Fasting helps move us into God’s presence
Faith must be bodily as well as spiritual, and by fasting in preparation for Christmas — the Feast of the Incarnation — the soul is given the chance to soar. Peter Martin reflects.
By Peter Martin
September 17 2015Advent is a time of preparation and an opportunity to be more intentional and focused in our spiritual life. Although fasting is a practice Jesus assumed his followers would undertake there has always been some ambivalence towards it. St Paul was not impressed with extreme ascetic practices but at the same time he noted of himself that “I punish my body and enslave it so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified”. Paul was very clear that the spiritual journey has its challenges and that some of those challenges are very close to home, in our members — in our bodies. Even though the law of the Spirit has overcome the law of sin and death, in our members the law of sin and death still has a certain sway, “the melody lingers on” and “old habits die hard”.
We have forgotten this important aspect of Paul’s teaching and have tended to leave the body behind in our spiritual practices. This can happen when faith comes to be seen predominantly as a matter of thinking the right thoughts and believing the right propositions. In reality, faith is a whole of life journey and must have a psychosomatic (that is, a soulful and bodily) dimension. Fasting engages this dimension.
This cautious attitude to fasting comes through in the tradition as well. John Cassian, in adapting and establishing eastern monastic practices in Gaul in the fifth century, advised against the extreme practices he had witnessed in the East. Fasting was not a virtue, he said; if it was a virtue then not fasting would be a vice. In fact, fasting was not absolutely necessary for spiritual growth. All the same, it was a valuable spiritual exercise and, importantly, expected by Jesus of his followers.
Jesus gives us the “how” of fasting in Matthew chapter 6 and in chapter 9 he gives us the “why”. Here I will focus on the latter:
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding-guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.
So, the Bridegroom has been taken away from us, now ascended into heaven, and we await his return as judge and, without delay, we must prepare for his coming. Collectively and individually we acknowledge with sadness that as Christ’s bride we have not achieved the fullness of beauty that is befitting the bride for her Bridegroom.
There is still a degree of inner ugliness that needs working on:
So as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5.27)
A note here on collective spiritual practice. In our highly individualistic culture we need to remind ourselves that there is no contradiction between individual spiritual practice which is hidden and seeks no audience or reward (Matt 6) and sharing in a season of preparation as a community. Collectively observing the season of Advent in our parish is a reminder that God gathers a pilgrim people and journeys with them in community and is not simply interested in plucking individuals into heaven.
Fasting is not an exercise in self-improvement and it is not a way of generating grace for ourselves. Fasting is simply a way of placing ourselves in the presence of God and inviting God to continue his gracious work of bringing us to our full beauty. To use an image from John’s gospel: we are branches abiding in the vine who is Christ, and we are pruned so as to bear fruit. When we fast we are not pruning ourselves, we are simply offering and presenting to the Lord ourselves, our souls and bodies for the ongoing and thoroughgoing transformation required if we are to be properly clothed for the wedding banquet.
Because sin has impacted so deeply in the visceral foundations of our being, it is a deep work indeed that needs doing and ultimately a work that only God can do.
The image of new and old cloth put alongside the image of the gathering for the wedding banquet is a good fit and resonates with other passages from scripture, such as:
Can a girl forget her ornaments,
or a bride her attire?
Yet my people have forgotten me,
days without number.
It is unthinkable that a bride who wants to look her most radiant on her wedding day and has taken great care in ensuring her beauty is to the fore, would forget her specially chosen attire. And so it is with us as we prepare our wedding garment for the marriage supper of the lamb.
The new cloth of this wedding garment cannot be joined to the old. We cannot be clothed with the new garment required for entry to the banqueting table of the Bridegroom if we haven’t fully divested ourselves of the old.
Fasting has to introduce a degree of discomfort and tension in our day-to-day existence — upsetting our sense of normality and at-home-ness in this world (the spiritual practice of pilgrimage has a similar effect). From just what we will fast varies from person to person. As well as contributing to our day to day sense of well-being it could also be something that we use as a cushion or buffer against elements of our inwardness that we know one day we will have to attend to.
Let’s take wine an example of what we might fast from. For the person who enjoys drinking wine this could very well be the thing to give up. Saying “no” to something which in itself is good. So good in fact that from time to time we have a little too much (as a cushion or buffer — see above)! The fasting person says “no” to wine in order to say “yes” to the work of the Spirit in their life. It could equally be food, use of social media, retail therapy, sleep, caffeine, chocolate — the list is endless. With a little prayerful reflection it doesn’t take long to work out one’s fasting regimen for the current season. It is important that we are not too ambitious. The effectiveness of the fast is not a function of the heroic proportions of what we take on but the quality of our mindfulness as we cooperate with God’s grace along with our perseverance in maintaining the fast. It is a gentle perseverance in that we should always allow the demands of love and hospitality to override our fasting regimen.
In our annual liturgical round a season of fasting is always followed by a Feast along with a season of celebration. This shift in mode is akin to what is experienced in a fine piece of music. One movement will take the listener into a complex emotional landscape marked by subtle stresses and tensions that deepen and compound as the movement progresses. When, in the next movement, these are resolved, the soul soars. And so it is with Advent. The inner tensions and stresses generated by our Advent observance are wonderfully resolved when we come to the Feast of the Incarnation — God with us. Because, by God’s grace, there has been deep transformation in our hearts, we land in this landscape as though for the first time and our soul soars.
The Revd Peter Martin is vicar of St James’ Point Lonsdale.