There are many examples throughout church history of where our own suffering or experience of the lack of some good thing, can become a doorway for us to increase empathy for those less fortunate. Now, we are all experiencing a lack of many good things in our lives. This is a difficult reality, but I believe that if we allow it to, it can take us beyond our own suffering and into a greater understanding of the other. As a youth worker, many of the young people I work with here in Calgary are incredibly socially isolated. Many have been cut off from family through historical trauma and subsequent government interventions. They are typically not well connected with any -- of the often multiple -- foster families they have lived with. What little social connection they may have had, through community and social programming in the city, has now been cut off as well.
As I have experienced some of my own suffering at this time; the loss of freedoms I enjoy, not being able to work the way I want to, not meeting in groups or with family or one on one, and not gathering as a church- these things have caused me to reflect even more so on the everyday experiences of many in our community. When I leave the house and the world around me feels tense and hostile, with sadness I realize that this experience itself would be familiar for many people I know. Many people I care about who must leave their houses each day not knowing how others will respond to them due to their ancestry, the color of their skin, their socioeconomic status, or a physical or mental disability. For these individuals, our world can be a frightening place and this time has brought me a little bit closer to their experience. I can imagine now with greater clarity what their lives may be like.
This experience is echoed in the practice of fasting. When you willingly choose to forgo food, something good -- created by God -- you are brought closer to those who may often live with hunger. Right now in particular, food and drink are on a shortened list of things we can still look forward to and enjoy. They can also be welcome distractions that help us to forget our present suffering (Matador’s pizza anyone?). Choosing to fast during this pandemic may seem especially difficult as it will certainly enhance our other senses, and we will be forced to enter the pain of this present moment in a deeper way. I realize this may not seem immediately appealing, but I believe through this practice we will be better equipped to “watch and pray” with Jesus. On our journey with Jesus, many things come before us simply as invitational. Jesus respects our freedom, and tends to simply tell us how it is, rather than dictate orders to us. Fasting is a practice which was embedded in the life of Christ, and one which we are still invited to enter into with Him, but it is our choice. Tim Mackie of The Bible Project has an excellent sermon on the rhythms of fasting and feasting in the life of a disciple of Jesus (link below). He highlights from Scripture three reasons for fasting: response, repentance, and request.
Response: throughout scripture we see the people of God taking time to fast after God has done something profound and transformational in their lives (i.e. Jesus fasting after his baptism). The idea here is that since God has stirred things up in a profound way in our lives, he has entered our story and things will never be the same again. Throughout scripture people would physically represent this non-physical experience through the practice of fasting. Food is one of the most stable elements of human life, and so forgoing food represents a significant diversion from the norm. Since we are physical beings -- not just spirit, not just mind -- it is important to represent these things which God has done in a physical way. Right now in our world, things have most certainly changed, and although we will get back to ‘usual’ again, things will never truly be the same. One way we can respond to this time of crisis in our world is by physically representing and feeling this change in our bodies by choosing to not eat for a period of time.
Fasts for repentance appear most often in scripture in the form of a 24 hour fast from food. The people of Israel often engage in this type of fast when they realize again how they have missed the mark of God’s intended plan for human flourishing. The word “repentance” can sound intimidating, but it simply means turning away from one thing, in favor of something greater. I believe many of us have realized now just how many things we take for granted. Many of our illusions of control have crumbled and we have been invited to trust God’s provision in new ways. There is an opportunity to turn away from our lack of faith as it arises, and to turn away from our independence and self-reliance and trust God more fully to provide for us. We may also need to depend on our community in ways that we historically have not needed to. If we are willing, we can take this opportunity to turn away from our idols of independence and individualism and turn towards greater interdependence on each other and God.
Finally, request is perhaps the form of fasting most familiar to us. We often (rightly) think of fasting as being connected to prayer, to asking God to fix, heal, or restore some aspect of our lives or our world. Perhaps request is even the most obviously relevant form of fasting for this pandemic. There are many fears, anxieties, and requests we can bring before God at this difficult time. We can abstain from food to enhance our focus on our prayers for loved ones and friends, for their safety and health, and beyond that, that they may be able to hear more clearly the invitations of Jesus. As our empathy is increased we can pray for those who experience our present sufferings much or all of the time. I believe that COVID-19 presents us with all three of these good reasons to participate in a time of fasting.
Okay, but what about feasting? I haven’t spent as much time on it because, let’s be honest, it’s probably not as difficult for us as fasting can be. Proper feasting however, is much more than just eating indiscriminate amounts of Matador’s pizza. Proper feasting is like Sabbath -- slowing down and taking the necessary time to drink deeply, and truly enjoy the good gifts the Father has given us -- in this case, food and drink. To allow our enjoyment of good food to glorify God and to cause us to give thanks and praise to the creator of such good things! When Jesus was questioned about fasting in the gospels, he had this to say: “At a wedding the friends of the bridegroom are not sad while he is with them. They cannot fast then. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them. Then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15). The disciples ate and drank and had cause to celebrate because Jesus was among them. We have the same reason to celebrate! We just celebrated Easter, Jesus has risen and truly lives among us and his Spirit within us. This is more than enough cause to feast and to celebrate! But, we also live in a unique time in Biblical history, referred to by theologians as “the already, but not yet.” In this time, while we rejoice in the presence of God with us and in the resurrection and new life we are experiencing, we also still acutely feel the lack of shalom (wholeness, fullness). The kingdom has come, but not yet fully. We still live in a world that is broken and occupied by the powers of death and darkness and we are presently very much aware of this. Therefore, we have sufficient cause to enter into the rhythm of fasting and feasting.
We fast to acknowledge and respond to the sense of lack around us and within us. We fast to repent and turn to God’s greater way to live and towards his plan for our flourishing. As we do this we request for God’s will to be done in our world and in our lives.
And we feast in order to respond to our residence in the Kingdom of Heaven which is all around us. We feast to celebrate the sustaining presence of Jesus that goes with us always. We feast to enjoy the good gifts of a good Father, as our prayers and requests are answered and we experience a greater measure of the Holy Spirit. We feast to represent our dependence on God and his provision for us.
Fasting, and feasting, rhythms which we are invited into as we continue along the road with Jesus.