The disciples of John approached Jesus and said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? Matt: 9:15
When I was taking classes, one thing that irritated me a great deal about some of my teachers was when I would ask a question, the teacher would answer me with a question. Another irritating moment in school was when I would ask my teacher how to spell a word, and then received the reply to look it up in the dictionary. As I look back on these learning experiences, I can appreciate them now for pushing me to become an active learner, to search for answers that were not evident at first glance.
It seems to me that we need to take a closer look at this passage as we begin our Lenten journey. We began our Lent with a very clear declaration as we received our ashes on Wednesday: Repent and Believe in the Gospel. A traditional form of repentance from the beginning of our Salvation History in our Scriptures has always included fasting in one form or another. There were associations of people during the time of Jesus that included fasting weekly. The Pharisees fasted twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays; the disciples of John probably fasted weekly as well. Fasting was a sign of living a life pleasing to God as well as a sign of repentance.
At one point, the Catholic Church had many Church laws around fasting. We had a strict rule of fasting from all food and water since midnight before receiving Holy Communion up until 1953. In our Passionist seminary, we had weekly fasting, especially during lent and advent. And as we begin lent, so many of us make it a practice to fast until Easter. Many times, these are symbolic fasts, giving up candy, giving up going to the movies, or giving up our free time to do good deeds for others.
For many Catholics, especially those of us who live in first world countries, fasting from something tangible is a challenge. Many people want to turn fasting from visible behaviors to personal and psychological ones. For some, this may work, but for the vast majority of us who have tried this, it doesn’t. It is more difficult to feel the satisfaction of actually completing a tangible expression of a fast when we do something else in its stead. Those of us who have been on 5 K runs or walks know the satisfaction of crossing the finish line, even though we come in last. As we look deeply into our spiritual life, most of us will recognize how difficult it is to commit to such expressions of tangible fasting practices and address the question: why is that?
The question asked of Jesus in the passage is not from his disciples, but the disciples of John. Jesus’ response did not absolve his followers from fasting in the traditional ways of fasting during his time, but they would fast when it was their time to fast.
But Jesus was also clear, as were the prophets and mentors from Hebrew Scriptures, our practice of fasting is organically connected to living a holy life, a life that is not deceptive, dishonest or duplicitous. Fasting doesn’t absolve our sin, but rather recognizes us as a sinful person who approaches God with a contrite heart. The more that we are helped to recognize the Mercy and Love of God, especially with such practices as fasting, the more we can be assured that we are disciples of Jesus. Lent, then, is our time to fast!
Fr. Clemente Barrón, C.P. is a member of Mater Dolorosa Community in Sierra Madre, California.