Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Holy Family Catholic Church, First Saturday Mass
Even among those who should know better, the temptation to compare and contrast religious practices is great. My Friday fast is more severe than anyone else’s. I go to Mass more often than she does. He goes to confession more than I do. John’s disciples, apparently concerned about their own fasting, approach Jesus and question him about the fasting practices of his disciples. Are they worried that they are fasting unnecessarily? Or, fasting too much or too little? It’s not clear if they are criticizing Jesus’ friends or if they are simply curious about another way of growing in holiness. And though we have no way of knowing how John’s disciples reacted to Jesus’ response, we have to imagine that they were at least a little confused when Jesus answered, “Can the wedding guest mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” You can just see Jesus’ disciples, standing behind him, smiling and snickering at the answer. They themselves have heard this kind of puzzling answer from their Master a number of times! But for the uninitiated, Jesus’ bizarre question comes out of the blue. And his subsequent teaching on shrunken and unshrunken cloth, new wine and new wineskins must sound completely random. So, what is Jesus teaching?
Notice that Jesus links fasting with mourning. He says that the wedding guests, the disciples, do not mourn so long as the groom, he himself, is with them. Then he adds, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast.” Fasting then is a way to mourn those who have been taken away in death. How we can understand the connection between fasting and mourning? Think of the times you have fasted. Do you fast because you are mourning the loss of someone you love? You may stop eating while you grieve, but this is not fasting strictly speaking. Fasting is intentional; it is directed, focused, not done by accident or force. However, Jesus’ point seems to be that the inner meaning of fasting IS mourning; that is, when we fast with the proper intent and focus, we are indeed mourning. In a very subtle way, Jesus is rebuking John’s disciples for misunderstanding the purpose of their religious fast.
Like their Master, John’s disciples subject themselves to an austerity that disciplines the mind and body. The goal, of course, is spiritual purity in the pursuit of holiness. But how often do our spiritual disciplines become the measure of our holiness. In other words, we are often sorely tempted to believe that a severe discipline (fasting, prayer, etc.) mark us as spiritually superior to our neighbors, or perhaps somehow closer to God, our perfection. It is entirely possible, for example, that we have fallen away to the degree that all of our strictly observed disciplines simply bring us on par with our holier neighbor! Regardless, fasting itself is not a measure of our love for God nor is it a means of determining our purity. Fasting is mourning; fasting is one way we have to miss our Lord, one way to experience his absence from the wedding feast.
Jesus’ question to John’s disciples—“Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?”—is his way of telling them (and us) that we are to be joyful while he is among us! No one mourns during a wedding party, no one grieves while celebrating a marriage. In fact, Jesus notes, it is foolish to pour a brand new wine into an old and battered wineskin. It will break open and waste the wine. Those who rejoice at the wedding of Christ and his Church pour new wine into new skins. We are a new people filled with a new spirit. Mourning comes when we must remember Christ’s death for our salvation; however, even as we fast and mourn, we remember the feast. If your fasting is intended to keep you occupied with our loss of Jesus, then you fast for the wrong reasons. If your fasting is intended to measure your holiness against your neighbors, then you fast for the wrong reasons. Fasting prepares us for feasting. Mourning prepares us for the outpouring of the Spirit. We empty ourselves out so that our Lord may fill us up.
There is no other reason for us to remember Christ’s death than to prepare us for celebrating his resurrection and our eternal life with him. Therefore, do not give Christ a miserable spirit and expect him to pour out his joy. You will burst and be ruined.