Fasting is intuitively a bodily and a liturgical act. The Liturgical Year invites us to “days of discipline, denial, and special prayers” in Lent, Fridays outside of Christmastide and Eastertide, Rogation Days, and Ember Days (BCP, pg. 689). While intermittent fasting has recently been a diet fad, ordinarily fasting in our North American context is connected to the Church Year.
And, thanks to the Ash Wednesday lessons, especially from Isaiah 58 and Matthew 6, all faithful Anglicans have a sense of what distinguishes a fast that is or is not pleasing to the Lord. We are to make our faces bright, and not gloomy. We are to keep our Lenten disciplines as secret as possible for our heavenly Father who sees in secret. We are to attend to the needs of the poor. Easier said than done, but: message received.
A Problem of Ambiguity
When it comes to feasting, however, things are not quite as clear.
Now, we are usually careful to distinguish between the Christian celebrations of Christmas and Easter, and the cultural festivities that have been annexed into these Holy Days. But when it comes to the concept of “feasting” generally, Anglicans are often not quite as careful to distinguish what is Christian from what is cultural. A distinction must be made if our feasts—as well as our fasts—are to be pleasing to the Lord.
Part of the problem stems from the ambiguity of the word “feasting.” Clarifying the different meanings of the word is essential.
Three Meanings of the Word “Feasting”
Unlike fasting, which is bodily and liturgical all at once, feasting bodily and feasting liturgically need to be carefully distinguished. (1) “Feasting” in the liturgical sense means rejoicing in God’s mercies and being sustained by his goodness as his saving work in Jesus Christ is commemorated.
“Feasting” in the bodily sense means indulging in luxury and quantity. Within bodily feasting there is a further distinction to recognize: the difference between Christian bodily feasting and worldly bodily feasting.
(2) Christian bodily feasting is marked by moderation and gratitude to God. Christian bodily feasting can sometimes go hand-in-hand with liturgical feasting; for instance, at Christmas, when it is fitting to have roast meat upon returning from the Holy Table at Church.
(3) Worldly bodily feasting, on the other hand, is marked by excess and nihilism, and has no place in the earnest Christian Life. (Think of the ancient Romans, toasting each other in their drunkenness, saying “You are going to die!”)
To distinguish between the three meanings of “feasting,” I shall refer to them with their modifiers, “liturgical feasting,” “Christian bodily feasting,” and “worldly bodily feasting.” Being careful with these distinctions is crucial if we are not simply to baptize a form of self-indulgence in the name of the Liturgical Year.
Feasting on Sundays
All Sundays are liturgical feast days because Sunday is the Holy Day on which our Lord was raised from the dead, and throughout the historic church the Holy Eucharist has normally been celebrated as “our duty and our joy” on Sundays. The joy of the Eucharist necessarily makes it a “feast” without implying any concomitant luxury-use (bodily feasting). Now, it is quite fitting that Christians for many centuries on the Sundays of the Church Year outside of Lent chose Sundays as the one day of the week to enjoy the bounty of God’s earth, but this doesn’t mean Christian bodily feasting and liturgical feasting are inherently of a piece.
Indeed, in Lent, they are not connected. In recent years it has become increasingly common to hear Anglican teachers emphasize, “Sundays in Lent are feast days”—a liturgically correct statement—and teach that the Lenten self-denial from luxury is therefore lifted on Sundays in Lent. But, with the historical exception of the Fourth Sunday of Lent (known as Laetare, meaning “rejoice”), this is actually not the case. Historically, Sundays in Lent have not been occasions for bodily feasting, though there is the spiritual feast of the Eucharist. The “40 Days of Lent” are traditionally calculated as the 39 Days between Ash Wednesday and the day before Palm Sunday, inclusive of all the Sundays “in Lent.” Holy Week is the culminating event that follows Lent, even as the Lenten fast is of course maintained through till Easter. The Church is not asking us to ping-pong between six days of abstaining from luxury goods and one day of enjoying them in Lent, but is calling us to a full 46 days of self-denial.
