The Lost Art of Feasting

We might suppose that overstuffed American bellies would hardly need any instruction on feasting. So many of us have grown so accustomed to having so much to eat. Then here comes Thanksgiving. Just put it on autopilot. Fasting is the discipline today that is grossly under-served; no need to consider feasting.

Not so fast. It’s true that fasting is sadly overlooked, and too often forgotten. And yet, perhaps counterintuitively, true feasting is also in decline through familiarity and lack of spiritual purpose. Most of us have never given any serious thought to what it might mean to feast with Christ-honoring intentionality.

We’ve grown dull to the wonder of ample food and drink through constant use, and overuse. When every day is a virtual feast, we lose the blessing of a real one. When every meal is a pathway to indulgence, not only is fasting lost, but true feasting is as well.

Feasting as a Spiritual Joy

The Bible is replete with the goodness of food and the holiness of feasting. God in his goodness made his creation edible. He made trees “pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9), and created us to eat his world: “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food” (Genesis 1:29). Then after the flood, he extended the gift to eating animals: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything” (Genesis 9:3). But distinct from the kindness of God in everyday food is the special grace of a feast.

In the Old Testament, God structured the seasons and years of his chosen people with fast days and feast days. Then he sent his Son as the great culmination of his nation’s feasts. Now those who make up God’s multinational people through Christ are no longer under obligation to practice Israel’s ancient feasts and rituals (Colossians 2:16). They were “a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17). Christians are free to feast — or not to feast:

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. (Romans 14:5–6)

But what we’re not free to do is feast in a way that dishonors God. And forgetting him altogether is profoundly dishonoring. As Christians, we want to learn to feast in such a way that we’re tasting God’s supernatural goodness as we enjoy natural tastes.

Not the Same as Indulging

Feasting is not first about the food. It is foremost about the Godward celebration of some specific occasion together. Good food and drink, in abundance, come in alongside our corporate focus to accentuate the appreciation and enjoyment of God and his kindness. The heart of feasting is not the food itself, but the heart of the feasters. A true feast is bigger than the food — infinitely bigger. The center is God and his greatness and grace toward us in Christ.

For Christians, feasting is not the same as mere indulgence. There is nothing particularly Christian about eating and drinking more than usual. What makes feasting a means of God’s grace for nourishing our souls is explicitly celebrating Christ together in faith. Whether it’s Thanksgiving or Easter, a birthday or anniversary, when we feast as Christians, we celebrate the bounty and kindness of our Creator and Redeemer. Feasting in Christ is no mere physical event, but deeply spiritual.

Prepare the Way for Feasting

Good preparation for a good feast typically begins before the feast day — not only in our planning, but in our pattern of eating. When our normal daily consumption is characterized by sufficient restraint, then feasting is something we can rise to on special occasions, by faith and in good conscience, rather than being the baseline of everyday eating. If you’ve so overindulged leading up to the feast that you feel a need to count calories at the feast, something is not right. Daily restraint both keeps our stomachs primed for times of fasting (so we’re not miserably famished) and makes possible a kind of special indulgence on feast days.

But exercising self-control in eating and drinking as a habit of life is only a prerequisite to good feasting. For a big Thanksgiving dinner to honor God — and feed not only our stomachs, but our souls — we need a few simple, but significant, steps to make it holy.

How to Make a Feast Holy

As we finish our preparations for Thanksgiving dinner and come to the table together, how can we treat this shared meal as a means of God’s grace for our souls and not simply an exercise in eating? How is a Christian feast distinct from any old American Thanksgiving?

1. Plan with Christ at the center.

Important as it is to make careful arrangements for the entrées, sides, apps, and desserts, we don’t just plan for the food and drink, but to make much of Jesus at the culminating point. The night before, or morning of, perhaps the man of the house gives a few moments reflection to what “words of institution” will be spoken before the prayer of blessing.

Also planning with Christ at the center may mean having an open door, and extending invitations, to uncomfortable people. True feasting is not about being socially comfortable, but having the heart of Jesus to ask, “Who should we invite to dinner?

“When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:13)

2. Speak a Godward word.

With invitations in place and preparations made, it’s time to gather around the table. Have someone lead by expressing the purpose of the feast, whether it’s to express universal gratitude to God (Thanksgiving), or celebrate God’s sending his Son to save us (Christmas), or his resurrection from the dead (Easter), or thanking God for someone’s life (birthday) or marriage or labors (anniversaries). This should be fittingly formal or informal, depending on the context, the size of the gathering, and the culture of the family or group.

And it does not need to be a sermon. Keep it short, but clear. Perhaps a text of Scripture read or recited to join hearts and hungry tummies together, accompanied by a heartfelt word about this occasion and its spiritual purpose.

This is the moment when the grace of Christ is made most explicit. This word (along with the prayer) moves the feast from mere eating and drinking to doing so “to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31) and for the strengthening of our souls, not just feeding of our stomachs.

3. Thank God together.

Then the prayer. Feasts are made holy “by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4–5). First we hear a Godward word; then we speak back to him to express our collective gratitude — not just for the food, but in particular for the stated focus of our celebration.

When the Godward word has been well-planned and plain (even in its terseness), then the prayer need not drag on and on to feign holiness. Feasting is made holy by a Godward word and earnest prayer. Again, as with the word, earnestness does not entail length, especially when stomachs are growling and the hot food is cooling.

4. Enjoy the food, drink, and company.

Then we eat, receiving the food, and fellowship, with thanksgiving. Don’t feel the burden to keep Christ ceaselessly in your consciousness, such that you don’t enjoy the tastes and engage with the company.

God made us finite, for rhythms of life, for moments when we intently focus on God (in the word and prayer), and other moments where our conscious focus is eating, drinking, and other people, even as God remains in our field of vision, and is the explicit recipient of our thanksgiving.