Monday, January 19, 2009

Then They Will Fast

In today’s gospel, Jesus drops the four-letter F-bomb. At least that’s how it’s always been to me. As long as I can remember, I’ve approached fasting with fear and trembling. When I was just a little younger, I would get physically sick, with severe headaches and nausea (try that on an empty stomach). I did not look forward to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, even though the fast required by the Church (only one meal and up to two snacks) is extremely lenient. I don’t know whether my reaction was real or psychological, but it bothered me, because I suspected that it was a symptom of my refusal to enter more deeply into the spiritual life.

For the last eight years, I’ve carried a notecard in my Bible with passages that reference fasting. Every time that I’ve seen that notecard, a voice in my mind has whispered to me that I couldn’t do it. I’d get sick. My metabolism would slow down, and I’d gain weight. For at least eight years, I’ve been making excuses.

If we look to Jesus himself as an example, we see that after his baptism by John, he was driven by the Spirit into the desert, where he fasted for 40 days (Matthew 4:1-2). The question of the Pharisees and the disciples of John in Mark 2:18-20 seem to indicate that Jesus and his followers do not fast, but the answer that Jesus gives implies that his followers do not fast now, but will later. The acceptance of fasting by Jesus of fasting is reinforced in Mark 9:27-29 (see the footnote) when Jesus tells his followers that some demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting and in Matthew 6:16-18, when Jesus gives direction on how to fast. Note that he does not say “if you fast” but “when you fast.”

There is, of course, also precedent for fasting in the Old Testament. The repentance of Ninevah in Jonah 3:6-9 included a fast. Elijah fasted for forty days before encountering the Lord in 1 Kings 19:8. And there is the passage from Isaiah 58:3-14, where God says that the fast that he really desires is a fast of mercy and charity.

I know that fasting doesn’t have to be from food, although that certainly appears to be the norm. I also know that fasting can come in degrees, falling anywhere from changing the mid-morning snack to something a little less desirable to consuming only liquids for forty days (I’ve been on a liquid diet following my jaw surgery; it is not fun). There are a number of spiritual reasons that asceticism is beneficial, among them the idea that one is disciplining the will. A comment of Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life has always stuck with me: “Unless you can say no, you can’t truly say yes.” He was speaking in the context of sexual urges, but it’s equally true with respect to any appetite. Unless a person can say no to the natural desires of the will, he cannot exercise true freedom, and in the absence of true freedom, he cannot give his full consent to Christ.

What prompted all of this eight years ago was a passage from a sermon by St. Peter Chrysologus, featured in the Office of Readings for Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent: Prayer Knocks, Fasting Obtains, Mercy Receives.

Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to other you open God's ear to yourself.

Does that mean that I’ve been withholding something of myself for the last eight years? I hope not! But, at the same time, I suspect so.

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