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A Prayer and Fasting Devotional

Cambridge theologian William Inge (1860–1954) famously quipped, "all of nature is a conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and passive." Inge's characterization of eating as an overarching touchstone suffuses narratives of family, tradition, and place with remembrances of love, loss, and celebration. Potlucks and campfire s'mores, wedding and birthday cakes, funeral and Eucharist suppers frame the ever-changing seasons of life.

Similarly, Norman Wirzba's Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating highlights the proper balance of feasting and fasting: "People should feast so they do not forget the grace and blessing of the world. People should fast so they do not degrade or hoard the good gifts of God. In short, we feast to glorify God and we fast so we do not glorify ourselves" (p. 137).

This intentional juxtaposition of feasting and fasting surfaces as a salient reminder that both consuming and abstaining function as educative acts in the Christian life.

Toward this end, one passage that has sometimes been relegated to the attic in conversations regarding fasting concerns Mark 2:18–20. At first glance, Jesus' defense of his disciples' decision to opt out of additional, most likely voluntary (Joel Marcus, Mark 1–8, p. 236), times of fasting when compared to John's disciples or the practices of some Pharisees (cf. Luke 18:12) might not seem of importance. However, not only does the proliferation of fasting language (six times in three verses) warrant attention, but also, rather than view the developed argument in terms of Jesus razing fasting, the text notes that the disciples' fasting will come at a later point— chiefly, after Jesus' death.

What reasonable defense does Jesus offer for his disciples' nonconformity? In Mark 2:19–20 Jesus retorts:

"Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day" (ESV).

Although a part of the tension in this passage is possibly in reference to the arrival and reaction to the messianic age, it is crucial to point out that the reason for the disciples not fasting is a result of a time of joy that can be likened to a wedding celebration—a time when "ordinary duties are put on hold" (Morna Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark, p. 100). Jesus notes that there will be a time in the future when his followers will fast (cf., Acts 13:2–3).

Although the exegetical and theological discussions surrounding this passage encourage further treatment, there remains a simple and insightful contrast: an awareness of the ebb and flow of the Christian community that is characterized by times of both feasting and fasting—of both eating and abstaining at the table. In this passage, both eating and abstaining are simultaneously affirmed as decisive and timely theological decisions.

We can do well to learn from these rhythms in Mark's gospel. We ought to be reminded of the relationship between the thoughtful longing for God to work powerfully in the midst of our circumstances, as well as the Christian joy that continues to surprise us with hope and peace—times that transform ordinary praxis into the extraordinary, beckoning us to taste and see that the Lord is wholly good (Psalm 34:8).

In the forward to Scot McKnight's Fasting, it is asserted that "fasting is far and away the most misunderstood, maligned, and misused" of the Christian disciplines (xii). Without question, the Christian community must seek to recover thoughtful teaching on and practice of fasting in contemporary settings. I would suggest that not only does this demand careful attention to the food that is refrained from, but this same process also invites sustained reflection on the spiritual dynamics associated with the food that is enjoyed in vertical and horizontal solidarity.

Today, as you continue to mature in the practice of fasting, I encourage you to glorify God in this time while looking forward to times of partaking in future feasts and preparing—even now—to praise God for the blessings that surround. In the end, these rhythms of life at the table narrate stories of lived faith and transformed communities in the midst of life's changing seasons.

Grace and peace,

Jared R. Wortman
Ministry Fellow at Harvard Law School