Fasting and Feasting: A Reflection for Thanksgiving

by Irene Nowell, OSB

The Hebrew Bible situated both fasting and feasting in the context of one basic trust: It is God who gives life; it is God who gives food. Belief in that fact preserved a balance of fasting and feasting in the people’s life. Failure to remember that fact led to legalism in fasting and to excess in feasting.

The early Christian writings continue this primary assertion concerning food as gift and God as giver. The teachings of Jesus, however, lead to the paradoxical situation in which fasting and feasting flow together. In the Jewish tradition, disheveled hair, sackcloth and ashes were a sign of fasting. Jesus calls for the outward signs of feasting to continue during a fast, for groomed hair and clean face to conceal the fast that goes on within. Thus he strikes a mortal blow at legalism and ostentation.

In answer to an objection from the disciples of John, Jesus excuses his disciples from fasting as long as he is with them. When he is taken away they will fast. This too is a paradoxical situation. When he is taken away he leaves a feast behind him, a covenant meal – a pledge of the future banquet. His followers fast because he is gone, yet feast because he is present. They find him in the breaking of the bread.

Caught in this moment of waiting, however, his disciples may not forget the lessons of the Hebrew Bible. Fasting is a sign of trust in God and must result in the sharing of life with others. So to the feasts which celebrate life, the poor and the needy must be invited.  They who cannot repay remind us of our dependence. The sharing of life is again extended. The food that is the gift of God nourishes the life that is the gift of God. Caught in this moment of waiting, the disciples of Jesus fast and feast with the poor.

Yet there is a surprise hidden in the plan of God.  This is the fasting that I wish, says the Lord: Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked. Invite those who cannot repay, says Jesus. Yet when the Son of Man comes in his glory he will say, It was I who was hungry and you gave me food, I who was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. Although fasting and feasting seemed to be shared with those who could not repay, the master claims, As long as you did it for one of my least ones, you did it for me. It will go well with those servants whom the master finds faithful on his return. I tell you, he will put on an apron, seat them at table and proceed to wait on them.

The challenge in this vision is clear. The giver of life promises a banquet as life’s fulfillment. The banquet is gift, but it is given only to those who understand its meaning, to those who recognize already that their lives and their sustenance depend solely on God’s love and care. They have the courage to fast who know that tomorrow God will again provide. They have the courage to feast, to celebrate life, and to share their feasting with the poor who know the biblical truth that God provides food for all creatures. Why, then, are so many people hungry?

Sister Irene Nowell, OSB is a Benedictine of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kansas. Her doctorate in biblical studies is from the Catholic University of America.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.