An essay considering feasting might seem out of place, especially after two in-depth essays on the history and practice of Christian fasting and with Lent looming. “Doesn’t fasting fit more in the life of a disciple of Jesus?” one might ask. “After all, Jesus gave instructions for ‘When you fast…,’ not ‘When you feast…’.”
Leaving aside the troubling implications in that statement for discerning the truth in our modern world, we cannot afford to dismiss feasting in this way for several reasons. First, many of us in the West enjoy effortless abundance, and we need to understand how to practice that enjoyment faithfully. Second, how we view food and eating matters because it’s a fundamentally human activity. However frequently we may fast, we will always eat more regularly. Given that fact, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that how we eat matters as much as how we abstain from eating.
Second, feasting is one dimension of celebration, which, while not as fundamental as eating, plays a crucial role in Christian living. “Celebration is at the heart of the way of Christ,” Richard Foster writes in his seminal Celebration of Discipline. He connects it to joy, a fundamentally Christian disposition and fruit of the Spirit (see Gal. 5).
So what does the Bible have to say about eating, more generally, and feasting in particular? Does Jesus address feasting? How does this practice (and, more broadly, celebration) fit in the Christian life? Can we realistically celebrate with feasting but avoid the deadly sin of gluttony? Those questions are the focus of this third essay in a short series on feasting and fasting.
(As with all of the essays in this series on the church calendar, we are skimming the surface of a long and deep tradition. You’ll find a list of additional resources below.)
01. Feasting in the Scriptures
The Old Testament has much to say about food and eating, and the dietary laws of the Pentateuch likely come to mind first. God’s covenant with Israel included very specific guidelines about what to eat, and also about how it should be prepared and eaten. That pork was forbidden is well-known, but even a permitted food, such as beef, could be defiled by the wrong preparation.
The Old Testament’s stories include many scenes of food and eating, some more familiar than others. Some are delightful, such as the meal where God promises Abram and Sarai a son. Some are terrible, such as Jacob using food–twice!–to cheat Esau out of his birthright and his blessing. Some are simple, such as the bread and wine Melchizedek brings to Abraham (Gen. 14:18) or the original Passover meal (Exod. 12:8). Others are sumptuous, such as the one Saul’s son Mephibosheth enjoyed at the king’s table (2 Sam. 9:11-13).
All these meals–and indeed, all the meals you and I will have today–belong to the same category: they are invitations to partake of God’s abundant provision. Our fundamental “redemptive move” is to respond to God’s invitation gratefully, participating joyfully in what he has given.
Several New Testament scenes demonstrate this move, especially in the life of Jesus. The Messiah performs his first miracle at a wedding feast, turning water into wine. When Jesus attends a dinner at Matthew’s house, the Pharisees condemn him for it (Matt. 9:10-11). He later quotes their criticism, saying, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Matt. 11:19). These and other scenes imply that rightly ordered festivity and celebration have a place in human life.
02. Three Square Meals
To better understand the place and purpose of feasting, we’ll focus our attention on three meals among the many in the Bible. All three are initiated by God, who invites his people to come to the table he has prepared.
The First Feast: Eden
It’s all too common for Christians to jump from Genesis 1 to Genesis 3, from creation to fall. If we do that, though, we miss a beautiful invitation to the very first feast, recorded in Genesis 2. In Genesis 1, God shaped everything in the universe and called it good, then put his hands in the dirt and made a human being to crown his creation. Right away God places the man in a garden planted for that purpose. Every tree that grew there, Genesis says, was “pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen. 2:9).
God’s first words to the first man invite him to partake of this feast. “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden,” God says, including the Tree of Life that would allow the man to live forever. In fact, God only draws one boundary, one limit, for the man and woman. Only one tree is forbidden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Everything else is freely available to the man and woman.
The garden represents the abundance of the with-God life, not to mention God’s generosity toward humankind. Despite the coming Fall, this God who invites his children to the table will not change. His generosity and largesse will persist through long, dark years, until his Son again extends a personal invitation to the first citizens of the new creation.
The Last Feast: The Upper Room
Just before Jesus is betrayed and crucified, he arranges to eat the Passover with his twelve disciples. The annual Jewish meal of roasted lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, and when the appointed day arrives, the disciples assume arrangements must be made.
“Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” they ask.
Jesus has already made arrangements for the meal. “Go into the city,” he says, “and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.”
At the conclusion of this meal, often called the Last Supper, Jesus “took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them.” God again invites his children to taste his abundance, this time with the surprising words, “This is my body, which is given for you” (Lk. 22:19). He does the same with the wine: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk. 22:20).
And we dare not overlook the magnitude of God’s generosity. He shares the table with his closest friends. But of all those men, not one would stay with Jesus through the dark night ahead. One of them would vehemently deny even knowing him. And one would betray him to his enemies.
This generous act brings together all the best elements of biblical feasts. It fulfills the promise of everlasting and abundant life from the garden. It provides a powerful image of the salvation God would secure and offer to his people. It establishes a renewed festal tradition that recalls a new Passover and Exodus, one that continues to anchor Christian worship in the Eucharist.
The God Who Gives Himself: Eucharist
As Christians prepare to celebrate the Eucharist, or Communion, some churches still intone Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast” (1 Cor. 5:7-8). It’s hardly a feast in the sense we expect. Its elements–a morsel of bread, a little wine–would not sustain us physically for long. It is a more a symbolic feast than an actual one.
On one hand, it’s not intended to fill us, but to whet our appetite for the final feast, the marriage supper of the Lamb that John describes in Revelation 19. On the other, the Eucharist satisfies our deepest longing, reminding us that God has invited us to his table—even if we feel surrounded by the enemies of sin and death. We can taste in the elements God’s goodness and grace, as well as the promise of everlasting life.
The Eucharist remains the church’s richest symbol for God’s salvation because it depicts both the cost and the promise of our salvation. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus told his disciples.
And we Christians continue to remember him in the bread and the cup of the Eucharist. Though theologians disagree about exactly what happens in the Eucharist, all Christians agree that we take the elements at God’s invitation to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).
The Wedding Feast
Along with the many real meals in the Bible, readers are treated to a common symbolic thread woven through both Testaments, one that reveals God as a generous host. He is the one who lays a table for the Psalmist “in the presence of my enemies.” He welcomes friends and enemies alike, inviting them to be family. Strangers? He adopts them as sons and daughters.
All of these scenes point to the great feast to come, the wedding supper for Christ the Bridegroom and his bride, the Church. This future feast was prophesied in the Old and New Testaments, by Both Isaiah and John prophesied this feast, one that will occur when the world is mended at last. Then, God’s people—though they have suffered loss and deprivation—will sit down together with their God. “On this mountain,” Isaiah writes, “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” (Is. 25:6). It will be the Feast of feasts.
What do these biblical meals have to do with how we practice feasting? If we understand feasting as overindulgence, gluttony, limitless excess—nothing at all. But if we believe feasting is a celebration of God’s provision, a way of delighting in God and rejoicing in the fruit of godly work, then we can and should feast. We “need deeper, more earthy experiences of exhilaration,” Richard Foster writes in Celebration of Discipline. We need those experiences to follow Jesus faithfully, even when we feel hopeless, because “celebration gives us the strength to live in all the other Disciplines.”
If we feast rightly, we can think of the day when we will sit with the King and say to one another, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa. 25:9).
04. Suggestions for Practice
- Plan and enjoy a meal with friends or family. Consider using a liturgy such as “Feasting with Friends” from the collection Every Moment Holy.
- Eat mindfully for a week or more, paying attention to the abundance you enjoy regularly. Give God thanks for his provision, and ask him to help you see it more clearly.