Fasting

And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and the disciples of the Pharisees do the same; but yours eat and drink.” (Luke 5:33)

Ancient Jewish weddings went on for a week. Even venerable rabbis drank and danced at them. The Books of Moses enjoined one solemn day of fasting per year, the Day of Atonement. If this day fell during a wedding celebration, the wedding took precedence and the guests did not fast.

On the other hand: During the second-temple period after the Babylonian exile, the pious Jew fasted on nothing—no food or water until sundown—twice a week. John the Baptist apparently taught his disciples to do the same. And, at the very moment recounted in today’s gospel reading at Mass, as the Lord feasted with reformed tax collectors and prostitutes in Matthew’s home, John languished in Herod’s dungeons.

So the question they asked Jesus about fasting was an honest one, not a trick or an attack. In replying to the question, the Lord did John the honor of quoting him. John had introduced the image of the wedding, and had identified himself as the best man who rejoices when the groom, Christ, arrives.

Hilaire Belloc
Hilaire Beloc

Seems to me like the whole business gives us three good principles.

1. The Kingdom of God involves all the joy, all the festivity, all the dancing and merriment of a wedding. When Hilaire Belloc wrote, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there’s music and laughter and good red wine,” he grasped the most fundamental of all truths.

2. That said, the Bridegroom no longer dwells on earth, and the Paschal Mystery by which He fulfilled His mission involved the cruel agony of His Passion and crucifixion. Here on earth now, we long for the heavenly kingdom. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst; blessed are those who mourn. A Christian must fast.

3. The Church Herself is the Bride. Her laws, her rules regarding fasting allow us to fast as one, as the united Body of Christ, so that all danger of pharisaism among us is removed.

To some, the Church’s laws seem onerous, since most people don’t even know what fasting is. To others, Her laws seem lax, since we generally only have to go hungry two days a year. And even on Fridays, we have the option of substituting another act of penance for abstaining from meat, outside of Lent.

Some have proposed that fasting according to law destroys the true spirit of fasting, since our fast rather should come from personal devotion and be altogether invisible on the outside. Others insist that it is too easy to slip up, when we try to keep private fast days.

Given all this, it seems to me that we simple Christians living in the world do best to keep the fasts and days of abstinence enjoined by Church law, according to the rules laid down.

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The Virgin’s Fast

As we hear our Lord say at Holy Mass today, we pray, we fast, and we give alms in order to cultivate our friendship with our heavenly Father. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are works of piety. To pray, to fast, or to give alms means seeking a goal, exercising a means to an end. The end: union with God.

I daresay it’s possible that some of us neglect to fast. In other words, we forget that being friends with God requires that we deliberately deny ourselves certain pleasures that we would like to have.

pietaGod is infinitely loving and kind, infinitely patient and generous. Does that mean, though, that He is anything less than the most demanding friend a person could ever have?

No. Jesus, as a friend, makes extreme demands. Think of what He demanded of His mother. The indescribably agonizing fast that she had to keep on Good Friday.

She had to fast from sleep, from food, from any comfort. She had to fast from feeling at all at-home in this world. She had to fast from anything making any sense at all. Then she had to fast from the only light that gave her any real joy, when her Son closed His eyes, and she could have no human expectation that He would ever open them again.

God seeks our friendship–each of us–with the same relentless, indomitably demanding zeal. He wants to be as close to us as He was and is to the Blessed Virgin.

Ecce Agnus DeiHis friendship requires that we recognize our earthly pilgrimage for what it is: One long fast from the only thing that will really make us happy, which is the light of His eyes. The only true joy for the human race is the joy of the Blessed Virgin, which she found in the face of Christ. We will find that joy, too–by keeping the fast that she kept.

We could have no hope of keeping this fast faithfully—no hope of keeping the cold, dry vigil of the friends of God. But the Lord feeds us with His divine flesh and blood in the meantime, in the mysterious feast of faith which He gave us.

He knows how demanding He is. To obey Him means finding ourselves desperately, almost hopelessly, hungry for satisfactions which we cannot have now. So He feeds us with faith, se we can keep going.

