In this season of harvest and celebration, scholar/teacher/novelist David Russell Mosley offers a reflection on feasting in the Christian tradition. Read more of David’s work for ESN here, or browse his recent author interview for ESN.
Autumn, which I think has finally reached New Hampshire this year, is a feasting season, as is Winter. The harvests are in and there is a glut of fresh produce, or was, which is now being cooked and preserved for those cold Winter months. Most of us are beginning to think about the secular celebration of Thanksgiving, a reminder that feasting is an inherent human tradition. And so, the prospect of Thanksgiving and the later (for me much more fulfilling) feast of Christmas has me thinking about the nature of feasting in our faith.
If you spend enough time reading some of our excellent Church Fathers, you might come away with the idea that Christianity is an ascetical religion. You might start to think that we are a fasting religion, but we’re not. Rather, I think, and I think the Tradition and Scripture both bear this out, that Christianity is a feasting religion. Let me explain what I mean.
The first thing we ought to keep in mind is that so many of the great men and women who have helped shape our faith over the past two thousand years were themselves ascetics. Many were monks and nuns and celibate clergy. They are called to a level of ascesis most of us are not. For them it is right to be often fasting, but that does not mean, nor do I think most of them meant, that Christianity is a fasting religion. Rather it is a statement that we are in need of ascesis, of fasting, in order to better prepare us for feasting.
Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper writes in his book, Leisure the Basis of Culture, that whereas leisure is the basis, the source of culture, celebration (or feasting) is the basis of leisure, the basis of leisure is divine worship, and the preeminent form of divine worship is the Eucharist, Communion, the Lord’s Supper. He writes at one point:
“The Christian cultus, unlike any other, is at once a sacrifice and a sacrament. In so far as the Christian cultus is a sacrifice held in the midst of the creation which is affirmed by this sacrifice of the God-man––every day is a feast-day; and in fact the liturgy only knows feast-days, even working days being feria.”
The point Pieper is making here is that Christianity is a feasting religion. In traditions like the Catholic Church (to which I belong) which usually have daily celebrations of Communion (a word itself which implies coming together in celebration and feasting). The Eucharist is itself a feast, a small instance of the great Wedding Feast of the Lamb which we will share in the life to come. This, of course, has even grander, and cosmic implications, for it means that at the Lord’s Table, at the Altar, we enter into the now, but not yet, of that eschatological event. We enter, ever so briefly, into eternity.
And this, I think, this extends out into the feasts and even daily meals we have. Eating itself is, in some way, connected to the Eucharist. The Eucharist provides a deeper foundation for our very meals and celebrations, drawing them deeper into the nature of reality itself and thus into God, the source of reality.
Thus, I think Christianity is a feasting religion. We need to fast, we need ascesis, in order to prepare us for our times of feasting, and to remind us that we are still works in progress, not yet having achieved our ends in the life to come. Nevertheless, at root, Christians are a feasting people. Every feast, every meal, however meagre or grand reminds us that we are a feasting people. We are a feasting people awaiting the greatest feast. And this should bring us joy.
 Josef Pieper, Leisure The Basis of Culture, trans. by Alexander Dru (London: Faber and Faber, 1952), 80.
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