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.
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.