The Pleasures and Benefits of Christian Feasting

This was first published under the title ‘The Christian Duty of Feasting’. Feedback from friends led me to agree that ‘duty’ may have been too strong a word. At the prompting of feedback from friends, I also wrote a follow up piece on fasting, so that you know that Christ’s disciples need not be 24 hour party people — sometimes mourning is fitting for us as well. I remain a keen advocate of feasting, however, and the text below remains unchanged. (3/12/20)

For The Feast of Christ the King, 2020

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
Nehemiah 8v9-12

One of the great surprises of the Christian life is that many of the commandments given by God are not as onerous as we were expecting. Christ was telling the truth when he said that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. It sometimes comes as a surprise that God is deeply concerned that we celebrate adequately. In Nehemiah chapter 8, the people of Israel have the law read to them by Ezra the priest, and weep when they realise and remember their disobedience to the Lord. As soon as their weeping begins, Nehemiah forbids it. It is not that their grief was inappropriate, but that something has happened to take it away. They ought not to weep, but rather to prepare a feast. Why?

Holiness and Joy are Inseparable
Our Lord said that it was inappropriate that the wedding guests should fast while the bridegroom was with them (Mark 2v19), and this is not a break with tradition. The day that the Lord declares Holy is a day that excludes mourning and weeping. In God’s presence is fulness of joy, at his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16v11). God in His holiness is not devoid of joy in Himself, nor does his presence suck the joy our of the world. As God forgives and restores His people, joy is commanded.

Joy and Food are a Natural Pairing
How should the Israelites express that joy? Eat the fat and drink sweet wine. You may adjust for your tastes, but I think the principle holds for us: use food to celebrate. Grief pairs naturally with fasting (not comfort eating), and joy pairs naturally with feasting. And the life in God’s presence is full of more feasting than fasting. This was certainly true in the Old Testament, where only one fast day was commanded, (Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement) compared to five feasts (Passover, Unleavened bread, Weeks, Tabernacles, Firstfruits). Our Christian forebears who devised our liturgical calendar wisely got the balance right as well: we may fast for forty days in Lent, but we feast for fifty at Easter. Christ the King instituted a feast to establish his covenant, manifest his presence among his people, and for them to remember his death and proclaim that he will come again (1 Corinthians 11v23-26).

Joy is Strong Armour and a Sharp Weapon
But why is joy necessary? Because the ‘joy of the Lord is your strength.’ Joy is necessary because strength is necessary to battle unbelief in ourselves and in the world. Deep joy in God will strengthen us to be kept and protected from sin, and it will propel us into mission in the world with a weapon with which to fight against Satan. Read any book by John Piper for more on this.

Misery is Disobedience
One of the great mysteries of the Old Testament is the disobedience of Israel. Sometimes we give them a bit of a break — ‘a lot of the commandments were very hard to keep’, we tell ourselves and them. Curiously, one of the things that God rebukes Israel for most, however, is violating the Sabbath (Ezekiel 20), and it is keeping the Sabbath that will lead to their deliverance and restoration (Jeremiah 17). Israel’s disobedience was in not keeping the feasts: Passover was neglected from the days of the Judges until the reign of Josiah (2 Kings 23v22). The surprise is this: it was the periods of celebration that the Israelites neglected. They chose to work on the Sabbath, rather than receive it as a gift of rest. They chose not to feast and celebrate. Disobedience is misery, and misery is disobedience. Pharaoh commands that you work seven days and eat the bread of anxious toil, Yahweh demands that you rest and feast. And yet we still often neglect our duty of celebration.

Sometimes the Godliest Thing to Do is Have a Good Meal
This is good news for Christian foodies and the rest of us. By feasting, we remember that all has been accomplished for us already. There is nothing left to do in our redemption but celebrate. How strange that the Israelites in slavery to Pharaoh should have celebrated their victory feast before they even left Egypt, but that is the way of proclaiming confidence in God. The battle has been won even before we get into the promised land. We are still in the wilderness now, but let’s feast to remember that everything necessary has been done already. As an aside for this season: I absolutely think that this means that churches are well within their rights to disobey the government to celebrate the eucharist, and Christians are basically obliged to disobey if the government requires not to celebrate Christmas. But I’ll say no more about that here.

A Bible Overview in Four Meals
My Bible overview revolving around the theme of God’s dwelling place can be found here, but here’s a sketch of a Bible overview in food. Of course, feasting is a key part of celebration and of fellowship: to remove it from the context of God’s rule means missing a lot, but sometimes it’s worth taking out one part to inspect it in detail before putting back into the whole.

Meal 1: ‘She took of its fruit and ate’
God creates from nothing, creates distinctions between light and darkness, land and sea, garden and world. He puts Adam and Eve in the garden, and distinguishes between that which they may and may not eat. Eve sees that the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is good for food and pleasing to the eye. She takes it, gives it to her husband, Adam, eats, and dies.

Meal 2: ‘Every man shall take a lamb… they shall eat.’
Yahweh made a covenant with Abram in the wilderness that he would make him a great nation, blessed in a good land, and a blessing to all the earth. His offspring indeed become a great nation, but are bound in slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt, neither blessed, nor a blessing. Yahweh visits His people to bring about their deliverance through Moses, working His wonders against the Egyptians by striking their land with nine plagues. The tenth, the plague of the firstborn, is the first that requires participation from the Israelites for their safety. Their part to play is not difficult. They appropriate the redemption by being circumcised and by sharing a meal, the Passover feast. Each household slaughters a lamb, and paints its blood on the posts and lintel of their door. They then take, eat, and are saved.

Meal 3: ‘Take, eat; this is my body’
Christ on the night that he was betrayed, does not make a public speech, does not write a manifesto, does not plan a protest, but shares a meal with His disciples. He establishes a new covenant with a new Israel and its Twelve representatives in a new Passover. He, the second Adam, gives his body as food to His bride, the Church. She takes, eats, and lives.

Meal 4: ‘Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the lamb’
All Scripture ends with a feast. The Lamb has become host and bridegroom. The bride, the Church, has been made ready and radiantly spotless. Brought out of the Egypt of sin and the wilderness of the world, Israel has been brought into perfect and eternal fellowship with Yahweh in the garden city. The tree of the city bears its fruit all year round, and its leaves are for the healing of the nations. Take, eat.

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