Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Will you fast? a reflection for Ash Wednesday

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

I hope that this season of Lent will be for you a time of hunger and joy. I say this because in our Gospel reading today we hear Jesus talking about what are often considered the three traditional disciplines of Lent: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. And our Lord says when you give alms, when you pray, and when you fast – the emphasis being on 'when' not 'if.' I mention this because I know that for so so many people today Lent will be no different than any other time of the the year; and that even for those who will mark Lent in some way, few will make any element of fasting part of their 40 days.

Why is that, I wonder, when Christ clearly saw fasting as a practice his followers would engage in? It is not as if the verses in today's Gospel is an isolated reading – we also have his words from Matthew 9, when Jesus tells those who challenge him about his followers lack of fasting that when he, the bridegroom, is taken away from his them, they will indeed fast. And then there is the example Christ himself of his own fasting in his 40 days in the desert, on which our season of Lent of Lent is modeled. Fasting was integral to our Lord's 40 days; why is it absent from the 40 days of so many people today? In Luke 9, Christ tells us that we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. One of the most basic ways we can deny ourselves is through fasting. Yet few will.

Why is this? Fasting used to be one of the defining characteristics of Christians – they fasted every Friday; before receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour at Holy Communion they observed the Eucharistic Fast from midnight the night before; and the Lenten Fast was particularly stringent – no meat, no eggs, no dairy. The Eastern Church still maintains the tradition of fasting with great rigour, but in the West we have allowed it to fall away, observing it in only the most token sense, when we observe it at all.

What has changed? Is it that we no longer understand the value of fasting? By which I do not mean the potential it brings to lose a few much needed inches from our waistlines! I am speaking of the Spiritual benefits that it brings.

So what are those benefits? St Thomas Aquinas gives three main reasons as to why we should fast. The first is to help us to reign in the desires of the flesh – practising self-discipline in one area of life helps us have greater self-discipline in others. The self-control we gain by voluntarily denying ourselves some food helps when it comes to resisting the temptation to sin. Secondly, fasting allows the the mind to turn more easily to the contemplation of heavenly things; for example, in Daniel chapter 10 the prophet fasts for three weeks, and after that he receives a revelation from God. Thirdly, there is the penitential nature of fasting, the way in which it helps us to recognise the sinfulness of our natures so that we might turn again to God. As we heard it said in our reading from the prophet Joel earlier: "Turn to Me with all your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning." Turning from sin to God is what it means to repent – and it was Jesus himself who told us to repent. And as St Augustine tells us: "Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one's flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble.'

Perhaps it is the benefits that are the problem – or rather the way the modern mind perceives those benefits, no longer seeing them as desirable or beneficial. The second one about contemplating heavenly things and perhaps receiving revelations sounds a bit mystical and in our overly rational age we are a bit nervous or even skeptical about anything that smacks of mysticism. The first speaks of self-discipline, which goes very much against the spirit of the age which tells us that it is fine for us to indulge ourselves in anyway we want because we are 'worth it' as the ad has it. And when the particular self-discipline involves controlling our impulses to sin it is going to be doubly unpopular at a time when sin is thought of as a quaint notion - when it is thought of at all. And since repentance requires the recognition and turning away from sin to God we can easily see why the third point about fasting being an aid to repentance has little attraction.

Be that as it may, the practise has the warrant of scripture; and is specifically commended to us by word and example by Christ himself. And at this point, I think it well to recollect the opening verse from our Gospel reading for last Sunday, from Matthew chapter 7:  ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.' If we are to be obedient to Christ, we must be obedient in all things; and the cross of fasting is a cross, I believe, that we may not refuse to carry.

And so I return to my opening statement that I hope this Lent will be a time of hunger for you. Not the random hunger that comes when you miss lunch or are late for dinner; but the purposeful hunger that comes from a self-disciplined self denial undertaken for the sake of spiritual growth and from a feeling of true repentance and a desire to turn from our failings and grow closer to God. I do not expect that anyone will be able to copy the heroic fasting that was common in the earlier days of the Church. But perhaps you can do without a meal – or even just do without eating between meals – or eat smaller meals during this season. Not enough to starve; but enough to add a little touch of hunger to your lives for the sake of trying to live out the Gospel in your lives. 

And I have not forgotten that I said I hoped for joy along with the hunger when I began. Because I think that hunger undertaken for that purpose will bring with it joy – the joy that comes when a small amount of self-denial brings with it the great spiritual rewards that come to all those who hear the Gospel and obey. And so I end as I began, by hoping that this Lent will be for you a time of hunger and joy; and by praying that in a little hunger you you will find a far greater joy. Amen. 

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