The Church Year and Discipleship
Blurring the meanings of feasting can inadvertently present a bipolar picture of the Church Year that is not at all what Holy Church intended. The Liturgical Year is often (rightly) presented as a cycle of feasting and fasting in alternation. If by “feasting” in this context we mean liturgical feasting, this is exactly right; but if we mean bodily feasting, then misunderstandings can abound, as if the Church Year is asking us to bounce back and forth between denying ourselves and delighting in luxury.
Furthermore, fasting is—by its very nature—understood to be a discipline, but sometimes an additional thesis is presented, that (bodily) feasting, as well as fasting, is a discipline that we must submit to as well. (As if there were something “dutiful” in a tub full of Talenti gelato!) I don’t believe this is the intent of such presentations, but if the different kinds of feasting are not carefully parsed, it can be the received message.
The Church Year has reduced fasting to specific seasons, that the burden of fasting would not be too heavy to carry. But fasting—not feasting—is actually to be the norm of the Christian life. Jesus says, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matt 9:15). Jesus has been visibly taken away from us while he is seated at the right hand of the Father. Of course, he is with us always by the presence of his Holy Spirit, but visibly he has been taken away. Therefore, in the words of an old Anglican divine, “it is a wonder that we do anything but fast.” Fasting is the baseline state of Christians awaiting the second coming, but this is not the normal impulse of most Anglicans in North America. We tend to think of feasting as the norm, and fasting as the exception. We have it backwards.
While feasting is our ultimate End (Revelation 19:6–9), to make feasting the norm on this side of heaven seems to be the liturgical equivalent of what biblical scholars call an “over-realized eschatology;” we aren’t there yet! The Church invites us to Christian bodily feasting on the great Holy Days and the Sundays outside of Lent, but these are gracious glimpses of the Feast that is to come, and should never be desecrated by becoming occasions for worldly bodily feasting. I am ashamed of the times in the past when I have not been careful about that distinction in my own life.
When Easter comes, this is not an excuse to resume pre-Lenten gluttonies.
Even apart from sinful, worldly feasting, it is a mistake—all too common among us Anglicans—to totally relegate self-denial to the six weeks of Lent when our Lord Jesus exhorts all his disciples to a lifetime of daily self-denial. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
Daily is not the same as “for six weeks each spring.”
The Church Year is not calling us to limit our self-denial to Lent, nor to bounce back and forth between bodily feasting and fasting, but for fasting to continually inform our ordinary, daily discipleship. Each year’s Lent should hopefully burn away a little more of our self-pampering habits in favor of more earnest pursuit of our Master all the time, in the midst of the whole of the Church Year.
Feasting in Socio-Historical Context
The popular “over-realized” notion of Christian bodily feasting today also seems to take for granted the historically very unusual situation we find ourselves in: of all being fabulously wealthy, as compared to the majority of humankind past and present. What we among the middle class in North America think of as normal—running water, hot and cold; refrigerated food; produce available all year in near infinite quantities; sugary confections to be had after and between all meals; comfy clothes and beds; fine beers and wines and cocktails whenever we would like them; meat at most evening meals; meat in our sandwiches; perfumed bodies, etc.—these constituted the very heights of luxury in the ancient world. What we, the middle class, think of as “normal” life is in fact a swimming in luxury.
In this context, we need to be very careful to distinguish Christian bodily feasting from merely the enjoyment of luxury goods that wealth enables. Among the poor there may sometimes be a need for a discipline of (bodily) feasting in order to lift the soul beyond material necessity, but among the middle class and up it is more fitting to think about disciplined feasting, rather than a discipline of feasting.
