to God for all that He has made, to be in communion with God. Thus, the purpose of the ‘sacrament’ and the very definition of a sacramental act itself is a transformative process that leads back to this truth, this purity and non-separated world created by God in the Garden of Eden. It is to satisfy this “mysterious hunger” naturally instilled in us from the beginning of Creation not with money and fruitless work, but with God Himself.

In conclusion, Schmemann ties together the image of the hungry Adam, with mankind now satiated by the bread that is Christ. “He is our bread-because from the very beginning all our hunger was a hunger for Him and all our bread was but a symbol of Him, a symbol that had to become reality.” Schmemann places much significance on the transformative properties of the sacraments, and their ability to bring us back to the original reality and meaning of the cosmos and of matter: that all is made for communion with God. In this sense the sacraments are the unveiling of truth. The Eucharist, for example, “is the sacrament of unity and the moment of truth: here we see the world in Christ, as it really is, and not from our particular and therefore limited and partial points of view.” We are revealed this “truth” that is akin to the truth in the Garden of Eden before the Fall of Man, when Man’s purpose of being priest of creation was being rightfully fulfilled, when he was in constant communion with God. There was no profane and sacred in the Garden, because all was from God.

When Christ became man, he restored to humanity the sacramental significance of matter: God became material, and in doing so forever blessed matter. He lived, however, in a perfect way, in the way that all men were created, as Eucharistic beings constantly offering the world back to God, instead of separating the “world” from the “sacred.” Christ “ate and drank, and this means that the world of which he partook, the very food of our world became His body, His life. But His life was totally, absolutely Eucharistic-all of it was transformed into communion with God and all of it ascended into heaven. And now He shares this glorified life with us.” Everything is restored back to its Eucharistic significance.

So, as we encounter food during this Lenten season, I highly recommend reading more of Schmemann’s book as I’m sure I didn’t do it justice. The way we think about food now, and the way man interacted with food in the Garden of Eden, are very different. Food in the Garden of Eden was meant to create constant communion with God. Imagine if we remembered food, during every meal or snack, as a form of communing with God! Lent would be truly a different experience.

Steph Colello is a junior studying Slavic Languages and Literatures with a minor in Global Health and Health Policy at Princeton University, and is the Northeast Regional Representative for Orthodox Christian Fellowship. From the website of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship, reproduced with permission.