This article was created in partnership with InterVarsity Press.
Capitalism can’t help but buy stock in the shame of overconsumption. It’s rule one of the economic system to create the problem as well as the solution: turn December into a month of binge spending and eating and drinking, inflict shame on those who fall prey, then trick them into consuming your product as penance. This new year has shown no shortage of businesses eager to offer absolution, with a liturgy of hashtags in lieu of the declaration of a priest.Christian fasting and feasting is the ultimate anti-consumerist response.
These brands have capitalized on rhythms that humans naturally desire. When abundance exists, we enjoy it. Then when we’ve enjoyed to excess, we feel the need to abstain. However in an economic system that relies on heavy consumption and preys on the discontent, it becomes beneficial to add a layer of shame to these natural rhythms. Ironically the result is precisely the opposite of what this season ought to inspire: while the incarnation reminds us of the goodness of bodies and Epiphany encourages us to open our doors, a shame-filled approach to the new year isolates us from hospitality towards ourselves, one another, and the created world.
In his essay “Hunger, Fasting, and Faith,” in the book The End of Hunger, theologian Angel F. Mendez-Montoya identifies the Christian pattern of fasting and feasting as one that orients us towards God’s love for the world. In contrast to abstention inflicted by shame, he says, “Fasting is not carried out as an end in itself, but rather as a practice that serves to raise awareness of the many types of hunger existing in the world, seeking personal and communal transformation.”
In liturgical traditions, fasting always pairs with feasting—but contrary to the cultural norm where binging comes before the purge, in Christian practice, the fasting comes first. We’ve recently closed out the liturgical season of Christmastide, twelve days of feasting in celebration of the incarnation of God, before which came the four penitential weeks of Advent. Soon we’ll be entering into another fasting time—forty days of Lent to be followed by the fifty day celebration of Eastertide.
I have no interest in adding to the cacophony of the liturgical snobs chastising those who put up or took down a tree at the wrong time, or who scoff at the proper modes of Lenten discipline, but I do believe these rhythms guide us through the year far more thoughtfully than the cultural norm. These counter-cultural rhythms directly combat the capitalist cycles of consumptive shame.
When we understand fasting as preparation for a feast, the integration of the two becomes spiritually valuable. “Both eating and abstention from food and liquid carry a symbolism that promotes spiritual growth,” says Mendez-Montoya, pointing to our well-being personally, communally, and ecologically too. “The practices of fasting in Christianity are always accompanied by practices of hospitality, generosity, and charity, and the cultivation of virtues and values such as love, peace, and justice.”
Christian fasting and feasting is the ultimate anti-consumerist response. It opens our eyes to the varied hungers that exist due to systemic inequalities, it forms us in gratitude for the bodies we have as creatures made in the image of an incarnate God, and ultimately it guides us into relationship with one another as we delight in the good gifts of the created world. It flips our relationship to consumption on its head—our eating is valued as something holy, life-giving, community-forming, and good. Our bodies, then, are viewed through such a lens too. Our abstinence ultimately is not a method through which we war against the hunger for what’s beautiful and delicious, but through which we honor the hunger that draws us to God and seek to eliminate the hungers that destroy.
As we enter the season of Lent, it’s tempting to approach fasting through the same shame-centered lens that shapes the “New Year, New You” view. Whether using the season to commit ourselves to a new dietary trend, or refusing a fast in order to avoid the harmful ramifications of shame-driven abstention, the myths of consumerist society continue to prevail. But the rhythms of communal fasting and feasting that shape the Christian church ought to upend all of our bodily shame and usher us in to deep healing.
The key, I’m convinced, is to fast and feast always in the embrace of loving community—asking ourselves whether our consumption habits form us into hospitable beings or isolate us from our bodies and friends instead.
This year, rather than succumb to the calls for a dry January that would give way to thoughtless consumption again come February 1, I’ve chosen to reconsider my relationship to alcohol more broadly, purposefully scaling back on my drinking all year. I’m not looking for a new beverage to replace my nightly glass of wine and I’ve never been enticed by Heineken or Perrier’s advertising for new products that are alcohol free. This year I’m simply choosing to drink in community and not alone.
I value the role a glass of wine plays in an extended dinner with friends. I rejoice in the laughter shared over pints at the brewery nearby. I delight in the nuances of flavor in a fine bourbon. By choosing only to imbibe in the presence of friends, I’m purposefully creating a rhythm of fasts and feasts. I’m reorienting my experience of alcohol in the world as one that draws me into relationship and challenging myself to reconsider my drinking when I am alone. In turn, my abstinence is an act of hospitality to my own body, while my refusal to abstain is an act of hospitality towards others.
Only when fasting and feasting are understood together as spiritual disciplines that shape us as hospitable beings can we rightly understand them as powerful responses to a binge or purge, which then turns our vision outwards beyond the consumerism in which we swim. It presses us to consider the hunger that exists among those for whom neither fasting nor abstinence is an option—rather food insecurity is the norm. As we mend our own relationship to consumption and hunger, we reimagine the complexities of hunger that permeate our broken world.
Mendez-Montoya’s view of fasting is just one step towards renewing hope in feeding the world, as the collection of essays in The End of Hunger show—work must be done on political, scientific, culinary, and artistic levels as well. But it is a vital step for Christians who do not face food insecurity on a regular basis, and one born out of longstanding Christian tradition among worshipers who live in poverty and wealth.
We cannot love our bodies or our communities well when we are formed through shame. As Mendez-Montoya identifies, the liturgical rhythms of both fasting and feasting encourage us in the opposite way. They teach us to delight in all that is good so that we might seek to create a world where others can share in our delight too.
Angel F. Mendez-Montoya’s The End of Hunger, published by InterVarsity Press, is now available.