Christian bodily feasting should be chastened with restraint, and focused with intentionality so as to make it stand apart from being a mere “party.” Food should be celebrated without falling into either sub-species of gluttony: excess of quantity or excess or refinement. St. Gregory the Great repudiated exotic spices saying that the only spices he ever needed to make food tasty were “salt and fasting.” The spirit of this can be captured by emphasizing the enjoyment of the food and the gathering that it creates, rather than becoming preoccupied with the fanciness of the fare in itself.
Not Feasting Can Be a Personal Choice
As well as our larger socio-economic story, our own personal stories may also lead us to forego even Christian bodily feasting. One of the church fathers, St. Pacian of Barcelona, wrote,
“What have I to do with feasting, who have injured the Lord?”
Paraphrasing his meaning: “Let those who have kept the Faith and walked in purity as Christians enjoy hearty festivity; I have not—it would be unbecoming for me to dive into such bodily feasting, since I have brought pain to Christ by sinning against him, though I knew better.”
Feasting Can Reveal the Heart of Fasting
Another mistaken idea of feasting can be found in a “fast hard / feast hard” mentality. I can think of some Christians I have known, who gave up ordinary foods with great rigor during Lent, only to get drunk after the Easter Vigil. This cannot be pleasing to the Lord (Ephesians 5:18, Galatians 5:21, etc.), and indeed prompts retrospective analysis of how Spirit-led their earlier fasting was.
Not all self-denial is spiritual. Muslims, who are not guided by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, keep their “fast” of Ramadan which on the surface appears admirably self-denying. But upon analysis, many Muslim communities end their day of abstinence with a raucous evening smorgasbord. (By the way, the idea that a fast meant no food at all during daylight is borrowed from 7th century Christianity.) The evening glut grates against the spirit of fasting, and largely undoes whatever virtue of self-denial might have been acquired. The letter of the fast is kept, but the essence of a fast is lost. A derivation of this idea may be present in some kinds of feasting within the Church, showing that even a Christian fast can stray from Christian asceticism, into an asceticism that is of no value to the soul, which St. Paul warns against in Colossians 2:23:
“These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”
Any view of feasting vis-a-vis fasting that places a Christian in a ping-pong-like state, bouncing between the two, Ramadan-style, is one that is not helpful to the great labor of living for the Spirit and not for the flesh. It doesn’t make sense to pour water and gasoline on the same fire.
Christian Feasting Done Right
So, if there are so many false views of (bodily) feasting, what is the right view?
A key can be found in the traditional language the Holy Church uses about the great feasts of the Christian Year, traditionally called “solemn feasts.”
When I first heard this phrase—back when I confused being a bon vivant with having life abundantly—it sounded entirely oxymoronic. How can a (bodily) feast be solemn? But now I have come to see that this is the very best way to describe the true Christian feast.
In bodily feasting, we humbly accept the good things that God has provided (like wine or chocolate) in moderation and with gratitude, still keeping our hearts in the lowly place that fasting brought them to. We are to keep an air of solemnity and not “let ourselves go,” even as we are genuinely filled with the deepest spiritual joy resulting from the liturgical feast, and (hopefully) the reception of the blessed sacrament.
Feasting in a Time of Coronavirus
This is perhaps especially pertinent this year, when Eastertide coincides with the coronavirus pandemic. While the gospel of Jesus’ resurrection is fittingly proclaimed in all seasons, the degree of (bodily) feasting accompanying our celebration should take into account the grief and strain of our historical moment. The Lord spoke proverbially through Solomon by warning against giving a too-loud greeting at the wrong time (Proverbs 27:14). Christians should not feast at a “volume” that would be misunderstood as callousness to suffering by the watching world.
So, here’s to true Christian feasting this Eastertide! Christ is Risen! Let us rejoice in a manner worthy of our great Savior, and mindful of how much our salvation cost him.
Ben Jefferies is the rector of The Good Shepherd Anglican Church, Opelika, Alabama. He served on the Task Force that produced the Book of Common Prayer 2019. He is married with three daughters.