And the feast that ends the fast is not as far away as it sometimes seems. On Good Friday afternoon, the Blessed Virgin’s fast seemed like it would last forever. But it actually only lasted until Sunday morning.

Fasting for Freedom

Tomorrow we begin the fortnight of prayer and fasting which our bishops have asked us to undertake. In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord Jesus gives instructions for “when you fast.” In other words, He does not bind us to fast all the time. Sometimes He does.

Why is this one of those times? Because we perceive a serious problem in our country. And we hope that, with divine assistance, we can avert a crisis.

Jonah proclaimed a fast in Nineveh. The Ninevites fasted, and the tide of history turned.

How do we fast? First of all, we stop sinning. Also, we eat less than usual. We renounce–for a time–some of the pleasures that we rightfully enjoy at other times.

We quiet everything down. We focus on the invisible, tremendous power of God.

Instead of snacking, we pray. Instead of watching t.v., we read a holy book. Instead of going to the movies, we go to church to watch a movie.*

We focus on what matters. We acknowledge that life on earth passes quickly, and we fix our eyes on our true goal. We let the cellphone go, and we communicate with our most faithful friends, who are in heaven.

Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons”

Christ has offered to the Father the worthy sacrifice that rights all the wrongs of history. The sacrifice of the Cross, the sacrifice of the Mass—the infinite sacrifice of divine love: this sacrifice, and this sacrifice alone, can turn this world into a place of peace and truth.

We Christians can and must participate in the sacrifice of Christ by our own humble sacrifices. The Lord offered Himself to the Father in the thick of this confused and misguided world. The crucifixion of the innocent Lamb convicts the world of dishonesty and malice. We fast because this conviction still stands. Something is rotten in the State of Denmark. It cries out to heaven when the government tries to tell the Church that She must violate Her own teachings, or else be punished. May God be merciful and give the whole business a fresh start.

We pray that the Fourth of July will find America united in peace. May the Lord move in His own way to open eyes and soften hearts.

We know that without God we know nothing at all and have no taste whatsoever for anything good.

May His holy will be done. And may whatever strife we endure now in the heat of spiritual battle serve to fill us with more love for God and for each other.

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* In our humble little parish cluster, we will get together to watch a “Man for All Seasons.”

Noble Lent?

Is it more noble to act virtuously for its own sake–as opposed to doing it for a reward?

Not sure. But God does not hesitate to promise a reward.

Give secretly, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

Pray secretly, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

Fast secretly, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

Maybe it is not noble. But we have the right to regard our humble, hidden acts of charity, religion, and penance as deposits. When we give something away quietly, we actually pay the sum to heaven. When we pray, we pay heaven. When we make a sacrifice, it’s a payment.

Maybe it doesn’t seem so noble to think this way, but it is what the Word of God says.

And these secret deposits in the heavenly bank—we do not make them out of noble selflessness. To the contrary: Christ says that we can and should expect full repayment.

God deals justly with us. We pay earthly cash by giving things away, we receive heavenly cash in return. We say earthly prayers humbly and quietly, we receive heavenly praise and glory in return. We renounce earthly goods without letting anyone know, we receive heavenly goods in the sight of angels.

Lent seems like a pretty good deal. Too good to pass up. A chance for some easy money. Make a few quiet deposits now, and the return on the investment…big-time profit.

Two Temptations

Today the Church commemorates two occasions when the devil came to tempt somebody.

In the first, Satan came to tempt two people, Adam and Eve.

Adam and Eve lived in the garden of Eden. They had everything they could ever have wanted without having to work for it. They never got sick. They were destined to live forever and go to heaven without dying. Perhaps most unimaginable for us, Adam and Eve were married to each other, and yet there was nothing that would cause them to have any difficulties in getting along: no bad habits, neither of them were messy, or crabby, or lazy.

In the second instance, the devil came to tempt the Lord Jesus. The situation was completely different. The Lord was not in a garden; He was in the desert. He did not have everything He wanted to eat and drink; He had nothing to eat and drink. The Lord Jesus was not in a state of leisure and ease. Rather, He was desperately hungry, struggling physically in every way, because He had been fasting for forty days. And our Lord did not have a human companion. He was completely alone.

