Wednesday, February 13, 2013

why fast? a reflection for Ash Wednesday

May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

I don't intend to speak for very long this morning … Ash Wednesday is penitential enough without my forcing you to endure a long sermon. But there were a couple of points from our readings this morning that I wanted to draw to your attention …

The first is that our Lord and Saviour in our Gospel reading says to his disciples: 'When you fast.' Note the wording very carefully. He does not say 'if you fast,' he says 'when you fast.' Jesus presumes that fasting will be part of the lives of those who follow him. An answer as to why he might presume that is to be found in our reading from Joel, where you will no doubt have noticed that the prophet calls upon the people to fast as a way of doing penance for their failure to live according to God's Holy laws. It was an ancient tradition of the people of Israel to fast as part of their spiritual disciplines … a tradition that was in turn recommended to his followers by Jesus … and that tradition was passed on by his followers to each generation that came after … and so our tradition of fasting goes back probably at least 3000 years … tracing its long history from Old Testament Times through New Testament Times and then down through the long centuries of the history of our Church …

But why fasting, you may ask? It may be an ancient tradition, but why do it? Well, look at what is happening in Joel this morning; the people have fallen away … and the Lord God himself tells his people that fasting will help them return to him. Given that we also live in an age where many of God's people have most certainly fallen away from him, we probably should require no further recommendation for fasting than what we have thus far: God the Father orders it as a means of returning to him, of getting closer to him; and God the Son expects it of his followers. But given the age we live in, when people are far less inclined to do things simply on the basis of authority – an inclination, I should add, that I do not entirely approve of, given that the same people who haughtily decline to accept any spiritual authority are the same ones who will happily accept the pseudo-scientific authority of a shampoo ad – but given as I said people want to know why they should do things, there is I suppose good reason to explain why fasting helps us to become closer to God. 


And the explanation runs something like this: we are as human beings, a combination of body and spirit. Now think about how you feel after a big meal: bloated, sleepy, disinclined to make any great efforts. All your energy is being used up to digest your food. Now consider this: how many times have you filled yourself up with a meal of many courses and then thought to yourself: now would be the perfect time to get down on my knees and settle in to a long session of prayer. I would imagine the answer for all here is never. Hardly surprising. Think about what you know of the great saints throughout history … can you think of any who were known to gorge themselves endlessly on food? No; in fact, quite the opposite … the great saints were ascetics, much given to fasting … given in fact to reducing their intake of food to the bare minimum needed to keep body and soul together … and the reason for that is because fasting thins not only the body … it thins the 'space' that separates body and soul … it allows one to achieve greater and greater spiritual depths … fasting, as the Lord God said in Joel brings us closer to him … which is why Jesus expects it of his followers … because he wants us to draw closer and closer to him …

And Lent is the time of our Church year when we try to draw closer to God … and so the Church down through the years has followed the tradition of the Old Testament and the expectations of our Saviour as given to us in the New Testament in calling on God's people to fast at this time … and so I remind you that this season of Lent has been a penitential season from the earliest days of the Church … and we are called to keep it as such … not by making the same heroic efforts as some of the saints through history … but by doing something to remind ourselves daily that it is during this season that we are called to attempt to draw closer to God … a calling we hear in scripture in the prophets … and from our saviour … a calling I pray you will listen to: in the name of the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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