“So, what is the most common ritual of pagan religions and cults?” a friend once asked me. He wanted a salacious answer, like human sacrifice or ritualistic sex.
“Feasts and fasts” was the answer he got instead.
Despite the fact that most of us eat food every day, there is something intrinsically special about eating, and eating with others. This doesn’t mean that everyone likes it, of course. I know more than a few people who view eating as a necessary refueling and nothing more. But there is a reason that, throughout the world, people generally eat in community.
Unlike other bodily functions, almost all of which are done in private, eating is an intensely communal activity. We take that everyday communal activity a step further when we eat in celebration—i.e., feasting. Thanksgiving Day marks the beginning of our modern-day feasting season. We are all familiar with the groans and jokes of despairing dieters, inspired by the vast quantities of food guaranteed at every gathering.
Our culture has largely forgotten, however, that the great Christmas feasts once marked the end of the complementary holiday activity: repentance and fasting.
Just as feasting is found throughout the world and has a communal aspect, so too does fasting. I would argue that it is a form of communal worship, a ritual that is better able to accomplish its intended purpose when done as a community. During a penitential season, we are not only thinking of our individual sins but of the whole state of mankind. To fast together helps shore us up against temptation, binds the community of believers together, and makes the entire experience less about ‘me’.
You may be more familiar with the fasting that precedes Easter, the biggest holiday of the Christian church. The season of Lent focuses believers on confessing and repenting of our sinful nature. We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against God, provoking most justly His wrath and indignation against us. Easter is the moment when God’s work of grace, through Christ’s death and resurrection, is brought about to wash us clean.
Christmas is the foretaste of that, for our Savior was born of a virgin and made Man. In the season leading up to Christmas, then, we likewise consider our fallen natures and our need for Christ. In previous times, this season was accompanied by fasting, similar to Lent.
While I highly recommend you enjoy the turkey and mashed potatoes this Thanksgiving, I also would encourage you to consider fasting in community this coming Advent season, which starts on Sunday. And I would also recommend that instead of each individual giving up a specific thing, which may or may not be food related, you fast in the proper context of food. Limiting meat on certain days or avoiding seasonings or rich flavors are traditional ways of fasting within Advent that are likely to make this year’s season difficult to forget.