To Fast or Not to Fast?

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a period of 40 days of prayer and penance, which reaches its climax and goal in the solemn celebrations of Jesus’ death and resurrection in Holy Week. One of the traditional Lenten observances is fasting. During Lent Catholics are asked to abstain from meat and from eating between meals on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and to abstain from eating meat on the Fridays of Lent. For most Catholics these practices are easy enough, if they remember to do them. And we may expand such penitential practices as we are able and see fit.

In the context of religion, fasting has a long history. In the Old Testament and among Jews today, there is only one obligatory fast day, the Day of Atonement. But there were national days of fasting in the Jewish Scriptures, and devotional fasts were undertaken by the Pharisees and other Jewish groups in Jesus’ time. In the month of Ramadan observant Muslims do not eat or drink during the daylight hours. And throughout the centuries Christians have observed various kinds of fasts during Lent and at other times of the year.

The Gospel reading for the Sunday before Ash Wednesday this year concerns fasting. What surprised Jesus’ pious contemporaries was that his disciples were not fasting. The Pharisees were undertaking regular devotional fasts, as were the followers of John the Baptist. These were the two groups within Judaism with which Jesus and his followers had the most in common. So they wondered why Jesus’ disciples were not fasting.

The response given in today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel goes in two different directions. The first direction explains the absence of fasting on the part of Jesus’ disciples by highlighting the greatness and uniqueness of the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. This theme is captured by his question, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” A wedding is normally an occasion for joy, feasting and celebration. If you went to a wedding and refused to enter into the festive spirit and declared publicly that you were fasting, your behavior would be generally regarded as odd and inappropriate for the occasion.

Jesus’ question underlines the special character of the time of his earthly ministry. By not fasting while Jesus is among them, his disciples bear witness to that special time. Moreover, the “bridegroom” imagery applied to Jesus connects him to the biblical motif of God as the bridegroom of Israel that is stated so beautifully in today’s reading from the prophet Hosea. There Israel’s covenant relationship with Yahweh is given a personal dimension of love and intimacy through the motif of bride and groom. When applied to Jesus and God’s people, we have yet another example of “implicit Christology” in Mark’s Gospel—that is, what is said about God in the Old Testament is said about Jesus in the New.

The second direction concerns the time after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when “the bridegroom is taken away.” Then it will be appropriate for the followers of Jesus to fast. For us that time is the present. Now we fast not primarily to feel good or to lose weight or to exercise self-control, notwithstanding the value of each of these motives. We fast primarily to prepare ourselves to enter more deeply into the central mysteries of our Christian faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Fasting may or may not be a prominent part of our Lenten program, beyond the minimal requirements of the season. In fact, Lent is not so much about us and our pious practices as it is about Christ and our relationship to God and to other persons. The most important task of the Lenten season is to link up with Jesus and with the saving significance of his death and resurrection.

In today’s reading from 2 Corinthians, Paul applies the image of “letters of recommendation” to describe those early Christians in Corinth whom he had brought to the faith. In a context in which the validity of Paul’s ministry was being challenged, he pointed to those persons with whom he had shared his vision of the Gospel as the best proof of the soundness of his preaching. The dignity of Christians then and now resides in their efforts to assimilate and practice the vision and values of Jesus. The challenge facing Christians then and now concerns the sincerity and integrity of their commitment to those ideals and values. Our readings for the Sunday before Lent provide us “food” for thought regarding how during this Lenten season we might become better and more effective letters of recommendation for our Christian faith.

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