Fasting on the feast days.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 December

Christian holidays are also known as feast days. The term comes from the bible, ’cause that’s how the LORD described the holidays he instituted for the Hebrews: “Three times thou shalt keep a feast unto me in the year,” Ex 23.14 KJV namely Passover, Pentecost, and Tents. Christians turned Passover into Easter, added Christmas, usually downplay Pentecost, and usually skip Tents… but otherwise yeah, on Christian holidays we tend to do a bit of feasting. (And on St. Patrick’s Day, drinking.)

Thing is, Evangelicals regularly forget Christmas is 12 days long. Our secular culture thinks it’s one day—beginning and ending on 25 December. If the decorations stay up till New Year’s Day, it’s only because you personally struggle to let go of things. Give it up; take ’em down. Hey, the stores are already getting ready for Valentine’s Day.

In reality Christmas continues till Epiphany. But because Evangelicals follow the culture, and tend to dismiss ancient custom as “Catholic,” they figure Christmas is over and the next major holiday is New Year’s Day.

And what’s the best way to start a new year? No, not partying till pukey. It’s to focus on what God’s will might be for the year.

What’s he want us to do? If we can figure it out and do it, maybe God’ll reward us by taking away suffering and showering us with wealth. Or, y’know, spiritual blessings. But let’s be honest: Deep down we’re kinda hoping for material ones.

So in order to really focus on God, really listen for his voice, and demonstrate to him and ourselves we really mean it, Evangelicals dip into one of our old Christian traditions… and fast.

Well, kinda. North Americans usually refuse to defy our stomachs and palates; even for Jesus. So we made some adaptations about what “fasting” means; we don’t go anywhere remotely as hardcore as Jesus. We skip a meal at most. Some of us go on a diet we like to call “the Daniel fast.” This way we deprive ourselves, but we’re not actually starving. And hey, we might lose a little weight, as we resolved to do anyway.

Evangelical churches get so eager to get started on that sweet, sweet Daniel fasting, we start right away. On 1 January if possible. Okay, maybe 2 January, because it’s so hard to start fasting when we’re hung over snacking as we watch New Year’s football games. We can put it off a day. But 2 January for sure!

Okay, so we start fasting on 2 January. Which is the ninth day of Christmas; a feast day.

Are we supposed to fast on feast days? No.

But as I said, Christians don’t know it’s a feast day. So we’ll fast anyway. And various other days throughout the Christian year.

Fasting on Sabbath?

When you look at how the scriptures describe holidays, food’s part of it. Kind of a mandatory part. If you’re not eating, you’re not really celebrating the holiday. If you’re fasting, you’re not feasting; if you’re feasting, you’re not fasting. Can’t do both at once. Kinda ridiculous if you try.

So if you’re fasting on a feast day, it means you’re not observing the holiday. An obvious example would be Thanksgiving Day: If you’re not eating, you’re not participating. Yeah, there might be thanksgiving prayers and that annoying custom of going round the table and everyone sharing specific things they’re thankful for (I like to confuse my family by objecting, “But if I tell you what it is, it won’t come true!”). Still, the food is central to the holiday. No food, no holiday.

Same with all the other biblical holidays. Passover requires that people eat very specific things—and not eat leavening. The other holidays expect people to eat, drink, and make merry.

Sabbath among them. It’s a holiday! I remind you holiday means “holy day,” and the LORD did mark it off as being holy. Ex 20.11 Whether you observe it Saturday, Sunday, or whatever other day of the week your work schedule permits, you’re to stop working and rest.

Well, fasting is work. A good work, but still work. So on your Sabbath, stop fasting. Eat like you ordinarily would.

This idea never seems to occur to most Evangelicals. They figure they’re on a 14-day fast, or a 30-day fast, or however long their fast is meant to go, and they unthinkingly include their Sabbaths in their fasts. Sometimes ’cause they don’t really observe Sabbath: They might have a day off from their job, but they don’t use it to rest and enjoy life; they catch up on housework or errands or even bring work home with them. Sometimes ’cause they do observe Sabbath, but don’t think of it as any holiday; it’s a rest day but that’s all. It’s not a day to rest from our self-imposed obligations.

And fasting really is a self-imposed obligation. God doesn’t command fasts. Churches do, and unless they’re legalistic or cultish, they don’t make their fasts a hardship. How you practice it is largely up to you. But they do make accommodations for feast days. Lent, fr’instance, is for the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter… and doesn’t include Sundays. Because you don’t fast on Sabbath! But lots of people who observe Lent don’t even realize this, and continue to abstain from whatever they gave up… even on the five additional Sundays.

But didn’t Jesus fast for 40 days straight? Well, we don’t actually know. Maybe he did go without food 40 days straight. Maybe he ate on Sabbath; maybe the text isn’t meant to be interpreted quite so literally. But y’know, maybe he didn’t, ’cause he wanted to stretch himself that far. You’ll notice people tend to prefer the interpretation which best reflects how legalistic they can get with fasting. Knowing Jesus, and knowing he’s no legalist… I still say it’s open for interpretation, and can be understood either way.

But as for you: Don’t fast on feast days! I remind you God didn’t command fasts, but does command us to take Sabbaths off. So do.

There’s a time for everything, Ec 3.1-8 and let’s not mix those times up. Or overindulge in one—fasting or feasting—at the expense of the other.