What are you giving up for Lent?
I’ll admit up front that I’m not fond of that question – for reasons you will be glad to know that you’ll hear! – but I hope you’ll admit it is the sort of question people ask. Sometimes they also tend to answer something along the lines: ‘Nothing, I’m taking on something-or-other.’ Perhaps with the addition of ‘I don’t believe in fasting.’
I doubt I was invited to the pulpit as a controversialist – you’ll have to ask the Rector why I was invited at all – so I won’t say anything more about that than that Moses fasted, Elijah fasted, Daniel fasted, Esther fasted, Ezra fasted, Jesus fasted, the apostles fasted, the Fathers fasted, and the Church fasts.
It’s also clear that fasting in all of these cases is an abstinence from food, with abstinence from drink of various kinds more variable. It is a discipline of the body more than a discipline of habit, and it is a mortification. Fasting from food isn’t worthwhile because food is bad for us, or even because it’s bad for us to be dependent on it (take, say, BBC Question Time as an example of the first; caffeine or sugar, perhaps, of the second). It’s not even worthwhile because food can be a luxury. Fasting is worthwhile because food is a genuine good. In abstaining from it, our everyday earthly lives are, in a real sense, less good than they would be otherwise.
So that takes us to a good question: why fast? Why give up something acknowledged as a good, precisely because it is a good?
And to that I am going to suggest three answers. First, and least importantly, fasting tells us something about who we are. Second, and much more importantly, fasting tells us something about who Jesus is. Finally, and incomparably more important again, fasting joins us to Jesus. It joins us to him in a way that reflects who we are and who He is, in a way that teaches us everything that Lent can teach us, and that points us, like Lent as a whole, to the truth of his triumph on Easter Sunday.
So what can fasting tell us about ourselves? Not something new, I don’t think. Not something which, if we pay attention to it, we don’t know deep in our bones and feel in the air every day. We’re not in the Garden any more. Those first stories of Genesis are deep and mysterious. God has taught great saints great things by them. For Augustine, whom we might sometimes think of a literalist amongst the Fathers of the Church, the multitude of meanings implanted in the narrative was a natural and harmonious effect of God’s inspiration: how could the divine Author who is active in his words and speaks in his actions fail in giving an account of his creation of the world to give ever greater worlds of meaning in which his servants might explore and marvel? I won’t try today to prune down to a single meaning a text where God has sown so many. I only want to suggest, however we read, Genesis is a story of our dislocation, a lostness not only in place but in ourselves, in our minds and hearts and our blood and bones. Surely Eden is our true home? Surely all would be well, if we could just get back there? Back before the skins and loincloths – back to innocence, back to purity, back to the simplicity which is forever precluded by the complex failures and founderings of our bodies, the weakness and inconstancy of our souls.
And what has this to do with fasting? Much of our lives, certainly much of what we might call our economic activity, and not inappreciable aspects of our social world, are made up of attempts to hide the truth of Genesis from view. Really, by the development of the peoples, by the maintenance of civilization, by progressive politics, by freedom of the market, by the advance of medicine, by the exaltation of culture, we can overcome the nakedness of our bodies and the shame of our souls, conjoined in a chafing union, given from we know not whence, destined we know not whither, ashes returning ashes, dust bound for dust.
Fasting, in the world we live in, reminds us that our bodies and minds are fragile and mortal, dependent on a world which is only by great artifice and no little injustice made as comfortable and conformable to us as it is. Even a little hunger, one of the most basic of feelings – one of the most primal of fears – has the power to show us the vulnerability of our bodies and minds, the reality of death as a power in this land of wandering east of Eden. In Paradise, all of the trees were good to eat. How could Adam go hungry? How could Eve feel a lack? But we are out of the garden, and there’s no retracing our steps. So fasting, if we receive it as a lesson and listen to what it has to teach, tells us something about ourselves, about our limitation and mortality, and this is something worth hearing.
Perhaps it is, though, in this sense, something for the young. Let us draw a veil over the question of how many in this congregation will be cheered to hear that, under the old rules, the over-60s were exempt from the compulsory Lenten fast.
So if fasting tells us, again, unmistakeably, that we are fallen creatures living in a fallen world, that our home is far distant and all our goods are fragile, what does it tell us about Jesus? Here, we need to look at Jesus’ fast.
