I grew up viewing Lent as a loser. No dessert for 40 days? A food desert. That’s how many view Lent, which is why we’re often not very perceptive.
There’s a connection between fasting—what we practice during Lent—and perceiving. Perception is the ability to peer deeply into the nature of reality. It’s insight gained from encountering God, recognizing the world around us in ways that most people don’t.
Christians historically gained perspective in two primary ways—feasts as well as nuptial union. Nuptial union was reserved for married couples. Everyone however eats, so feasts were open to every believer. They were considered “the most basic and literal way of encountering God.”
Feasts, as well as sexual consummation, gave believers a foretaste (the Latin perceptio) of God “marrying” us (Hosea 2:19). They’re foretastes of the wedding banquet in eternity when we consummate our marriage to Christ. They help us look from eternity back toward this present world, giving us perspective regarding the times we live in.
Feasts are common throughout the Old Testament. They were common in the early church, as it was mostly Jewish for the first 300 years. Sharing meals and communion was the centerpiece of corporate worship. This continued through the medieval church. Johannes Tauler, a German mystic in the early 1300s, wrote that nothing is so close to us as the food and drink we put in our mouth. “God has found this wonderful way of uniting Himself with us as closely as possible and becoming part of us.”
The medieval church saw the Eucharist as eating and being eaten by God, making us new flesh in his flesh (see the similarities with nuptial union?). By sharing communion, Christians came to perceive their hidden life, how they are already married to Jesus. Many believers actually felt this mystical union. They actually believed we can “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). If you doubt it, consider the ecstasy of Teresa.
Fasting, on the other hand, prepares us for feasting. Catherine of Sweden, the head of a convent in the late 14th century, fasted regularly. She came to perceive it as prolonging life, preserving chastity, repulsing demons, illumining the intellect, strengthening the mind, overcoming vices, overpowering the flesh, and stirring the heart with love of God.
Women like Catherine and Teresa of Avila are just the tip of the iceberg. When you read Caroline Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast, you encounter literally thousands of Christians–mostly women–who have mystical experiences with God. They treated feasts as something special, especially since fine food was scarce for many centuries. You can’t help read these stories and have your perspective on today’s church altered.
Worship services today feature tightly scripted services, sermons, skits and songs. The manufactured replaces the mystical. Few Christians speak of encountering God. Without foretastes, we lose perspective. As a result, few Christians understand the times. For most, Lent is little more than giving up dessert.
A few churches are seeking to experience a soul-shaking encounter with God that far exceeds the relatively benign cerebral acknowledgement we currently get at church. There’s a church in Brooklyn where the Sunday and Monday evening services are staged as dinner parties. They’re restoring communion as the centerpiece of the service. The 1,000 square-foot worship space doubles as a co-working space for freelancers by day.
There’s no guarantee these experiments will prove effective, but at least they’re trying to restore feasting and fasting. This week, the worldwide church begins its annual fast—Lent. When we rightly practice fasting, we learn that Lent is more than giving up dessert. It’s preparing us for feasting, the most basic and literal way of encountering God.
 Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 2.