Fasting – SOTM Series (10)
Fasting was a practice that St. Francis and his followers were well acquainted with. In part out of self-denial, in part out of repentance for their sins and in part because they gave what little they had to those in need, fasting was a very regular reality. When Francis became better known, he would often be invited into the homes of wealthy merchants and nobleman. When rich food was placed before him, the humble saint would slip ashes into his food to dull the taste. Why would he do this? What did Francis think this would accomplish?
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:16-18
Moments before stating these words, Jesus had said: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (6:1) He went on to explain three ways where this was critical to embrace- our generosity (giving to the poor), our prayer life (in contrast to actors & pagans) and then, here, in our fasting.
The Jews were very familiar with fasting. In addition to the 3 required national fasts- on the Day of Atonement, at the New Year and for Tisha B’Av- many practiced personal, voluntary fasts twice a week (every Monday and Thursday). These latter weekly fasts were commonly (and openly) practiced by the Pharisees. Fasting was normal and expected. Because Jesus said “When you fast…” it is clear that He is affirming the discipline, just as He did with giving and prayer. While the latter two, for the most part, are familiar and commonly practiced by most Christians today, fasting remains a far more rare and unpracticed discipline.
True and acceptable fasting is a response to God, not an effort to increase our “spiritual status”, especially not for the recognition of others. The outward act is necessary, but it is only acceptable insofar as is the genuine fruit of a changed heart. It is a discipline of obedience and submission to God, making His Lordship central to practice. When we fast (or do any act of Christian service or devotion), we must be mindful of our motivations and intentions. We must put to death any desire for public affirmation, even if we fear they’ll assume we are impious for not seeing it. Otherwise we are serving another master, defying the King to whom we are sworn to serve. This theme is repeated again and again throughout the Sermon on the Mount.
When Jesus told them to put oil in their hair and wash their faces while fasting, He was going against a longer history and tradition (such as the use of sackcloth and ashes in certain kinds of penitent fasts). He was not intending to reject or devalue these traditions, but was demonstrating how critical it was for His followers to fast in ways that were acceptable to God. The rewarding life of the Beatitudes cannot be fulfilled otherwise. The price is too high! In this light, we see that Jesus in not simply placing a burden of strict obedience on his followers, but is lovingly warning them of what they risk should allow compromise.
Proper fasting will not kill us. Yet, when we are faced with this discipline, our bodies resist in powerful ways. It is uncomfortable and dis-empowering. It reminds us in painfully real ways of the true discomfort and cost of true obedience to Christ. As powerfully as our bodies resist this, so too our hearts and minds work over time to conceive of short-cuts, excuses or exemptions that would lighten the cost. We are too busy, have other health concerns, are not bound by legalism- the list goes on. In a culture of such indulgence and wealth, this discipline is essential precisely because it is so particularly painful to us.
It is at the table of our Lord, in communion, that fasting takes on its deepest meaning. Christ alone is the Bread of Life, relieving the deepest of hungers. The passing fulfillment of food, wealth and power can blind us of our absolute hunger for that true Bread. Fasting strips us of the pretense that we what we have is enough, that it is even possessed apart from the grace and provision of God. We need Him for life in every sense and in every way.
Christ, You are the Bread of Life. None else can satisfy.
Lord, we take this moment of silence to consider anything & everything in our lives that has filled any cravings, longings or needs that are apart from you. We name them to You, repent of them & carry them to the Cross. Lord, have mercy.
Jesus Christ, by eating this Bread we declare that you are enough. You alone can give satisfy all that we need. We are Yours.
And so, as we eat this Bread, we do so in full submission to You.
Jesus Christ, You are the Fountain of Life. The terrible cost of your spilled blood quenches any & every thirst. Any temptations, expectations & rights are empty apart from You. In this moment of silence, we name them, repent of them & carry them to the Cross. Christ, have mercy.
Jesus, by drinking from this Cup we declare that you are all we need. Only You can quench the burning desires of our hearts. We are Yours.
And so, as we drink from the Cup, we do so in full submission to You.
Thank you, Lord, for the undeserved gift of grace and love, in which we become the willing slaves of Your will, yet humbled to be called sons & daughters of God.
All this we do and pray in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
Tags: Sermon on the Mount