21 January 2013

To fast, to mourn, to praise

St. Agnes
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

All the commentaries agree: John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are jealous. They have to fast but Jesus' disciples do not. Emboldened by their envy, the fasting disciples ask the Lord, “Why don't your disciples fast?” You see, it's a competition for them. A race to righteousness. Who can fast the longest? Pray the loudest? Give more alms? Apparently, to enter this religious competition, you must be skinny, hoarse, and broke. To win it, you must be the skinniest, the hoarsest, and the most broke. Now, we could shake our heads in pity at such nonsense, or we could give these guys the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are asking a serious question about the connection btw the spiritual practice of fasting and one's growth in righteousness. How are Jesus' disciples managing to grow in righteousness w/o fasting? Jesus' response seems confused: “I'm still with them. They'll fast when I'm gone.” Why does his absence/presence make any difference in the effectiveness of his disciples' fasting? Jesus gives us a clue: he's the bridegroom, thus making the Church his bride. So long as the bride and groom are together, the feast goes on and fasting can wait its turn. 

Jesus knows—and now the disciples know—that he won't be with them for much longer. The groom will leave his new bride a widow. So, the time for fasting is fast approaching. What does it say about the nature and purpose of Christian fasting then that it must wait for the death of Jesus to begin? What do we do when someone we love dies? We mourn, we grieve. Their absence from our lives hurts, and we mark this pain by adding to it the pangs of hunger, of longing and desire. The hungrier we are at the end of our mourning, the more eager we are to celebrate the bounty of the next feast. Since the next feast for us is the Feast of Heaven, we fast here on earth to mark, to mourn the death of Jesus just as his earliest disciples did. But we also eat and drink to celebrate his resurrection from the tomb and ascension into heaven. One day we feast, another day we fast. So we might say that our growth in holiness toward perfection is a life-long cycle of feasting and fasting, marking, as Christ himself did, his time among us and his all-too-soon passing away. Think of the Eucharist: we fast before feasting, mourning for a little while before rejoicing that he is among us once again! 

Fasting—tempering our appetites—is a discipline, a disciple's routine for teaching, for training the heart and mind to remember, to recall over and over again what it means to be humble before the loving-care of a loving God. Constant feasting can feed pride: I have enough, more than enough, and I want more b/c I deserve it. Constant fasting can feed pride as well, the pride of false humility: I am deprived, more than deprived; I am so small, inferior, insignificant that I don't warrant God's attention. We can discipline our appetites to the point where we are no longer seeking and receiving from God all that He wills to give us. How can you grow without being fed? How can you participate in the mission of Christ if you cannot believe that you have been made worthy to receive your inheritance? Long practice and many wise men and women have taught the Church the wisdom of fasting and feasting, never just one or the other, but both together, always together. And whether you are feasting or fasting, make certain that at the center of your mourning or your celebrating is gratitude. Feasting without thanksgiving is just eating. Fasting without praising God for His blessings is just dieting. 

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  1. Something I thoroughly enjoyed about this homily was the second paragraph. You put just a slightly different spin on fasting, taking my understanding and appreciation to a different level. One of those "aha" moments which I was skirting just the edge of on my own, but you nudged me over into better and more complete understanding.

    Final paragraph was great - especially liked the first sentence. And then you continued with many things I had not thought of in that way. Expanding my mind! Last two sentences were a perfect ending, down to earth and practical (assuming a minor typo in the penultimate sentence).

    Wonderful! Thank you.

    1. Yea, I just put that in there to sure HA readers were paying attention. . .ahem. . .