This week, families across the United States will gather to celebrate Thanksgiving. In a matter of weeks, Christmas will be here. No doubt celebrations will look a little different this year. Gatherings might be smaller. The recent contentious election campaign may have fractured relationships. What can we say about the feasting that traditionally happens at this time of year?
Robert Farrar Capon, an avid cook and Episcopal priest, wrote a sort of theological cookbook called The Supper of the Lamb. In his book, he contrasts ‘ferial’ and ‘festal’ eating. Ferial cuisine is the kind of everyday food that makes the most out of less expensive ingredients. It can be as delicious as the more expensive ‘festal’ cuisine. It even sometimes has an advantage: “Every dish in the ferial cuisine…provides a double or treble delight: Not only is the body nourished and the palate pleased, the mind is intrigued by the triumph of ingenuity over scarcity—by the making of slight materials into a considerable matter.”1
This ferial eating is the kind about which I feel most comfortable. It is, in food terms, the “neither poverty nor riches” of Proverbs 30:8. But Scripture also refers to, and even commands, the extremes of fasting and feasting.
As a culture, we do not do very well when it comes to fasting. Fasting most often refers to the deliberate abstention from food for a designated period of time. It can be done as a spiritual discipline, but also for other reasons, such as for health, to lose weight, or to make a statement (e.g. a hunger strike).
In the Bible, people fasted for a variety of reasons. In the Old Testament, fasting was commanded on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:26). Elsewhere in the Old Testament, fasting was done as a sign of repentance (Joel 1:14), as an indication of humility (Psalm 35:13), or when pleading for God to act (e.g. Esther 4:15-17).
In the New Testament, we also find examples of fasting. Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days. The church at Antioch was “worshipping the Lord and fasting” (Acts 13:2). The early church also linked prayer and fasting. For example, “Paul and Barnabus appointed elders…in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust” (Acts 14:23).
However, no outright command about fasting exists in the New Testament. Does that mean we are off the hook? In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster suggests not. He refers to Matthew 6:16, in which Jesus says, “When you fast…” The word ‘when’—not ‘if’—implies that fasting is an assumed practice. Foster also comments more broadly about Jesus’ teaching in that chapter; Jesus talked about fasting “directly in the context of his teaching on giving and praying. It is as if there is an almost unconscious assumption that giving, praying, and fasting are all part of Christian devotion.”2 No Christian argues against the importance of giving or praying, though in practice many of us ignore all three.
Foster concludes, “There simply are no biblical laws that command regular fasting.” However, he continues, “Our freedom in the gospel…does not mean license, it means opportunity.”3
I know few people who fast, unless perhaps those who do fast also obey Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 6:17 and 18 to do so discreetly. Foster suggests that a current general unwillingness to fast results from negative associations from the Middle Ages, when fasting was a form of mortification, and also from our fear of fasting in a culture where we are surrounded by food and by pressure to eat.
Perhaps you wonder, as I did, about the purpose of fasting. According to Foster, the primary reason for fasting is to glorify God and to worship him. I confess, I don’t know exactly how our fasting glorifies God, unless the intent makes it so. What do you think? Fasting also can help us keep a balance in life; can remind us that God sustains us more than food does; and can “reveal the things that control us”4, which is an unpleasant but helpful realization.
Fasting can also help loosen our desire for control. In The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, John Mark Comer observes: “…it’s wise to regularly deny ourselves from getting what we want…That way when somebody else denies us from getting what we want, we don’t respond with anger. We’re already acclimated. We don’t have to get our way to be happy.”5
Talk of fasting may seem wildly inappropriate with Thanksgiving and Christmas on the horizon. Let’s turn now to feasting. Truth be told, I am no better at feasting than I am at fasting. I think as a culture this is also true; we are used to eating plenty of rich food at regular intervals, but that alone seems insufficient for a feast. What does the Bible have to say about feasting?
In the Old Testament, the Israelites were instructed to observe several feast times each year. Leviticus 23 describes the Feast of Firstfruits, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Trumpets, and the Feast of Tabernacles. For each of these appointed feasts and for several other events listed in that chapter (e.g. Sabbath, Passover, and the Day of Atonement), the phrase “…do no regular work” is repeated. Clearly these occasions are meant to take place outside of ordinary routines. What else characterizes a time of feasting?
To explore further, I turned again to Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. I found no chapter on ‘feasting’ that corresponded to the one on fasting, but Foster’s book concludes with a chapter on the discipline of celebration. Interestingly enough, the chapter made no mention of food! However, many of the aspects of celebration described there would turn a rich meal into a feast. For example, Foster describes singing and laughter, and encourages those who celebrate to “accent the creative gifts of fantasy and imagination.”6
Initially I wondered why Foster would list celebration as a discipline. Is it so difficult to celebrate? He says yes. One reason is that celebration requires trust: “Freedom from anxiety and care forms the basis for celebration. Because we know [God] care[s] for us, we can cast all our care upon him. God has turned our mourning into dancing.”7 Foster says celebration also requires obedience to Christ: “Without obedience joy is hollow and artificial. To elicit genuine celebration, obedience must work itself into the ordinary fabric of our daily lives. Without that our celebrating carries a hollow sound.”8 God indicates this connection between obedience (or lack of it) and celebration in words he spoke through the prophet Amos, in response to the Israelites’ sin of social injustice: “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies…Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”9
While Robert Farrar Capon has little use for fasting, he has much to say about feasting.
Let us fast then—whenever we see fit, and as strenuously as we should. But having gotten that exercise out of the way, let us eat. Festally, first of all, for life without occasions is not worth living. But ferially, too, for life is so much more than occasions, and its grand ordinariness must never go unsavored. But both ways let us eat with a glad good will.10
What about the limitations we face due to the novel coronavirus and the spread of COVID-19? Visits from family and friends and shared meals with loved ones are such an integral part of the holidays this time of year. This year, events like that are impossible for many and inadvisable for all. How can we feast under such circumstances?
Perhaps this year we have more need than ever to feast, even though it will be in smaller groups and with some sadness of heart. Especially at this time, we need to acknowledge and celebrate God’s presence and provision, and to seek His will.
This season, may you feast, celebrating God’s marvelous provision and the joy He gives. May you also take time to fast, remembering that “life is more important than food” (Matthew 6:25) and that we have a deeper form of nourishment in God. In between, may you eat and enjoy the extraordinary provision of ‘ordinary’ fare, all of it a gift from the Father who knows how to give good gifts, and who delights in doing so.