The Feast Means Less Without The Fast
Consider that music is only music if it has silences and rests; otherwise, it’s just an endless string of sensation without meaning. Similarly, the deepest blessedness of food and drink reveals itself to us by its sanctified absence.
Maybe I’m not supposed to say this as a Christian, but Thanksgiving, the great American secular feast, is my favorite holiday. It’s all about the food, and all about the family. It’s hard to say precisely where my deep delight in food and feasting came from, but a good argument can be made that it all started in early childhood, when my family would go over the bayou and up the hill to my grandmother’s house on Thanksgiving day.
No incensed-filled Gothic cathedral could match in exaltation the aroma inside Nana’s house on those days. The smell of golden turkey roasting, pie crust toasting, a blanket of brown sugar caramelizing over the tender flesh of sweet potatoes, all of it presided over by my stout Nana, the family matriarch. My sister and I would watch the tail end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on Nana’s old black and white Zenith while waiting for dinner to be served. The Macy’s procession was a kind of tantalizing liturgical drama that came before the feast; to this day, I can’t glance at the parade on TV without my mouth watering.
I cherish those memories, but now, deep into middle age and struggling with my weight, as I have for nearly all my life, I wonder if perhaps I didn’t love Nana’s table too much. Nana was overweight too. She denied delicious treats neither to herself nor her grandchildren, even though she suffered from diabetes and eventually died of a heart attack. A child of the deep South, I grew up in a food-is-love culture, raised by parents who had suffered deprivation during the Great Depression and its aftermath, and who were determined never, or at least rarely, to say no to anything we kids asked for at the table.
Americans have a hard time saying no to anything. Looking at the obesity statistics – heck, looking at shoppers in the mall – it’s clear that we have a problem with gluttony. It’s crazy-making to dwell in this advertising-driven popular culture, which berates us with the message that we should deny ourselves nothing, yet teaches us to despise our overstuffed flesh. Every time I go to the supermarket, I feel like St. Paul when he wrote to the Romans, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do.” (Rom. 7:15, NIV)
I have been an Orthodox Christian for seven years, which is weird enough in American culture. Perhaps the weirdest, most countercultural part of living out Orthodoxy is the faith’s insistence on fasting. Orthodox Christians fast from meat and dairy most days of the year, including nearly every Wednesday and Friday, as the early Church did. It’s hard to do, not only because we’re used to eating what we want, when we want it, but also because to be a 21st-century American is to deny oneself nothing.