Over the centuries, Christians have fasted for many reasons. Sometimes, the reasons have been good. The apostles and their churches fasted and prayed before selecting elders or ordaining missionaries. Christians have fasted in mourning for their sins. They have fasted and prayed to combat demons and to plead with God for relief from disaster.
Often they have fasted for bad reasons. They fasted because they believed flesh was evil, because they felt desperately guilty and forgot God’s love in sending His Son to cleanse their sins, because they wanted God to notice how wonderfully pious they were.
In spite of errors and abuses, Christians in the past had sound intuitions about the centrality of fasting in the Christian life. In the early church, fasting was not an isolated practice reserved for a day or a season. It was a clue to all Christian living, a perspective on the whole of discipleship. To be a Christian meant to participate in a great feast. It meant also to observe a great fast.
This is true in several respects. Fasting shows that discipleship is always cruciform. It reminds us that we can’t follow Jesus unless we say No to ourselves and take up the cross. Fasting reveals that Jesus requires us to combat and enables us to conquer the sinful desires and habits that continue to plague us. Fasting reveals that the Christian life is a life of charity. Many of the church fathers made this point by quoting Yahweh’s words in Isaiah 58:
Is this not the fast which I choose,
To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the bands of the yoke,
And to let the oppressed go free
And break every yoke?
Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry
And bring the homeless poor into the house;
When you see the naked, to cover him;
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
But even these insights don’t get to the basic meaning of fasting. St. Basil got closer when he said that “the first commandment Adam received” was a prohibition on eating, which Basil called “the divine law of fasting and temperance.” Basil was right, but only half right. To see why, we need to look back at Adam’s original fast in the garden.
Before God told Adam he could not eat from the tree of knowledge, He had already offered all the trees of the garden for food. “Behold I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you” (Genesis 1:29) and “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely” (Genesis 2:16). In offering food, Yahweh was offering more than food. He was offering the whole creation. He formed Adam and placed him in a world full of delights and treasures, and told him, “It’s all yours. Enjoy it.” As Alexander Schmemann so beautifully put it, God created Adam a hungry being, and then set before him a world that, so long as he remained in communion with his Creator, could satisfy his hungers.
This helps us see where Adam’s fast fits in. Yahweh did give Adam a law of fasting, but only after inviting him to a feast. In the Bible, feasting is prior to, more fundamental than, fasting. “Eat, drink, and rejoice” is the first word God speaks to Adam, and it is the last word Jesus speaks to His bride. Fasting is essential to the story, but fasts are always ordered to feasts.
Even Adam’s fast from the tree of knowledge was not permanent. Eventually, Yahweh would have given him the fruit of that tree too. “Knowledge of good and evil” is royal insight and judicial wisdom (cf. 1 Kings 3:9). After long experience, mature people come to have the “knowledge of good and evil” they need to share in Yahweh’s rule over creation (cf. Hebrews 5:14). Naked and newborn in the garden, Adam was not ready for that fruit. He had to drink milk before he could digest meat. One day, though, the good fruit of the tree of knowledge would have been added to his menu.
Feasting is the beginning and the goal, but Adam could enjoy the full feast, he could truly enjoy it, only by first keeping the fast. Eventually, he would feast even on the forbidden fruit, but he could do that well only if he waited for permission, only if he waited until he was ready. That pattern applied not only to the tree of knowledge, but to everything else too. Adam’s fast from the tree showed how he was supposed to handle everything God offered him. If Adam was going to feast on the fruit of the other trees, he would have to “dress and keep the garden.” If he was going to mine that gold, the good gold, down in Havilah (Genesis 2:11-12), he would have to trudge down there, or sail down the Pishon River, and start digging. To enjoy the full abundance of what his Father offered, he was going to have to wait, and work, a long time. To enjoy the banquet, he had to fast until he, and it, were prepared.
Of course, Adam didn't want to wait. Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food, and desirable to make one wise, so she ate and Adam joined in. Adam sinned because he wanted it all now – wisdom, authority, a full belly, the whole abundant goodness of creation, now. He sinned because he grabbed for the feast. He sinned because he didn’t keep the fast, and as a result even the appetizers he already had were taken from him.
