An earlier post quoted Fr Robert Taft, SJ, as writing that we fast as individuals, but also as a church: “Lent presents the polarity of wait and arrival, history and eschatology, and this is seen in the fasting and liturgy of Lent.” In the March 6 America, Fr Thomas Ryan, CSP, who coordinates ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Paulists, points out three major themes in the history and practice of Christian fasting: “mystical longing for fulfillment, liberation through discipline, and the relationship of fasting to works of charity and justice.” We’ve mainly discussed fasting as individuals and “liberation through discipline” – the ascetical aspect of fasting.
But it’s important to remember the other themes. Fr Ryan’s third theme, the relationship of fasting to works of charity and justice, is neither novel nor extraneous. He draws our attention to the 2nd century Shepherd of Hermas: “In the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that the one who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul.” Gregory the Great preached, “The one who does not give to the poor what he has saved but keeps it for later to satisfy his own appetite, does not fast for God.”
Even if you have not much cared for Cardinal Mahony’s various actions and writings up to this point, you should still read his Lenten Message for this year, which ends by asking his flock to join him in “committing our Lenten practices to making room for the stranger in our midst, praying for the courage and strength to offer our spiritual and pastoral ministry to all who come to us, offering our prayer and support for the ones in our midst who, like Jesus, have no place to rest their heads (Matthew 8:20).”
Fr Ryan’s first theme, the “mystical longing for fulfillment,” explains why we fast as a church, not just as individuals. He writes:
Jesus began his public life with a fast similar to that of Moses and Elijah: 40 days and 40 nights in a deserted place. This fact itself is significant, because Jesus taught as much by acts as by words. Yet he instituted no particular practice for his followers; in fact, once into his ministry, he “came eating and drinking,” so that some said of him, “Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard” (Luke 7:34).
On the face of it, both Jesus and Paul, while embracing the practice of fasting themselves, refrain from making it a requirement for their followers. Jesus explains this paradox in his response to a question about why his disciples don’t fast like those of John the Baptist: The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast (Matt 9:15).
Jesus’ words indicate that the way in which the reign of God is rushing into the world through his physical presence leaves room only for joy and thanksgiving. He has come as the bridegroom to establish a mystical marriage with God’s people. Before his death there was time for celebrating the nuptial promises, a time for announcing the good news: “The kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21).
But “the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” Fasting will then be a recognition of something new that is already set in motion though not yet completed: the reign of God in our midst. During this time, his faithful, in mystical union with their Lord, wait with quiet joy and busy hands in vigilant preparation and deep longing for his return and the fulfilment of his reign.
One might liken this discrete, mysterious joy to the quiet humming of a choir member earlier in the day of a concert, or to the anticipation of parents cleaning the house in preparation for the children’s return home at Thanksgiving or Christmas.