Monday, February 5, 2007

Preparing for the Fast

Simon Peter, the professional fisherman knew the lake and the fish. Yet Jesus told him where and when to let down the nets. “Master…at your word…” Peter replied, and did, and was blessed with an abundance, which he left on the shore in order to follow Jesus. In today’s parlance it may be akin to someone finding a winning lottery ticket, only to give it away and join a monastery. But maybe that’s stretching it.Our Lord commands things that sometimes seem strange and foreign to us. He commands that we obey and respect our rulers, no matter how corrupt and immoral they may be. He reveals that it is more virtuous to speak little, rather than be talkative:

Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent. (Proverbs 17:27-28 ESV)

And our Lord commands us to fast. He says, “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:17-18 ESV). Fasting has always been a basic practice in the life of God’s people. While simplistic statistical analysis of word usage has always bugged me, it may be worth noting that a basic Hebrew term for fasting (sum) is used forty-seven times in the Old Testament, and nhsteuw is used twenty-one times in the New Testament. What may be most interesting is the lack of thorough discussion of it in the mosaic law, yet the practice of fasting appears throughout the Old Testament narrative–even as early as Judges 20, with the civil war led by the tribe of Benjamin.

We are to fast. It is good for us. But how? Here is a link to a convenient table, noting the fasting practice of the Western Church…in other words, this is the fast that Lutherans have followed. Do not blindly follow this practice! This may well reflect the maximum. Begin slowly, and by all means consult your pastor. Fasting is not to be a show of spiritual or physical strength and stamina, nor ought it make you proud of your accomplishment. Your pastor will give good direction in when to start and how often to practice it. If you are young, with child or nursing, ill or elderly, a strict fast may do you harm; talk to your pastor before you start.

But what if you approach your pastor and mention this to him and are rejected? That is a touchy situation. For our Lutheran Confessions say many good things about fasting:

33] Moreover, they teach that every Christian ought to train and subdue himself with bodily restraints, or bodily exercises and labors that neither satiety nor slothfulness tempt him to sin, but not that we may merit grace or make satisfaction for sins by such exercises. 34] And such external discipline ought to be urged at all times, not only on a few and set days. So Christ commands, 35] Luke 21, 34: Take heed lest your hearts 36] be overcharged with surfeiting; also Matt. 17, 21: This kind goeth not out but 37] by prayer and fasting. Paul also says, 1 Cor. 9, 27: I keep under my body and bring it into subjection. 38] Here he clearly shows that he was keeping under his body, not to merit forgiveness of sins by that discipline, but to have his body in subjection and fitted for spiritual things, and for the discharge of duty according 39] to his calling. Therefore, we do not condemn fasting in itself, but the traditions which prescribe certain days and certain meats, with peril of conscience, as though such works were a necessary service. (AC XXVI)


Although, therefore, we hold that repentance ought to bring forth good fruits for the sake of God’s glory and command, and good fruits, true fastings, true prayers, true alms, etc., have the commands of God, yet in the Holy Scriptures we nowhere find this, namely, that eternal punishments are not remitted except on account of the punishment of purgatory or canonical satisfactions, i.e., on account of certain works not due, or that the power of the keys has the command to commute their punishments or to remit a portion. These things the adversaries were to prove. [This they will not attempt.] (Ap VI)


46] And true prayers, true alms, true fastings, have God’s command; and where they have God’s command, they cannot without sin be omitted. (Ap VI)

And finally, perhaps the most well known passage in the Confessions:

Fasting and bodily preparation is, indeed, a fine outward training; but he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: Given, and shed for you, for the remission of sins. (SC VI, 10)

But note well: the last passage does not say that fasting is no use, nor does it say that one can omit fasting with no consequence. It does say that fasting alone does not prepare one well for the Eucharist; faith is required. Far too many Lutherans learn this passage in Confirmation and hear it as, “Fasting is no use at all.” On this point, the Confessions speak most pointedly, “…true fastings have God’s command, and where they have God’s command, they cannot without sin be omitted” (see above).

What is the purpose of fasting? To subdue the body. To refrain from this one thing, the easiest thing to refrain from, in order to begin to learn how to refrain from the more difficult things. For the man consumed by anger cannot easily say, “I will be less angry from now on,” nor can the man consumed by lust say, “I will check my eyes and mind and will begin to lust less and less.” These, and many others sins are stubborn and difficult. While gluttony has its own peculiar power, it is more easily tamed than the others. When your stomach growls and you feel a craving for meat, your spirit may flee to God and remember, “I hunger because I fast; I fast because I sin; Lord have mercy on me!”