Mark 8.34 - If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.

Author: 
Fr Alec
Date: 
Sunday, March 1, 2015 - 9:30am

 

Fasting. The word itself sounds rather old fashioned. It conjures up, perhaps, an image of monks starving themselves in cells, or punishing themselves with hair shirts, which quite properly belongs to history. Nevertheless, the discipline of self-denial – holding back from ourselves some of the things we enjoy - is part and parcel of the season of Lent, and it is useful to ask ourselves why.

 

 I often hear it said:

 

‘I’m not going to give something up this Lent, I’m going to take something up instead.’

 

Now, unless we are very careful, this can sound like a veiled justification for doing pretty much nothing at all, or at best taking the opportunity for a bout of well-intentioned self-improvement: More reading perhaps, or a regime of exercise.

 

More than this, however, it seems to ignore the central thrust of Lent as a time of self-denial, of prayer and fasting. To say that you are taking something up is not a bad thing, in many ways it is very good, particularly if what we take up is a discipline of prayer or the study of scripture. But it does misunderstand what the discipline of abstinence that the Church has traditionally exercised during Lent is all about.

 

The fasting season of Lent is principally preparatory. We are getting ourselves ready. Ready for Easter, yes, but also ready for the resurrected life of Christ that it celebrates.

 

To fast is to admit that there are two opposed ways of seeing the world: We can see the things in life that we value either as Icons to be cherished or as Idols to be worshipped (a distinction we have been talking about in our Pilgrim Course).

Anything in life can be an icon for us – it can point us towards the glory of God, and make us grateful for the gifts he gives us. All too easily, though, these things can become idols – things that we worship in their own right, allowing them to become a barrier between us and God, rather than a link.

 

The obvious example of this is money. Money itself is neutral. We can either value it as a God-given force for good, donating it to hospitals and orphanages, or we can make an idol of it, and hoard it for our own selfish purposes.

 

Perhaps a less obvious example is a church. As an icon its beauty of proportion, its stillness and peace point us towards God, and offer a refuge for prayer from the noise and busyness of life. Yet the bricks and mortar can quickly become an Idol worshipped and preserved at cost to the true mission of God’s people.

 

Before Jesus began his public ministry, the Spirit cast him out into the wilderness. It was in his hunger and weariness and powerlessness that he discerned his purpose, and the message that he was to proclaim. Likewise, we learn our dependence on God through denying ourselves some of the gifts he shares with us. Their very absence is a reminder that they are gifts, and not things to which we automatically have a right. There is nothing like missing lunch to make us thankful for dinner. Nothing like being locked out of our home to make us grateful for the roof over our heads.

 

A fast also helps to develop self-discipline. Life is full of trials and temptations which require will-power to overcome. Will-power is like a muscle that needs regular exercise. When we find that we can do without coffee, or chocolate, or TV, perhaps we realise that we can also manage without gossip, bickering or vengefulness.

 

Yet for all this, we should not allow ourselves to become too proud of our fasting. We know well enough that abstaining from good things is not equivalent to putting coins in our heavenly piggy bank. Above all, fasting is an important, sometimes an essential companion to prayer. These are the words of Father Matthew the Poor, an Egyptian monk:

 

‘Fasting by itself is not a virtue. It is nothing at all. Without prayer, it is bodily punishment that induces spiritual aridity and bad temper. The same is true of prayer; without fasting, it loses its power along with its fruits.

‘We may liken fasting to a burning coal, and prayer to frankincense. Neither has value without the other, but together, the sweet savour of the incense fills the air.’

 

It is no coincidence that the discipline of Lent has waned at much the same time as the Church has ceased to give direction about what and how much we should give up. Lent, if you like, was a rule- a rule that we had to keep, and in quite a profound way we need rules and disciplines and laws to keep us on the straight and narrow. A game is only fun, indeed a game is only a game, if we stick to the rules. Likewise it would be unthinkable to dispense with the laws that keep society in order, because it is largely by them and through them that we judge what is and is not acceptable conduct.

 

But as Paul points out in the Epistle to the Romans, Law that is only Law in its own right, that is slavishly obeyed without thought or question rather than fulfilled through grace and love, is a dry, even a dangerous thing. We might say that we had made it an idol

 

 If we are going to renew ourselves this Lent, and make ourselves temples fit for Christ to enter, then our fasting this Lent has to be more than an empty ritual. It must be a work both seeking and flowing from a lively faith.

 

We must seek to rediscover Lent, and to rediscover what it is to fast. If we wish to be followers of Christ, we must learn to follow him out into the wilderness and to share in his self-denial and temptation. We must remember that this was the way in which Christ chose to begin his ministry; that fasting and prayer are preparatory to anything else we might do. And, of course, we must remember that when Jesus spoke of self-denial, the only thing he commanded us to take up was a cross.