Sunday, February 18, 2018

Lent: Christ fasted; so must we

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

There is something that I think is quite unique about our Gospel reading today that causes it to stand out from all the other things we read about in the Gospels. I do not mean the fact that our Lord spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness among the wild beasts; nor do I refer to the fact that he fasted during the time that he was there; neither is it that when the time was over that angels ministered to him; and I am not even thinking about the way that Satan himself came and tempted him.

No, while all these things are remarkable in and of themselves, it is not so much what happened as to how we know it happened that makes these events so extraordinary. All the other things that are reported to us in the Gospels of Jesus' life and teaching have one common feature – there were others present … disciples, Apostles, even his own blessed mother … who were witnesses to what took place or what was said and were able to later testify to it so that it might be recorded and passed down to later generations. But in this case our Lord was alone for the whole 40 days. Which means there is only one possible source for the details we have of what happened there during this time – Jesus himself.

That our Lord made sure that this time when there were no other witnesses to what happened other than himself, the angels, and the devil would be known to all men down through the ages tells us something important about it – and that is that Jesus considered it to something that it was vital that we know, something essential to our salvation. So what is it that we may learn from from this account of our Lord's time in the wilderness?

Well, there are many ways in which it instructs us. But today let us consider only three. The first, which I have no doubt you have heard mentioned many times before, is that by enduring temptation himself our Lord demonstrates that there is nothing sinful in being tempted. This is something very reassuring in this, for we all suffer from temptations. It is simply part of the human condition, and something that will be with us all our days until the very moment that life leaves our bodies. And if we believed that it was sinful to be tempted then we might see no reason to resist temptation and so fall into sin. And so our Lord by his example teaches that while it may well be no pleasant thing to be tempted, we have done no wrong by suffering it; and that by rejecting sinful temptations we instead do good.

But with so much to tempt us, these things being sent to try us not just by the devil, but from the world and the flesh also, how do we strengthen ourselves to resist? We learn this also from this incident in the life of our Lord, for both St Matthew and St Luke tell us that he spent this time fasting. There is great spiritual strength to be found in fasting, something all too many in the Western world, even those who are otherwise devoted followers of Christ, seem to have forgotten. But it is by denying ourselves things that are permitted, things that are good and pleasant, that we train ourselves to resist things that are not permitted, things that are sinful for us to engage in. Also fasting, as we know from the lives of great saints down through the ages, helps us grow in holiness; it is difficult to express in words why that should be … but it seems as if fasting in some way narrows the distance between heaven and earth for the one who does it, helping them to draw closer to God … provided that it be done in the right spirit.

And what is that right spirit? Again we may look to the example of our Lord during those 40 days. He, St Luke tells us, ate nothing during that time. Now you or I, or most others I think, were we to attempt such a thing would most probably die. But Christ is God and to him all things are possible. Even so, the evangelist tells us that he was famished at the end – he had fasted, it would seem, to the very limit of his endurance. This tells us that we should not be too easy on ourselves when it comes to our own spiritual disciplines. Christ told us to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him – and that means surely that when we fast we should feel some pangs of hunger, just as the time we devote to extra prayer and study should come at the cost of something else we might usually spend time doing, and when we give alms the price we pay for doing so should be not being able to afford something else. But always in a spirit of humility, aware that we engage in these disciplines for the sake of spiritual growth, not for the sake of trying to impress others, or to somehow feel better about ourselves, but to draw closer to God.

I realise that all this may seem out of step with the spirit of the age. But that should not matter to us. We are not called to believe in the latest fads and fashions but in Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and unto the end of the ages; and we as Christians are called to be as Christlike as possible. Christ himself fasted – therefore we must do so also. More, he took particular care that we should know he fasted. And therefore I pray that all here will do so also, as part of a holy Lent, as a way of growing in holiness, and as part of the path they walk that will one day take them to be with God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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