Required fasting is almost non-existent in the Catholic Church today. Even the two days where fasting is required for those over 18 and under 60, it is really a mitigated fast of two small “snack-like” meals and one regular sized meal (no snacks in between now!). Not really a fast at all. A truer fast (going without food for the whole day) is practiced by some today as a personal discipline and it is laudable if a person is able.
Yet, even the mitigated fast is “hard” for many as are most bodily disciplines in our soft western world. We may think we just have to learn to be “tougher” and, by the power of our own flesh pull it off. I have no doubt that simple will power can in fact pull off a fast, especially the mitigated one. But even a non-believer can diet and fast. What we must seek is true fasting, spiritual fasting that is far richer than merely abstaining from food.
In today’s Gospel Jesus gives an important key to true spiritual fasting. Let’s read:
The disciples of John [the Baptist] 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.” (Matt 9:14-15)
Notice the pattern. First comes the (wedding) feast, then comes the fast. What does this mean? Well, consider the wedding feasts of Jesus’ time. They often went on for several days, even a week. During this time there was food, feasting, family, fellowship, and did I mention food? Lots of it, with wine too! It was a time of satiation. But eventually this time of feasting ended and by that time, people were filled. They’d had enough food for a while and now fasting of a sort made sense, it happened naturally without a lot of effort. What does this teach us and why does Jesus use this image regarding fasting?
Simply put, if you want to have the capacity to fast spiritually and truly you have to experience the wedding feast of the Lamb of God. In this great wedding feast which we are to experience through prayer, scripture and especially the Liturgy we are to be filled with Christ. We are to encounter him and feast abundantly on his Word, his Body and Blood and to rejoice with him exceedingly. And when this happens we are authentically equipped to fast.
At some point the “groom is taken” from us. That is to say, the Mass ends and we’re back to dealing with the world and its demands. Or perhaps we enter a penitential season, or perhaps we go through a difficult time where God seems distant or we struggle with temptation. Now a fast of sorts is before us. But we are able to do so and are spiritually equipped to do it since we have been to the Wedding feast and feasted with the groom. Having done this the world and its charms mean less. We are filled with Christ now and we simply need less of the world. This is true fasting.
But let me ask you, Have you met Christ and been to the wedding feast with him? One of the sad realities in parish life and in the Church is that there are many people who have never really met Jesus Christ. They have heard about him and know about him, but they’ve never really encountered him powerfully in prayer or the Mass. They are faithful to be sure. They are sacramentalized but unevangelized. They know about Jesus, but they don’t know him. The liturgy to them can be, and often is, lifeless, a ritual to be endured rather than an encounter with Jesus Christ. Instead of being at a wedding feast, the Mass is more like a visit to the doctor’s office. The majority of the Mass for them is a “waiting room” experience. Finally, up to get the medicine (Holy Communion) which is great because now it means the Mass is almost over! Personal prayer isn’t much better. Another ritual, say some prayers, and be done with it. God is really more of a stranger and fasting is just another rule to follow more out of obedience to avoid punishment than out of love which seeks purification.
The disciples of John seem to have been of this sort. They were tough and self-disciplined. They knew how to fast! But it was a fasting of the flesh not the spirit. The only way to truly fast in a spiritual way is to have been to the wedding feast and feasted with the Jesus the great bridegroom of the Church. Then having been filled with every good adn perfect gift true fasting can begin.
And what is true fasting? It is a fasting that no longer needs what the world offers in large amounts. We need less of the world for we have found a better prize: Jesus and his Kingdom. Who needs all that food, booze, power, money, baubles, bangles and beads? In the words of an old song: “I’d rather have Jesus than silver and gold. You may have all this world! Just give me Jesus! “
We can only say this if we have really met the Lord and been satisfied by him. Only then can true fasting ensue. As you my expect, meeting Jesus is more than an event. It is a gradual and deepening awareness of him and his power in my life and in the liturgy. Make sure you don’t miss the wedding feast for it is the key to the truest fasting of all.