Should Christmas be a time of feasting or fasting?

Abstinence, gluttony and the ‘right’ Christian response

“Feed the world. Let them know it’s Christmas time,” says the 1984 classic “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”.

You know the song – written by Bob Geldof, who mustered a suite of mulleted celebrities (known as Band Aid) to help raise funds for those caught in the grip of the devastating famine in Ethiopia.

This song, released mid-December 1984, may have been the first time many in wealthy modern nations had even considered the abundance of food they were planning to tuck into that Christmas.

In the decades since, this tune still causes us to pause mid-mouthful as we guiltily polish off our pudding.

For ancient Christians – and still today for in many Orthodox and Catholic churches – Advent was a time of fasting.

While in the modern world and in the modern church, Christmas is most often marked by an excess of food, that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, for ancient Christians – and still today for in many Orthodox and Catholic churches – Advent was a time of fasting.

Since the 8th century, many Eastern Christians have engaged in a “Nativity Fast” where they avoid certain foods for 40 days leading up to Christmas Eve. The idea is to prepare oneself to celebrate Christmas in the same way that Christ prepared for his public ministry by fasting for 40 days in the desert.

“The purpose of this fast is to create an interior attitude of prayer, united to God and divorced from material things. Denying certain bodily pleasures has always been viewed as a key to self-mastery and self-discipline even in a secular context. The goal of this fast is to make more room for God in a person’s life,” explains Catholic news source Aleteia.

So this raises the question: is fasting something modern-day Christians everywhere should be doing in the lead-up to Christmas?

“There’s a real division in the way that Christians have approached food that can generally be summed up two approaches: the first being quite ascetic, where food is a place of temptation, of being distracted; and then the other side, where food is something through which we enjoy God’s creation,” says Megan Powell du Toit, Baptist minister and co-host of Eternity’s podcast With All Due Respect.

“Fasting is often seen as ‘the old Testament way and not the new Testament way, where Jesus came and feasted.'” – Michael Jensen

Discussing the question in the latest episode of the podcast, her co-host, Anglican minister Michael Jensen, argues that in his church tradition fasting is often seen as “the old Testament way and not the new Testament way, where Jesus came and feasted ­– that’s the sort of ethos he gave to his disciples.”

While Jensen admits to never having fasted himself, he concedes “by the same token, I’m kind of attracted to it because I know the Christian life needs discipline – that physical training is of some value [1 Timothy 4:8]. And I think training your appetites, including your appetite for food, is a really good thing for your own spiritual life.”

Powell du Toit who has fasted (even though it didn’t come naturally to her) said it did serve its purpose of facilitating focused prayer.

“The practice of fasting is not, of course, to impress God. It’s to focus on your prayer life. Feeling hungry is a reminder to pray – almost like an internal clock – to drive you back to prayer.”

Both fasting and feasting have become more complicated in the Western world by the problematic relationship with food to which many have succumbed. Eating disorders affect over 16 per cent of the Australian population alone, with our culture’s desire for the “body beautiful” the root cause of much of this angst.

Then there is our weird fascination with “food worship”.

“There’s this obsession with beautiful food and ‘the next fashion in food’ – like your beetroot or turmeric latte and the sort of the descriptions of food that you get on menus that almost offer spirituality,” says Jensen.

“So food has become like a handbag or a car that we’ve accessorised through, which has been promoted through celebrity chefs and the prominence of TV programs about food, like MasterChef.”

This brings us back to the issue flagged by Bob Geldof in his 1984 hit: the inequitable distribution of food in our world.

“There is a systemic gluttony globally, where in some countries there isn’t enough food and other places there is too much, and we eat all sorts of things which aren’t good for us and that creates a health issue. When you look at the world as a whole, it actually produces enough food for everybody,” Powell du Toit comments.

Megan Powell du Toit and Michael Jensen tuck into a "Tumnus cake" in the Eternity offices

Megan Powell du Toit and Michael Jensen tuck into “Tumnus cakes” in the Eternity offices.

So what do these theological and ethical reflections on feasting and fasting mean for Christians this Christmas season?

The first response, according to Jensen, should be to practise hospitality and open our tables to others.

Powell du Toit agrees: “I think if you see the Christian life as a continual communion with Jesus, that should be characteristic of our entire approach to eating, not just for one meal. It should be something in which we recognise the body of Christ and the humanity of other people. It’s an enjoyment that should always be hospitable.”

The second response is to be grateful.

“I think that [enjoying a feast] is entirely appropriate, but to do that with thanks because it’s meant to be a symbol of the abundant grace that’s been showered on us at Christmas, and also do that with acknowledgment of the imbalance in the world – that there are those hungry. That’s why Christians say grace … It’s one of the distinctive things we do whenever we eat, give thanks because it’s an extraordinary grace to us that we have food at all,” says Jensen.

“More than just being grateful for what you have, also wanting to make a difference for those people that don’t have what you have, that should be part of what the Christmas feasting should lead you to. It should lead you to want to practise generosity,” adds Powell du Toit.

And finally, to recognise that in the end neither fasting or feasting truly matters.

As Jensen points out: “Jesus said it’s not what goes into your body that defiles you but what comes out of your mouth [Mark 7:15].”

With All Due RespectListen to the full discussion on episode 29 of With All Due Respect – “It’s Christmas, so let’s talk food” – including a juicy venture into notable food moments in CS Lewis’ Narnia series

You might also like to try your hand at making “Mr Tumnus’s Sugar-Topped Cake” or “Mrs Beaver’s marmalade roll” mentioned in the episode.

If you like what you hear, subscribe to With All Due Respect for even more conversation, less aggro.