Thanksgiving is often a hectic orchestration of activity. What time does the bird need to go in by? Who’s bringing the potatoes? Do we have enough silverware and place settings for this year’s crowd? As a child, I often remember that up until the time everyone gathered around the table for prayer, things seemed like they were right on the verge of chaos. And then, for just a few minutes, the fact that it was Thanksgiving Day would finally hit me, a reflection which would quickly be interrupted by the more exciting fact that the stuffing was being passed my way.
Interestingly enough, my lack of reflection about the holiday never bothered me in the moment. It was only after the holiday had passed, and I had succumbed to food comatose, that I would sometimes wonder if I had fully “celebrated” it. Surely, a full celebration of Thanksgiving would have included more reflection on “thankfulness,” right?
Of course, on the other hand, I didn’t think there was anything particularly wrong with how I had spent these Thanksgivings: visiting with family, making decorations, feasting, resting, etc. These were all valid forms of traditional embodied Christian celebration. But when and where, amid all the celebration, was I supposed to reflect?
Having given it some thought, I now believe that attempting to reflect during celebration is something akin to trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Thus, if my time of celebration seemed lacking, it wasn’t because I wasn’t able to squeeze in an adequate amount of reflection while celebrating, but because I had failed to reflect beforehand, and, thus, was unprepared for the celebration.
This is because Celebration and Reflection can only gain completeness through each other. When we remember to reflect on and anticipate a holiday’s arrival, we are able to fully enjoy the blissful celebration of it. And when we fully embrace the act of celebrating, we satisfy the cravings that were stimulated by our reflection. Furthermore, these acts need not be simultaneous; in fact, I think they actually gain meaning through separation and contrast.
In many ways, it is a matter of Feasting and Fasting. When we Feast, we give ourselves fully to the act of celebration; this is a time of rejuvenation. And when we Fast, we give ourselves fully to simplicity and modesty; this is a time of refocus.
Feasting and Fasting Structure the Christian’s Holiday Season
Interestingly enough, such delineation of feasting and fasting is not new to Christian tradition, and has, perhaps, even grown in significance with the overlapping of American holidays. For example:
1) Starting with Halloween and All Saints Day, Christians begin their celebration of the harvest season by feasting in honor of the Saints that have gone on before us. The addition of Halloween/All Hallows Eve adds extra emphasis to the death side of the harvest, and, thus, as we come out of this feast, a conscious and humbling effort to focus on the realities of death and mortality (what would have been the ultimate realities had Christ not come) may be fitting. And the changing seasons mirror this reality to us.
2) As the Thanksgiving feast approaches, having been humbled, we cannot help but express true gratitude for all that God has provided for us (the life side of the harvest and the bounty both in heaven and on earth).
3) Then, immediately succeeding Thanksgiving, is the Fast of the Advent Season, a time of reflection upon life without a Savior, where our anticipation for His coming (or our celebration of His coming) grows.
4) Finally, when Christmas arrives, we feast again (traditionally for 12 days). And, having spent a month of focusing our anticipation, feelings of “How can it be over…I didn’t even have a chance to look forward to it” become feelings of “Yes. This is what I have been waiting for!” “Let’s celebrate!” Furthermore, having started with the acknowledgement of our own degenerate natures (back in early harvest) we come full circle, and celebrate the promise of salvation and sanctification given to us by Christ.
How Should Christians Feast and Fast?
Interestingly enough, both Feasting and Fasting involve “letting go” and submitting control to God. Thus, both processes drive the Christian to a correct place of worship.
During feasting, Christians give themselves over to a period of ceremony. They indulge in joyfulness. They break from the discipline and scheduling of daily life and take comfort in rest and tradition. This is not a time for austerity or “passing on the pie” (unless you are on the verge of tummy ache). This is a time for giving up control, a time to lose yourself in celebration.
During fasting, Christians give themselves over to a period of simplicity. They engage in discipline and modesty in order to slow their lives and reflect. This is not a time for busyness but peace and stillness (as hard as they are to achieve in American culture).
It is important to note that fasting is also about letting go. Too often, I think we mistake the discipline nature of fasting for a time of more rather than less control, and instead of simplifying our lives in order to gain focus or time for reflection, we add to them regimes of control, such as restrictive dieting. Giving up chocolate is perhaps the most common one resorted to. With this, I think we need to be careful, as the purpose can easily become more about gaining than giving up. For instance, compare “I want to lose five pounds by Christmas” to “I want to have more time each day to reflect on the season.”
In choosing how to spend their season of fasting, Christians need to ask themselves, what changes can I make to my life that will encourage stillness, peace, and reflection? Social-media fasting is one such trend that proves promising. Limiting TV, internet surfing, gaming, elaborate cooking, or any other hobby that occupies your time are others.
When done correctly, fasting should produce in us an awareness and anticipation of the upcoming holiday and prepare us for the act of celebration. If it does not do this, we must rethink how we are choosing to fast.
*This year, the Advent begins on November 27th. For suggestions on how to approach the Advent season, please see Vineyard Prayer’s post “Some Ideas for Observing Advent.”