Our Old Testament reading this week is the familiar story of Hannah praying for a son. She prays with such fervor that Eli, the priest, says to her:
“How long will you keep on getting drunk? Get rid of your wine.” Hannah responds, “Not so, my lord. I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the LORD.” 1 Samuel 1:15
Hannah is clearly besieged by grief and longing, crying out to God from her heart, and yet this story is bookended by two verses that we often overlook. First, the story begins: “Once they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up” (vs. 9). And it ends, as Hannah leaves the temple, “Then she went on her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast” (vs. 18).
Hannah eats. Twice in this short passage, she feeds herself, and the second time, there is a subtle connection between her eating and her beginning to feel better about the predicament of her barrenness.
There is certainly a place for fasting as we cry out to God, but I find that often Christians have a hard time navigating the relationship between their bodies and their spirits, to the point that fasting can become a physical and spiritual distraction. Personally, I have always struggled with fasting from food. When I was in my teens and twenties, the struggle was because of the long shadow cast by an eating disorder I had in middle school. When Lent rolled around at the Christian college I attended, everyone talked about what they would give up. It seemed to me that many of the women I saw working out every day and picking at dinner salads wanted to give up sugar, carbs, fried food, or all of the above. This sounded like a great idea to me, but not for spiritual reasons. I was only thinking about how much thinner I would be by Easter.
Later in college I attended a church that served Communion every week, and I somehow got the idea that the spiritual experience of consuming Christ’s body and blood would be heightened by fasting beforehand. So I stopped eating breakfast on Sunday mornings. Although I did savor the bread more and take particularly large swigs of wine, this only made me feel more hungry, and somewhat dizzy, not closer to God. After a few months, I realized that I had been unable to listen to the sermon for some time because I was so hungry, so I started eating breakfast again.
As Hannah demonstrates, we need to remember that our physical appetites are not only good, but are God-given. Although fasting from certain physical pleasures or necessities may at times give us a helpful spiritual focus, let us remind each other that our bodies are in fact temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Indeed, when God wanted to show us what He is like, He became a body, not some kind of super-spirit with no physical needs.
There is a wonderful Lyle Lovett song about a preacher who can’t stop preaching, much to the annoyance of his famished congregation:
And now everyone was getting so hungry
That the old ones started feeling ill
And the weak ones started passing out
And the young ones they could not sit still
The narrator makes a plan to get the preacher to stop, so that everyone can go home and eat. He asks the choir to interrupt the sermon by singing:
To the Lord let praises be
It’s time for dinner now let’s go eat
We’ve got some beans and some good cornbread
And I’ve listened to what the preacher said.
Do you know any preachers who need to hear this song? The song ends with the preacher getting so hungry himself that he eats a bird that flies into the church and dismisses the congregation. He realizes, like Hannah, that sometimes the best way to feed our souls is to stop preaching and praying, and eat. Let us cry out to God by eating and drinking well. Let us take care of our bodies. In doing so we may lift our downcast faces and find the strength to take the next step.