The Pharisees and their scribes said to Jesus, ‘John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink.’ Jesus said to them, ‘You cannot make wedding-guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.’
He also told them a parable: ‘No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, “The old is good.”’
What do you understand by the word ‘fasting’? For most of us it is a word associated with abstinence from food and drink for a specific period of time. The notion of fasting (giving something up) for Lent is well-known to many. But, have you ever considered what lies behind this notion of self-imposed abstinence?
I once heard a Bishop preach on Ash Wednesday. At that service he made it clear that fasting (or ‘giving something up for Lent’) is not a diet plan, and neither is fasting meant to be viewed as some form of penance or as a way of attaining some special level of favour with God. Instead, fasting is a period of self-deprivation that should humble us and help us to draw closer to God.
Today’s reading opens with Jesus being challenged because his disciples were not making a great show of fasting, like the disciples of the Pharisees. Jesus’ response is not one of self-justification and apology. Instead he says: You cannot make the wedding-guests fast while the bridegroom is with them. This may seem something of a non-sequitur, but it isn’t really. The notion of the Son of God being the bridegroom and those who believe in him being both bride and wedding-guests is a recurrent theme in scripture. As Jesus walked the earth it was appropriate for those who journeyed with him to celebrate, just like guests at a wedding banquet. The time for fasting would come later.
Too often down the centuries the Church has been seen as a place associated with penance and forbearance, rather than joy and celebration. Such a negative attitude contradicts our calling to celebrate our faith in Christ and to share that joy with others. If we enter most churches, we will experience a sense of peace, a sense of the accumulated prayers of centuries and the presence of God. In the same way, when we enter those same churches with regular worshippers, the peace, prayers and real sense of the presence of God are dissipated by the expectations and practices which suddenly envelop us. The sense of fasting overwhelms us, replacing the sense of joy we should be experiencing.
Jesus is the bridegroom and we, as faithful Christians, are called to be the wedding-guests whose joy knows no bounds. There are times when we need to remind ourselves of the reality of God’s presence, and fasting can be a useful vehicle for achieving that sense of restored balance. Otherwise, it is our calling and our duty to share the sheer joy of our faith with others.
Let us pray that, through prayer and fasting, we might learn to put our human certainties and wisdom to one side and draw ever closer to God. Let us also pray that, as we listen to God speaking to us, we might respond to his call to make our fasting a matter of private devotion in order that those with whom we come into contact may see the many benefits of saying ‘Yes’ to God’s invitation to join the party.