On fasting: The difference between our preaching and our practice
A Reflection for Friday after Ash Wednesday
You can find today’s readings here.
The disciples of John approached Jesus and said, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?" Jesus answered them, "Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast." (Mt 9:14-15)
Like the readings for Ash Wednesday, today’s first reading and Gospel both seem to point to a contradiction between our preaching and our practice. On Wednesday we were told to keep our penances and almsgiving a secret, mere minutes before we had ashes smeared on our foreheads and went back to work. Today, Friday, is a day of abstinence, and yet Jesus tells John’s disciples in the Gospel to party on—there will be time for fasting later. What gives? Are the creators of the lectionary just having a laugh at our expense, or is there a lesson here to be learned?
St. Ignatius cautioned in his Spiritual Exercises that while penitents and retreatants should certainly fast and avoid their favorite foods (in fact, he’s pretty blunt about it), they should do so in moderation. Why? Because fasting should be a means to an end, not the goal in itself. We know from his letters that St. Ignatius suffered stomach troubles for much of his life, and attributed their cause at least partially to the severe fasts he undertook in the months after his conversion; he realized after that first fervor had passed that the point is not to see how much one can suffer—the point is to develop a practice of mortification so that one might grow closer to God.
In St. Ignatius’ insight, I think, lies the secret to fasting and abstinence in a spiritual sense: They should be neither self-torture (I’m eating nothing today!) nor an exercise in legalism (I can’t have meat today; time for some lobster bisque!). Rather, it should be a private sacrifice that reminds us to keep our eyes on the prize, and to develop a habit of reminding ourselves of our ultimate purpose and destiny.
America’s literary editor in the 1950s, Harold Gardiner, S.J., was a Cambridge-educated polymath who was personal friends with Flannery O’Connor. He was also by all accounts a holy terror with pen and ink, demolishing inferior writers and tangling with famous ones (he didn’t care for John Steinbeck or Frederick Buechner, among others). While reading some of his reviews, I came across his feelings on exactly the subject of fasting in Lent:
The ultimate goal and purpose of Lent is not penitential. To be sure, Lent means or connotes penance. It entails a certain amount of abstaining from food and drink. It suggests some curtailment of other normal pleasures. Its vestments and liturgy are keyed to the tone and color of sorrow and compunction. But the fruit of all the Lenten observances is not the spirit and practice of abnegation in itself. Such spirit and practice are but means to an end, and the end is a deepening spirit of union with Christ in His passion and death, of union with Him in the period of His earthly life when He, the source of all holiness, merited superabundantly the graces which would sanctify the Church, His mystical body, and us, its members. The ultimate goal and purpose of Lent is not precisely penitence but holiness.
It sounds like Jesus is telling John’s disciples in today’s Gospel that they don’t need to fast. But what if what he means is that all their fasting was simply training for their encounter with him? In the same sense, our meatless Fridays and Lenten sacrifices needn’t be exercises in grim rule-following, but chances to prepare ourselves to meet the bridegroom someday ourselves.
Get to know James T. Keane, senior editor
What are you giving up for Lent? I was always instructed as a kid never to tell anyone my Lenten sacrifice, otherwise I wouldn’t receive any grace from it. Looking back on it, this was a very efficient way to prevent people from bragging about their sacrifices.
Do you cheat on Sundays? I had a friend many years ago who gave up alcohol for Lent. When I saw him on a Saturday night with a beer, he said to me, “It’s past sundown on Saturday, which means liturgically it’s Sunday, and Sundays don’t count as Lent.” While I admired the complex and nuanced reasoning, it also occurred to me that we had essentially lost any sense of sacrifice at that point.
Favorite Easter photo/memory
For many years when I lived in the Bronx, I hosted my sister and her family for Easter Sunday dinner. I always set up an Easter Egg hunt for my niece and nephew from Jersey, telling them that the apartment had been visited during the night not by the Easter Bunny, but by the Easter Tiger. “That makes no sense,” I was told, “Tigers don’t lay eggs.” “Nor do bunnies,” I replied. The Easter Tiger still comes every year, though one of the participants in the hunt is now taller than I. (You can see a photo below.)