Keeping the Feast

by Sandra Brower.

My most memorable Easter was when I was a postgrad student in London. A group of us raised as Evangelicals but keen to mine the richness of other traditions – as only postmoderns can do – joined the throngs of the faithful who gathered for the Easter vigil at The Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Ennismore Gardens, central London. Enduring lengthy Protestant sermons is a cakewalk compared to hours of standing, listening to unending readings in characteristic Orthodox monotone. As the hours passed, so did the light, until we were in darkness; even the priests – dressed in black – were difficult to see. At this point, weary and weak-kneed, those of us who arrived early enough for a place inside were led outside. There, we each lit our white candles; the hundreds of individual small flames made a collective blaze of light. The priests, who had done a quick back-room change, joined us and – in dazzling robes of white and gold – led the procession back into the church. As we entered, the darkness was, literally, turned into light.

The Orthodox know how to worship in a way that involves the whole body and its senses. Amy Frykholm, in her essay ‘Fasting Toward Home’, speaks about her experience visiting Orthodox churches as an exchange student in Russia: ‘I observed a sensuality of worship: smells, sights, sounds, beautiful colors and sensations, as if the whole self were being invited into delight. I had always thought that the truest worship happened deep inside the self, a place best reached, perhaps, by shutting down the senses. This other, fully participatory worship was strange to me, and my body did not know how to respond.’[1] Our Protestant bodies were not accustomed to feasting at 3:00am, but – eager to engage to the end – we returned, like the faithful, to our small flat to break bread and eat many other sumptuous delights together.

I’m a confessed foodie, and over the past few years I’ve been mulling over the difference between the rhythms of the sacred and secular year. Food magazines have a rhythm to their contents; January editions predictably give us recipes to accompany the gym memberships that escalate after the gluttony of Christmastide. The rhythm is to feast and then fast, essentially to binge and then diet. The sacred rhythm, in contrast, is to fast and then feast.

Feasting is a good thing. As is the act of breaking the fast. Far from a sin (as opposed to Slimming World’s ‘syns’ – short for ‘synergy’ – naughty foods you can only have in strict limitation), breaking fast is intrinsic to celebration. Feasting together in the wee hours of Easter morning, my friends and I were recognising in a bodily way that, without God, we have nothing. One of my theological conversation partners captured it insightfully when he said that ‘the [secular] approach to life is a recipe for disappointment and regret, whereas the [sacred] engenders anticipation and thanks.’

Since I first discovered there was something called the season of Lent, I’ve attempted to keep some sort of fast throughout it. Sometimes I’m more stringent than others, yet I’m conscious that my ‘fasts’ are no real hardship. Truth be told, I approach them as my annual chance to watch what I eat, more for the sake of my figure than my soul. Perhaps that’s my Protestant baggage – an insidious (and subtly Gnostic) tendency to separate things that were always meant to be together. The creature at the outset of the Genesis story is a hungry being, and one who understands that food – along with the whole of creation – is given by God. Alexander Schmemann, in his delightful book, For the Life of the World, represents the Orthodox sacramental view of the world in his argument that food – like all creation – is given as communion with God.[2]

This year, my family is celebrating Easter in the sun-baked hills north of Malaga. As I write, I am surrounded by God’s beautiful creation. The vista is stunning, the flowers exquisite, the smell of the citrus blossoms intoxicating, the sound of the bees sucking nectar and the sheep bells in the distance enchanting. And then, of course, there is the food. I want to learn this sacramental view of the world. This Easter, I will be more attentive to my platter of tapas: ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good.’

 

[1] Amy Frykholm, ‘Fasting Toward Home,’ in The Spirit of Food, ed. Leslie Leyland Fields (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2010), 161.

[2] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973), 11-14.

 

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3 thoughts on “Keeping the Feast”

  1. Beautiful, thank you. A wonderful reminder that it is the whole body, not just the mind, that is the temple where we encounter God. We don’t actually meet with God anywhere else and at no other time than the present. Bless you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have only just discovered this section of the website. Thank you for it and for your contribution. I recognise the need to involve my whole body in worship. I have a guilty secret. As a Methodist I find worship within many churches really hard going but I enjoy the chanting and meditation of my Siddha Yoga group. They are made up of very gently folk we chant and meditate on the name of God and always go home relaxed yes but also very very uplifted. I do not separate Christ from this experience and I see Christ in this worship of body mind song and wonderful smells of incense. I am sorry if this offends but it needed to be said.

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