Jesus is the Last Adam because He keeps the fast. He enters a world that is no longer a garden, but a howling waste, and in that wilderness Satan tempts Him to break the fast, to be an Adam: “You're hungry; eat this now. You deserve the accolades of the crowds; you can have it now if you jump off the temple. You want all authority in heaven and on earth, but your Father won't give that to you unless you suffer an excruciating, shameful death; you can have it all now, no cross or self-denial required. It’s yours, and you only need to do a bit of bowing. Life, glory, power, everything you want, everything you deserve – you can have it all now.”
Jesus refused, and refused, and then refused again, and in so doing broke the power of Adamic sin. Jesus kept the fast; He waited, labored, suffered, died, and then opened His hand to receive all life, all glory and honor, all authority and dominion, that His Father had to give Him. He kept the fast, and as a result was admitted to the fullness of the kingdom's feast, because by that time both it and He were ready. And by resisting the devil, Jesus sets the pattern of true fasting and reveals a Lenten way of life.
We may be tempted to dismiss fasting with one of our favorite contemporary buzzwords: Fasting is “Gnostic,” because it assumes that food and drink and pleasure are evil.
Fasting is not Gnostic. On the contrary, refusing to keep the fast is Gnostic. Adam was the first Gnostic. After all, God didn’t impose a fast on Adam because creation is bad. Adam wasn't forced to wait because the things he wanted were evil. It was all good, very good. He had to wait because the things Yahweh offered were so explosively good that Adam wasn't capable of enjoying them, yet. He had to wait because if he didn't wait, they were going to blow up in his face.
We might think we’re celebrating the goodness of creation when we grab for this and that without waiting through the fast. We might think we’re anti-Gnostic because we taste the icing of the wedding cake before it’s cut. Our reasoning is, This fruit is just too good for us to wait until it's ripe. But that’s not honoring the goodness of creation. It is not Gnostic to prefer roasted meat to raw. Fasting is not a renunciation of creation; rather, it celebrates and honors the goodness of that most basic and pervasive of all creatures, Time. Impatience is always incipiently Gnostic, because it assumes that things cannot be bettered by time.
This, finally, shows us what it means to live out a Lenten lifestyle in imitation of Jesus. Whenever Solomon warns us about the dangers of rapidly acquired wealth, he is warning us not to be Adams. He’s reminding us to keep the fast. Little by little, piece by piece, waiting and not grasping, saving ahead of borrowing: That is Lenten economics.
And Lenten sexuality is like unto it. Lent teaches us to renounce the two-dimensional, bodiless sex that we can seize so easily on the web, in magazines, on the screen. Lent teaches us to wait. But Lent also shows that we don’t wait out of prudish hatred of sex, but out of admiration for its mysterious potency. Sex is so pleasurable, so obsessively delightful, that we have to have our senses trained before we can handle it well. Abstinence is the fast that prepares us for the feast of marriage. Lenten sexuality honors creation by insisting we take time to get ready.
Lenten politics is also the politics of patience and restraint. History is littered with the rubble and severed limbs left behind by Adamic tyrants, who seized power they were incapable of using well. Even competent rulers can forget that ripeness is all. Christians who enter the public square are not to clamor and cling and scramble for a place at the table or a higher rung on the ladder. Christians enter the public square looking to serve, waiting and ready for the fruit when it's offered.
Everywhere we turn, the world tempts us to be Adam. Our culture is devoted to stoking up appetites, and convincing us that we need to have it all, and to have it all yesterday. We are fooling ourselves if we think we don't participate in that culture. Few things provide a better counter to that temptation than a diligent, thoughtful observance of Lent and the cultivation of Lenten way of life. Yes, the church is a festive community, but unless we are also a fasting community, then we are simply a mirror of the world around us.
Fasting looks like an enemy to life, but the opposite is true. Lent teaches us, and trains us, to be a people of patience, a people of restraint, a people who rejoices in a God who has time, and gives us time, and makes us wait for the treasures He gives. Lent teaches us, trains us, to follow the Master who kept the fast. We need to learn the lessons of Lent, we must learn to keep the fast, if we are going to be the people of the new Adam, and not just another variation on the old.
Peter J. Leithart is President of the Theopolis Institute. A version of this essay appeared in 2009 at firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2009/03/keep-the-fast-keep-the-feast, and is used here with permission.
To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.