St Matthew tells us that when Jesus had fasted forty days and forty nights He was tempted by the devil. In fact, after the great opening of heaven at the baptism of the Lord, when the voice of the Father and the Spirit descending as the dove show the Son out in public amongst us – God on manoeuvres, God on campaign – the evangelist says that the Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness in order to be tempted by Satan. But before that tempting, Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights. Was this really a bright idea on the Spirit’s part? Did fasting make Jesus weaker in this combat with the power of darkness and the Lord of this World?
Satan certainly seems to think so. By the end, of course, he brings out the big guns and offers world power in exchange for the worship of evil, but to begin with he seems to think he can get by on ‘You seem to be the sort of Son of God who can produce pitta bread from pegmatite: how about it?’ ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.’ Jesus’ response tells us a great deal about just what sort of Son of God He is.
‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”’
Satan begins his question with that keening, oleaginous ‘if’: ‘If you are the Son of God…’ How like the ‘Did God reallysay…’ of Genesis! But Jesus does not even argue. His reply, and the whole context of His reply – wilderness, fast, and hunger, declare that He is the Son of God and what it means to be the Son of God.
His strength is not in his power. He is not revealed as the Son because He can make bread out of rocks, nor even because He could make children of Abraham out of rocks if he willed it. He is shown, He is pronounced to be God’s Son, the Beloved, because He loves the words of the Lord, the commission of His Father, before even the stuff of life. This, I think, is one reason why He meets Satan fasting. His victory is not in power but in weakness – famished and harrowed. His life is not in glory but in obscurity, danger, and, before the end, disgrace. He suffers for us and is tempted for us, and the suffering is for our healing and the tempting for our strengthening. And so His fasting is for us too, to save us and to teach us.
The fasting of the Lord tells us that His weakness is his strength, His defeat is His victory, His life a death and His death a life – and all for us. We will know this more readily if we do a little fasting, a little of that half-dying for ourselves.
So fasting shows us our own weakness, and it shows that Jesus’ weakness is His strength. And now we turn to the greater thing, that fasting joins our weakness to Jesus’ weakness, and makes His strength ours.
At the beginning of this sermon I said that the right question to ask was, why fast? And none too subtly, I suggested that, whatever else might be the case, ‘Jesus did and the Church does’ was all the answer required. And it is. Because we are not a collection of people brought together to find out more about ourselves, or do useful works, or even find out more about God. We are members – limbs and organs – of the Church, baptized into Christ, not just with Him but within Him, joined to Him through His dying and through His rising. Fasting, we noted, means forgoing not just ersatz goods – the devices and desires of our own hearts, the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil – but real goods, food and drink, the bread which is the stuff of life. But because we are in the Church we are already joined to Christ who gives us life by taking us into His death. Our mortification for Him is His vivification of us. As we enter into the little death of fasting, we are joined more closely to the death which put out the sun and shook the earth. As we forego our life, we are joined more closely to the life that rose from the tomb and lives forever to intercede for us in the heavenly places. ‘Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous!’ ‘Blessed is he whose unrighteousness is forgiven: and whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth no sin: and in whose spirit there is no guile. Be glad, O ye righteous, and rejoice in the Lord: and be joyful, all ye that are true of heart!’
But we must fast for Him and in Him. And so a moment of practicality and of warning – no legalism: the laws of the Church are good, and we do well to keep them for the sake of our Lord, who is the Church’s Lord. But if we do not always fast for Christ and in Christ we will lose our way and become those nagging Pharisees who wag their fingers at the disciples rejoicing in the presence of the bridegroom. And no false uniformity. We’ve heard the rather generous ruling that over-60s are exempt! Not all should fast and not all should fast in the same way. In days gone by the parish priest would apply to his flock the medicines needed each by each. We have a parish priest, and we have a very good one.
So we must fast for Him and in Him. Fasting in the Church, with and for the Lord, we give up food to gain Christ. Jesus Christ, the founder, the substance, the pattern, the perfecter of our faith. We fast with Him and fast into Him, into His fasting and into His death; and all we give up, for Lent, for ever, He gives back ten-, sixty-, a-hundred-fold! And highest of all, He who calls us to forego the food of the earth gives Himself back to us not just in any way, but returns His very own self, His body and blood, broken and out-poured, to be on the altar our heavenly food.
For that and all His gifts, thanks be to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.