With Lent upon us, people of faith who observe the season between Christmas and Easter are thinking about feasting and fasting: the feasting that occurs on Mardis Gras or “Fat Tuesday,” and the fasting on Ash Wednesday or other days during this season of penance and reflection.
But there’s a misconception about feasting and fasting, as if feasting is just individual overindulgence associated with hedonism and self-centeredness and fasting an assiduous austerity associated with dieting. Both of those notions are incorrect and keep us and our personal concerns at the center of our thoughts.
Feasting is less about the luxury or overindulgence of eating until we ache and more about rejoicing with other people. When we are in good company, as the sommelier of Pembroke College once said to me, “It really doesn’t matter what we eat and drink, something wonderful is happening.” (Just as well for those of us who choose not to drink his wine!)
Likewise, fasting isn’t about us beating ourselves up, but standing in real solidarity with others. This is something that takes on added importance and urgency this year as Lent begins with the devastating events that are unfolding in Ukraine.
The Catholic Church in England has weekly Friday fast days when the money saved isn’t just added to the household pot of cash for compensatory treats, but given to charity to equip the world’s poorest. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints likewise models the importance of standing in solidarity with others.
Family fast days show a family the power of fasting and praying for others with the sharper focus that fasting brings, and donating the money that is saved to humanitarian relief. Both make a real difference to others in need. Others’ needs become part of our own life; we discover that we personally benefit when people fast with us in our pain or isolation — how beautiful that is.
And when we are invited to the feast, we receive others’ unexpected and undeserved generous hospitality. These times of feasting and fasting remain my most overwhelming impressions from my recent visit to Provo, Utah.
There are moments in life which remind us of our first experience of personal faith, and how fasting and feasting might figure into our journey. This happened to me last August in Orem, when I burnt my feet badly. At the time, I remember a sense that this was a serious state of affairs, one that needed medical intervention. It would be a costly process in terms of time and energy, and I would probably not be the same again. Going forward, there would need to be vigilance and discipline to regularly check my feet which, I soon learned, wouldn’t have nerve endings for the rest of my life.
This experience took me back to an awareness when I was 13, when I was prompted to reach into my soul, to find that I was wounded and needed to ‘come home’ but I couldn’t do that on my own. A guide, a Good Shepherd, a strong savior, was needed to disentangle me from things where I was stuck, ensnared like the ram tangled in the thicket by his horns in the 22nd chapter of Genesis.
I had been found by the Good Shepherd who was also that sacrificial lamb; it was a serious and important moment, discovering the real state of things. I would need regular fellowship with Jesus Christ and regular feasting with all his people. I would also need to exercise agency and responsibility — choosing the right and relying on his power to nurture my own soul — fasting from the paths of destruction, sin and carelessness, and constantly repenting when I failed to do so.
Feasting and fasting belong together in a pattern. They take us out of the closed-in world of self to recline on the Lord’s breast as the beloved disciples that we are, just as John did at the feast of the Lord’s Supper.
There is a joyful dignity that comes with being entrusted to feast and fast with others, to be allowed to give our life and resources to the Christian church and to the world. Similarly, allowing people to bless us in their poverty brings immense richness to us all, and enabling the poor to have enough for them to give to others is a really enriching commitment.
Feasting and fasting — and our ordinary life in between — are the means whereby we can see the wounded and the lost, not with judgmental distance or disdain, but with love.
Fasting puts us alongside all God’s children in their wounds. It communicates to those in isolation that they are not alone. We are with them, and, more wonderfully, the Lord is with them and will remain with us.
One of the sisters at Fairacres Convent in Oxford is also a world-renowned scholar. She happened to be in London where she chanced upon Maria, a prostitute who spoke to her because she was wearing visible religious clothing. In the few minutes they were together, Maris told her that she had a child and that she had been forced into sex work by people who kept her child. Men soon arrived and bundled Maria into a car, leaving my friend in horror at the depths of such inhumane evil.
Here was a scholarly nun, whose life in an enclosed convent was as far from the dark world of human trafficking and exploitation as one can imagine. Yet that brief connection had such a profound effect on her that she prays daily for Maria, and those like her, and also Maria’s child and her captors. These men, whom my friend says had violence in their countenance, like all people in sin, need us to pray for them. Prayer and fasting take us far from a cancel culture.
A book my friend produced is dedicated to Maria. The heartbreak of not being able to make everything OK feeds my friend’s spiritual life daily. She fasts longingly and her heart breaks with the pain of the world which, like Maria, is needing to come home.
Feasting and fasting — and our ordinary life in between — are the means whereby we can see the wounded and the lost, not with judgmental distance or disdain, but with love. Let us seek them out, stand with them, feast and abstain with each other until God’s mercy in its power comes upon us all, and together we may know that “all is well, all is well.”
The Rev. Andrew Teal was a visiting scholar and affiliate faculty at the Maxwell Institute at BYU last fall. He is a chaplain fellow, and lecturer in theology at Pembroke College in the University of Oxford, England, and a priest of the Church of England.