Then they will fast

August 19, 2014

Dear brothers and sisters,

The good news today is from Mark 2:18-20.

The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were accustomed to fast. People came to him and objected, “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.”

In Jewish life there was only one day in the year of compulsory fasting, the Day of Atonement when the Israelites collectively confessed their sins and were forgiven by God. However, some groups such as the Pharisees adopted the practice on a routine basis as a sign of self-denial. The fast lasted only until 6:00 pm, so it wasn’t a terribly difficult thing to forgo food only during the day. According to Barclay, the Pharisees whitened their faces on fast days to signal their piety to others. It was less about self-denial and more about self-promotion.

I seldom fast, but when I’m fasting I don’t feel like celebrating. I’m not joyful or exuberant. All I can think about is my growling stomach and the hour that I can eat again. It doesn’t seem to have much spiritual cleansing or meaning for me. So, it’s difficult for me to find the benefit of fasting. It’s much easier for me to relate to the image of the wedding, a time of communal celebration with food and drink playing a prominent part.

In Jesus’ day a wedding was followed by a week or more of celebration with the newly married couple. Barclay explains, “[T]here was continual feasting and rejoicing.” Weddings are a happy time reminding me of the fresh start of a new love relationship and all the hopeful promise that it holds. That’s what Jesus’ disciples were felling. They were in love with him, the bridegroom, and wanted to remain in that happy state. Barclay writes, “This incident tells us that the characteristic Christian attitude to life is joy. The discovery of Christ and the company of Christ is the key to happiness.” I get that.

What I don’t get is why Jesus tells me that I will fast now that he is not physically present. Isn’t the whole idea of the resurrection that he is with me forever, that my sins are forgiven once and for all? Shouldn’t I continue to rejoice knowing that he is in my life, by my side, in my thoughts and in my words? John Shea in Eating With the Bridegroom explains it this way, “The presence of the bridegroom is primary and foundational. The wedding guests have experienced the Spirit enlivening flesh….This experience makes them sensitive to times when flesh is not enlivened….It is now time to fast, not just because physical emptiness expresses spiritual emptiness but because physical emptiness awaits the reappearance of spiritual fullness. Fasting is an act of hope that recognized loss but will not absolutize it. This is the Christian consciousness of fasting. Feast is the context of fast. This way of thinking about and practicing fasting is new….When Christians refuse to put food and drink in their mouths, it is to put a different type of food and drink in their mind. All other reasons must be subordinated to this consciousness.” Shea calls this consciousness the “situation of intimacy between God and humankind…that Jesus, the bridegroom, embodies in his own being and makes possible for others.”

Maybe what I should do at those times when I have lost consciousness of the intimacy between God and me is fast — to put a different kind of food and drink in my mind. To think of it not as self-denial, not as penance or atonement, but as a conscious effort to rediscover the mutuality of love with God through His Son Jesus. I can understand that aim of fasting — fasting within the context of feasting in God’s love, a rejoicing in our love relationship.



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