Food is an integral part of our culture, as defined by the ingredients, cooking methods, and the resulting dishes that each country or ethnic group uses and enjoys. The same could be said of religion, which incidentally sets standards in what believers are expected to eat and drink.
Symbolic foods are rife in Christian tradition. For starters, there’s the sacramental bread or “host”, a thin, round unleavened wafer served along with a goblet of grape wine in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. These symbolize the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, of which people are invited to partake of (sometimes, minus the wine) as a way of professing their faith.
Milk and honey are usually mentioned in the Bible. Milk is thought to provide spiritual wisdom and perfection, while honey is a reward for appreciating truth and goodness. Old scriptures also use these as a symbolism for fertile land, particularly the one promised to the Israelites. Olive oil, on the other hand, was used to anoint God’s appointed kings.
And then there’s fish. Fish is traditional fare for the first Christians, who live on fishing for their livelihood. Christians who abstain from meat eat fish instead. The Bible also contains references to fish, the most popular of which is Jesus feeding 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. And then after his resurrection, Jesus was offered grilled fish and honeycomb.
The fish itself is a symbol of Christianity. Jesus Christ teaches Christians to be “fishers of men”. There’s also “ichthys”, the Greek word for “fish”, which is used as an acrostic for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”.
Some countries have types of food that hold Christian symbolism. The Greek pastry baklava, for instance, is supposedly made of 33 layers, each symbolizing a year in the life of Jesus Christ. There’s the hot cross bun, eaten on Good Friday to commemorate the crucifixion of Christ. The pretzel, popularly eaten during Lent, is supposedly a symbol of a child’s arms folded in prayer. There’s also the Easter egg, decorated eggs that symbolize new life.
Even we Filipinos have the Panecillos de San Nicolas (a Kapampangan treat incidentally sold at Razon’s of Guagua), biscuits bearing the image of San Nicolas de Tolentino that are used as lucky charms. By the way, Christian tradition says pancakes are supposedly eaten on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, to symbolically end rich, luxurious eating in preparation for Lent.
Despite the abundance of symbolic culinary treats, Christians do follow certain dietary rules.
The general rule is that fasting and abstinence is obligatory on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, unless you’re from Bantayan Island in Cebu, where eating meat during Holy Week is allowed. Also, on all Fridays of the year, Filipino Christians may either abstain from meat, or do an exercise of piety or charity. In most cases, abstaining from meat or any other food for that matter is voluntary.
What’s remarkable about Christianity is its respect for food in general. Christians generally have no restrictions on the type of animals that may be eaten. This stems from the story of Saint Peter’s vision of a sheet with animals. In the vision, Peter is ordered to eat the animals, which were deemed unclean by religious laws of his time. Peter refused, to which he is told, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
Scholars interpret this as God’s symbolic order to stop discriminating against people from other religions or races. In a slightly literal context, Christians are allowed to eat any type of food with no guilt feelings associated with violating religion.
As we continue our commemoration of the Lenten Season, let us set aside some time to thank the Lord, the animals and plants, the chefs, farmers, fishermen, and everyone else involved in the food-making process. It is through God’s grace, and the sacrifice and effort of others that we are able to have something to eat and drink every day.