08 February 2008

Mourning and weeping and fasting...

Friday after Ash Wednesday: Isa 58.1-9 and Matt 9.14-15
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation

Maybe just an innocent question about spiritual practices, or maybe a “gotcha” question to prove Jesus a fraud, the question asked of Jesus by John’s disciple—why do we and the Pharisees fast, Jesus, but your disciples do not fast?—this question gets answered in a rather weird way. Jesus said, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” In other words, as long as Jesus the Bridegroom is with the wedding party, no one need mourn. What is the connection he’s making between fasting and his absence/presence? And what sort of fasting best honors Jesus’ “absence” until the eschaton?

I’ve heard it preached—not seriously, of course—that John’s disciples had grown weary of locust and honey and wanted to make a change to Team Jesus! All that fasting in the desert with God’s Bear was taking its culinary toll on their already unsettled stomachs. The question about why Jesus’ followers weren’t fasting while everyone else was fasting looks suspiciously opportunistic—both for those who might want to jump the Baptist’s strict ship for Jesus’ apparently more relaxed cruise liner, and for those who wanted to trap Jesus and see him taken off the preaching circuit a la execution. But the straightforward answer both groups were expecting to hear wasn’t spoken. Maybe they wanted to hear that the law of fasting had been revoked, or maybe that fasting this year was to be minimal. What they heard is that there is something about mourning the dead and fasting that go hand in hand.

It would be too simple to say that we fast to mourn the dead. We do, of course, but is this the point Jesus is making to John’s inquisitive and strangely hopeful disciple? No. The better question is: what do we do when we mourn; I mean, what is mourning that makes sense of fasting? Mourning is what we call the dulling pain of absence, the emptying out of one’s heart and spirit; mourning is the wail of a swiftly approaching reckoning, a brief, manic moment after a death to collect, solidify, and canonize a memory and then to witness that gathered-up portrait dissolve under the steady rain of consoling tears and begin to collect again in another entirely true (if wholly inadequate) picture of the dead. Mourning is the survivors’ reckoning of a life in friendship and love; it is an unswerving path to both remembering and forgetting. Mourning is what we do when we lose what we have been freely given: the gift of love in another.

If mourning leads us down the doubled path of remembering and forgetting, how does fasting follow so easily? What do we do when we fast? In the simplest terms, fasting is about removal, taking away from, moving out and leaving; fasting is about naming what is routinely Me, constantly Me, and waving to it “goodbye.” If we must “call to mind” and “pour out of mind” a love that can grow no more—a dead love, a departed eros—we fast in order to give our bodies to the public liturgy of remembering what we had in love and forgetting what cannot now be, the future of that love.

Jesus’ disciples cannot fast because they cannot mourn. Jesus is not yet dead. And at his death, they will mourn. Like anyone who has lost love in death, they will mourn, and how will they fast? Isaiah witnesses the Lord saying, “Would that today you might fast so as to make your voice heard on high!. . .This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!”

And there will be mourning no more. . .

Pic: Mourning

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