The Church Calendar is textured by periods of fasting followed by periods of feasting. For most 21st century Christians both seem pretty weird.
Though my guess would be that you think you know your way around feasting—we are a culture of conspicuous consumption, after all—but fasting is anathema to the world we live in. Why would you consciously deprive yourself? Unless we’re talking about a diet for the purpose of sculpting our bodies to match our identities, we do not deny ourselves.
Except, I think it’s feasting we have a problem with.
Every church I’ve been in for the last twenty years fasts, though I’ve picked up more recently that this might be unusual. It’s not weird for me to fast corporately with my church, or to fast ahead of a difficult decision, or to fast because Jesus taps you on the shoulder and says “wouldn’t it be fun?”
We don’t observe the traditional fasts—not least because we’re the sort of charismatics who like to reinvent things and then pretend that we haven’t heard of the original—but we do regularly fast. Which, I think, is a good thing. It’s a helpful discipline, though not a commanded one.
We’re terrible at feasting.
You might think that our over-eating and over-drinking means we love to feast. But, when every meal is a feast, none of them are. What I mean is that we’re poor at marking high days and occasions—whether they are the traditional ones or not isn’t the key point—at setting aside times in our rhythms to celebrate and experience life around the table together.
We’re bad at setting aside time to feast, and we’re terrible at feasting with the church.
How often does your Christmas table or your Easter table include your family? By which, I mean of course, the people that you say are your family each Sunday rather than those you’re related to? That is one reason churches need to be careful with the family rhetoric: we can only say it if we follow through. If you’re single or otherwise in a ‘weaker’ position in a typical British church set-up, how often are you invited into others’ homes for the high days?
The Christmas Example
For a good example of what I’m trying to get at, let’s think about Christmas. For most of us we get a handful of days off for Christmas—though some of our employers will give us more (or insist we use our leave at that time of year). But Christmas is, traditionally, twelve days long. We all know that, we sing the song each year. Yet how many people would wish you a merry Christmas on the third of January?
I work in the public sector and so get given time off at Christmas in a way that most people don’t. It’s welcome, but it is interesting how often some of it falls in Advent rather than in Christmas.
It’s another sign of the Americanisation of our lives. My understanding is that most Americans would get Christmas Day off, but then be back to work for the rest of the Christmas period (which runs to the fifth of January). Here it’s more common to be off work until New Year, which is something. It’s always surprising that America, one of the most Christian countries on the planet, doesn’t look like one at all. I think most people would be at work on Good Friday, for example.
Most of us can’t affect these things, but if it’s good for us to feast, then those of us with employment power over others should give them appropriate time off—at least for Christmas and Easter. If you work for a church this is complicated as these are the high seasons, but of course the time off is to rest. By which I don’t mean relaxing but worshipping God with the people of God and enjoying his gifts around the table.
A wider pattern
But there’s a wider pattern to the Christian life of fasting and feasting. The way of Jesus is not minimalism, though in our cluttered and clamouring capitalist world it can look a little like it. The way of Jesus is a pattern of feasting and fasting.
We either feast: fully commit to a meal, moment or mission, or we fast: completely abstain from behaviours, activities and patterns of thinking which do not allow us to be ‘all in’ where we are.
Jesus was the least distracted man who ever lived. He set his face like flint towards Jerusalem. When we imagine laser-focus on a mission mandated by God we most likely think of a driven person who ignores everyone and everything else in pursuit of their goal. Jesus wasn’t like that, he was fully present with every person he encountered. Jesus wasn’t driven, but devoted; not striving but undistracted. And he still is, Jesus is at rest in his constant work before the Father on our behalf: interceding for us, lifting up our names, asking the Father to bless.
Jesus’ pattern to us is one of attention undiluted by fear.
This is probably not where you imagined I was going after my sociological comments about eating, but I think these are the same thing. When we adopt a rhythm to our year that tells us the gospel and insists that we are present with our communities at certain times to eat and drink and celebrate, we are given a framework to learn to act like Jesus in. It scaffolds our attempts to learn to live his story. We learn, slowly, what rest is and isn’t. We pattern our lives after his story: first with the six-and-one of our weeks, and then with our recapitulation of Israel’s feasts in the Church Calendar, and we learn the Way of Jesus by doing so.
To feast is not to be driven, though it might look like working hard. To feast is to rest, to enjoy and to commit completely to where you are, who you are with and what you are doing. To fast is to not allow yourself to be distracted, to deliberately cultivate hunger for God by withdrawing other things.
These are Christian virtues.
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