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FASTING A MEANS TO CHRISTIAN PERFECTION.
ST. MATTHEW iv. 2. " When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He was afterward
The fasting of our Lord is one of those mysteries by which the Church in her solemn Litany pleads to be delivered from the power of sin. “By Thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation, good Lord, deliver us.”
Like the mystery of His holy Incarnation, of which it is a consequence, it must be far beyond our understanding. It seems strange that the Holy One should fast; that He who was without sin should use a sinner's discipline. We feel hardly to know what we may say of it. Thus much is certain, as the Church teaches us to say, that His forty days' fast was 66 for our
sakes.' It was for us sinners that He was incarnate and born; that He submitted to the conditions of humanity; that He took natural sleep and food; and so likewise that He watched and fasted.
Again: it was as a part of His humiliation for us. As He took our nature, so He put Himself in our stead. He took the condition of a sinner; He “was made under the law,” as one condemned by it; was circumcised, as one
that needed mortification of the flesh; was baptized with the baptism of repentance, as one that needed forgiveness ; even so He fasted, as one that needed the self-chastisement of a penitent. It was the humiliation of the Holy One to undergo all that is the due reward of sinners.
And again : He fasted for our imitation; not, indeed, in the length and intensity of His miraculous abstinence, but according to the measures of our nature. His example has all the force of a command. Though there were no precept of fasting in the New Testament, yet this prominent act of our Great Master, the true pattern of a devout and holy life, would be enough. In this, likewise, it is most true that “the disciple is not above his Master, neither the servant above his Lord.” We may be sure that there are virtues and an efficacy in the discipline of fasting known only to Him who “knew what is in man.” It is related, in some deeper way than we understand, to the realities of our spiritual warfare, to the actings of our spiritual life, and to the substance of our natural being. Whether we can see all the reasons of it or no, we may rest assured that by His own example He has, in the most emphatic way, prescribed fasting to us; that no one who desires to advance in a devout life will venture to disregard the practice; and that none but they who dare to slight the example of our blessed Lord will venture to speak lightly of the duty.
I say this, because worldly, self-confident, and lightminded people, not knowing of what they speak, are wont to justify their own shallow and self-sparing religion by sinful levities on this most sacred duty. Let them beware of what they are saying. Either our Lord's life is our example, or it is not. Let them choose which they will, and abide by the consequences. To those for whom His life is no example, His death is no atonement; to those to
whom His example is a law, the practice of fasting is a - duty.
Fasting is the act of abstaining either wholly or in part from natural food, and that for a longer or for a shorter time, either at the precept of the Church, or by our own voluntary self-discipline. The principle on which it is founded may be stated thus: that as there is a religious use of food, so there is a religious abstinence froin it. To this it is commonly objected, that it is a matter wholly indifferent, external, inefficacious; that it savors of formality, false confidence, and dark views of our justification; and that it is all but expressly condemned in holy Scripture. It is asked, Who fasted more than the Pharisees, and what were they? What can be plainer than St. Paul's words? “ The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost."*
66 Meat commendeth us not to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, neither if we eat not are we the worse.”+
Now, rather than answer these objections in detail, it will be better to establish one or two plain truths, on the proof of which these objections must fall to the ground. And in so doing, it may be well not to quote the examples of saints, as Moses, David, Daniel, Anna, St. Peter, St. Paul, and of the early Church; though this, it might be thought, would be enough for any faithful or reverent mind; nor to bring direct texts, such as “ When ye fast, be not as the hypocrites ;" I or, “ Can the children of the bridechamber fast while the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days: "$ because such modes of proof, (sufficient as they are,)
Rom. xiv. 17.
+ 1 Cor. viii. 8.
generally end in a question how far examples are binding, or precepts still in force, and the like.
It will be better simply to take the objector on his own ground, and to show, first, that fasting without a pure, or at least a penitent, heart, is useless, or even worse ; next, that fasting is a means to attain both penitence and purity; and, lastly, that without fasting there is seldom to be found any high measure of either.
1. And first let it be said : That fasting without a pure, or at least a penitent, heart, is simply useless, and may be
This, I suppose, it is hardly necessary to prove. The objector cannot overstate it. There are no words of energy and denunciation which are not used in holy Scripture to condemn the hypocrisy of such abominable fasts. The prophets are full of them. " Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and Thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and Thou takest no knowledge ? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your
labors. Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness : ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high. Is it such a fast that I have chosen ? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sack, cloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord ? Is not this the fast that I have chosen ? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that
break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor, that are cast out, to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh ?"*
#Isa. lviii. 3-7.
Again : “ Pray not for this people for their good. When they fast, I will not hear their cry." . And again : “Speak unto all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying, When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth month, even those seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, even to me? And when
And when ye did eat, and when ye did drink, did not ye eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves ? ” + “When ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance ; for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward." “ Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also."'S “ Nut that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which coineth out of the mouth, this defileth a man.
For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: these are the things which defile a man."
There were Pharisees then in the Church of God, and there are Pharisees now; men of an ascetic outside, full of darkness and impurity within. A rigid system of formal religion often covers a thoroughly licentious state of heart. Moreover, they that fast with scrupulous rigor are sometimnes proud, uncharitable, self-complacent, or indevout, irreverent, and secular. All this is most true and fearful; but I suppose that no one ever thought that acts of fasting could cancel a habit of mental sin. Nay, they become both sins and dangers in themselves. Therefore let the very worst be said of fastings without repentance, mortification, and charity. They are mere unsanctified hunger and thirst, with self-deception.
Outward humiliation without a cor* Jer. xiv, 11, 12. t Zech. vii. 5, 6.
St. Matt. vi 16. 0 St. Matt. xxiii. 26. 1 St. Matt. xv 11, 19, 20.