The devil came into both of these two very different situations in order to lure his victims into disobedience.

In the garden of Eden, God had expressed His will very clearly. He told Adam and Eve: Do not eat from this particular tree. There were countless other trees, heavy with delicious fruit. Just don’t eat from this one. The devil came to trick them into eating it from it anyway.

When Adam and Eve succumbed to temptation, it was not a matter of human weakness. Before the Fall, human nature was not weak. When they sinned, it was not because their weak flesh faltered. They just willfully disobeyed.

What happened? How did Satan pull it off? The devil suggested to Adam and Eve that God is not to be trusted. God had demanded obedience to one simple law. The Devil put the idea into our First Parents’ minds that this was an infringement on their proper rights. God was making them His slaves. Previously they thought that they had everything. The Devil then tricked them into thinking that they would not have everything until they had total independence and got out from under the law of God.

Christ also lived under a law. The Father had not openly spoken a law to His incarnate Son. But in the depths of His human mind, Christ knew the will of the Father. We know this because Christ had said early on: “The Son of man must be rejected, and suffer, and die, and on the third day rise again.”

In the desert, the Lord Jesus was hungry and He was lonely, but the devil did not temp Him to gluttony or vanity. If Jesus had eaten some bread, it would not have been gluttony. If He had gone to Jerusalem and let Himself be admired and served by everyone there, that would not have been vanity: He is the King of kings and Lord of lords Whom everyone is bound to admire and serve.

Perhaps the difference between the two episodes of temptation—the garden and the desert; our First Parents and Christ—the difference lies in understanding what obedience to God is. Adam and Eve had everything, but they let themselves be deceived into thinking that they didn’t have everything since they had to obey God. On the other hand, the Lord Jesus had nothing—nothing except what He called “the food that sustains me:” namely, doing the will of the Father. The Lord Jesus knew that if He had this food of obedience, He in fact had everything. He didn’t need anything else at all—not food, not glory, not even His bodily life.

Satan is very intelligent and very wily, but Christ turned the tables on him. Long ago the devil had reduced the human race to slavery, so he naturally thought that he had come to tempt one of his slaves. But in fact, the devil came to tempt the new, incorruptible Adam, who was filled with the infinite strength of the Holy Spirit. Satan did not find a slave in the desert. He found the omnipotent One Who is absolutely free.

This is the special grace of Lent: Christ gives us a share in His immeasurable strength and His perfect freedom. He beckons us out for forty days in the desert with Him. In the desert, He teaches us the joy of His obedience.

Scripture sings of the sequel to these days of training:

Who is coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?
Under the apple tree I awakened you.
There your mother was in travail with you.
There she who bore you was in travail.
(Song of Solomon 8:5)

Christ’s Holy Cross takes us back to the Garden of Eden. Beneath the Tree of Life, where our human nature fell into weakness and suffering because of disobedience, we find our obedient Beloved. We can lean on Him forever.

You my Glance Seeks (Psalm 27)

A deep, terrifying darkness enveloped Abraham. (Genesis 15:12)

The Lord had called Abraham to come to the Promised Land. God instituted a covenant with Abraham. He made promises to Abraham. Then the Lord enveloped Abraham in a “deep, terrifying darkness.”

Many centuries later, the Lord Himself walked the earth. He took His closest Apostles up to the top of a towering mountain. He revealed His divinity to them. Then He enveloped them in a cloud that cast a shadow over them. Peter, James, and John became frightened.

Continue reading “You my Glance Seeks (Psalm 27)”

Humiliating Limits

In the original Lent, the Lord Jesus fasted to the limits of human weakness. He was desperately hungry, utterly exhausted. Although He is a divine Person, He relied on angels to give Him strength in His body.

Lent is our opportunity to explore the same depths of weakness. The smallness and debility of our human nature will never cease to amaze us. It is humiliating. We are ridiculously feeble.

The Lord leads us out into the desert to discover our pathetic weakness for a very good reason. He does not humiliate us arbitrarily. He is trying to get us to follow His teaching:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you…

Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asked for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asked for a fish?

If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him. (Matthew 7)

Father, we are wretchedly clueless! We are pathetically inept! Help us, please!