St John's Header

The Second Week of Lent:
Discipline and Mindfulness – Fasting and Feasting

 

Spiritual  discipline has more to do with intentional behavior than with insistence on a rigid routine, and mindfulness has more to do with a posture of attentive learning rather than with retentive fixation on some idea. [1]

It is in that sense of discipline that both Christian fasting and feasting are intended to be grounded: fasting, an intentional abstinence from food in one degree or another for the purpose of clearing one’s mind, cleansing one’s body or clarifying one’s focus on the eternal rather than the essential; feasting, attention to the purpose of the celebration, thankfulness for the abundance of God’s provision, the joy of sharing one’s goods in community with family, friend and stranger.

 Fasting…Then

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’  Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding–guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they?  As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.  (Mark 2:18–19)

Among ancient peoples, fasting was used to prepare for an encounter with the deity.  Few Episcopalians remember that “all Fridays of the year” were fast days in the 1928 Prayer Book.  Communal fasting as a way of repentance is found in the Hebrew Scriptures, and is reflected in contemporary Judaism at the Yom Kippur fast.  Today, Buddhist monks still fast regularly, Hindu sadhus are admired for their frequent personal fasts.  Muslims fast during the daylight hours of the month of Ramadan. 

Jesus assumed that his disciples would continue the practice of fasting.  In the Sermon on the Mount he says: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you,” (Matt. 6:16–18).

But, in the medieval period of Christian history fasting got a bad name from excesses of self–mortification.  It became associated with rejection of the body, denial of sexuality, and abstinence from pleasure in life.  Attempts to reform the practice of fasting, moving away from legalistic requirements, and encouraging it as an element of personal devotion were unsuccessful and, instead, fasting as a spiritual discipline was gradually abandoned. [2]

…And Now

Fasting is making something of a come–back.  Although no longer an obligation, many Christians are re–engaging the practice as a means of solidarity with the poor throughout the world, as a protest against violence and as a healthy discipline that can lead to clear thinking and generous sentiments, as “a means of grace for those who choose, as St. Benedict advised, ‘to love fasting.’”

Fasting is a freely chosen, personal discipline, not an institutional requirement of the Church.  If you want to experiment with fasting, you should choose your own time and your own way to do it.  Fasting is abstention or abstinence from food for a definite period of time.  You can go without solid food only (abstinence), or go without everything but water (abstention).  You can abstain just from meat or rich fare.  You can determine for yourself the context and motivation of your fast.  During Lent many observe a kind of fasting – foregoing alcoholic beverages or sweets, or meat on specific days, typically Fridays.  However you do it, it is best, as in all things, to begin in moderation, to learn about the practice of fasting, and about yourself, how your own body reacts, and what your health requires.  People are often surprised to discover how food–centered their lives are, and decide to take control of their appetites as a general matter, not just in Lent. [3]

Feasting

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.’  In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’  (I Cor. 11:23–25)

“Even a cursory glance at the Gospels tells us that meals were important to first–century Jews and Christians.  Feasts and celebrations that included special meals are often mentioned in the Gospels…
Especially among the ordinary people, the meaning of food shifted very easily and quickly from being an exalted symbol of life to being simply life sustaining.  On many occasions, however, food and feasts still transcended the mundane purpose of fueling the body for work and keeping a person alive.  Weddings, harvests, and religious feasts were occasions for fellowship and worship and provided the participants with symbols for life and community.”

“Try to imagine what it was like to eat a meal with Jesus.  The gospels are full of stories about banquets and dinners with Jesus.  He must have eaten often with his disciples.  Picture Jesus sitting on a bench or squatting on the ground with friends and disciples around a small common table, tearing a piece of bread and dipping it into a common pot of stewed lentils, or eating fresh and dried fruit from pottery bowls.  A typical first–century household included three of four generations of family: grandparents; parents; sons and their wives; grandchildren; as well as servants, hired hands, and guests. [4] An average dinner was a community experience in and of itself!”



[1]     Derived and adapted from a meditation by Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE.

[2]     Extracts from the writings of The Rev. Emmett Jarrett, TSSF, recently deceased, who pursued a ministry of prayer, hospitality and social justice at St. Francis House in New London, Connecticut.  A graduate of General Seminary, Father Jarrett was a priest of the Episcopal Church for 34 years.

[3]     Ibid.

[4]     Neel, Douglas E. and Pugh, Joel A., The Foods and Feasts of Jesus: Inside the World of First–Century Fare with Menus and Recipes (New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2012), pp. 2–3

 

Images:
The Fasting of St. Charles, Daniele Crispi, c. 1625

The Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio, c. 1601