Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 4 March 2018
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Lent 3 Sermon Theme – FASTING & SELF-DENIAL
Our Evensong sermons this Lent are exploring the spiritual practices to which the Church invites us in this season:
- Self-examination and Repentance;
- Reading and Meditating on Holy Scripture.
Tonight we come to Fasting and Self-Denial; probably least appealing of the disciplines because it involves giving up something which is both necessary and satisfying – food and drink. It entails something we can feel physically.
Perhaps the best-known fast in our time is the Muslim month of Ramadan when neither eating nor drinking is allowed during the hours of daylight; something many of us would find a bit of a challenge.
January – now known as “Dry January” – as people struggle to reverse the effects of festive over-indulgence – sees bookshop shelves groaning under the weight of the latest diet books. A couple of years ago, we were introduced to the “Five: Two” diet: five days of normal eating and two of very much reduced intake. The fact that this mimicked the Church’s traditional practice went unacknowledged and unnoticed.
When I was a boy the fishmonger’s van would come to our village every Wednesday and Friday. Though many did not realize it, these were the days on which the Church traditionally abstained from meat. The substitution of meat by fish is not strictly speaking a fast. To fast is to give up food, or at least eat a reduced quantity for a period. To give up a particular food type such as meat is called “abstinence.”
When the only fish available to those who did not have access to freshly-caught had to be heavily salted to preserve it, eating fish might seem a penitential exercise – but nowadays lunching on Sea Bass or Tuna at I Pescatori in Charlotte Street hardly qualifies as a penance.
Dieting in order to fit into that outfit which seems to have shrunk since we bought it, or to look presentable on the beach, might not seem a particularly spiritual exercise. But we should not dismiss it as just so much vanity. Our bodies are, as Paul says, “temples of the Holy Spirit,” so we have a duty to care for them properly. We are not disembodied souls but beings in which the spiritual and the material belong together and influence one another. This is a truth the spiritual traditions of fasting and abstinence recognize.
I will return to the relevance of this discipline in our culture later. But first, let’s look at its place in Christian tradition. In the time of Jesus, regular fasting was a normal part of Jewish piety and this passed into Christian life, too. In Jewish tradition, fasting was for two main purposes:
1. To express personal or communal repentance for sin; a form of humble supplication before God in the face of imminent destruction or calamity (see Joel 2, which we heard on Ash Wednesday; or the people of Nineveh fasting after the preaching of Jonah (Ch. 3); or Esther fasting before her attempt to save her people from massacre ( Ch.4).
2. To prepare inwardly to receive the necessary strength and grace to complete a mission for God. So we think of the forty day fasts of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus (Exod. 24, 1 Kings 19, Matt. 4).
Jesus combined prayer and fasting to overcome temptation in the wilderness.
We read in the Acts of the Apostles that the early church followed this practice as critical points to discern how God was leading them and to empower their ministry (Acts 13 and 14). The combination of prayer and fasting was seen as inviting a greater measure of God’s power to be released through us.
The early Church did not understand Lent as a six week inconvenience in an otherwise abundant year, a time when we somehow please God with voluntary and minor inconveniences which we flatter ourselves constitute suffering. It saw it instead as an opportunity to return to normal human life – the life of natural communion with God that was lost to us in the Fall.
The world was given to Adam and Eve as “food” – as a means of life. In food itself, God was the principle of life. Thus to eat, to be alive, to know and be in communion with God, were one and the same thing. Adam’s tragedy is that he ate “apart” from God in order to be independent – because he believed that food had life in itself and that, by partaking of it, he could be like God – have life in himself.
In Eden, God gave Adam and Eve every fruit of the garden but one. That one fruit, out of world of variety, indicated a limit to human freedom. Accepting that limit was the single abstinence required by God; a recognition of our dependence on God for life. But Adam and Eve allowed themselves to be seduced. The temptation was to see a single limit as so restrictive that it negates the good of all other freedoms. Adam and Eve broke the fast, and so transgressed the one limit required of them. In refusing to accept the bounds of their creature-hood, they reached for the very place of God. They wanted it all.
Fallen humans now live as if there are no legitimate limits only practical ones which must yield to human ingenuity and control. Appetites are given free rein. We consider it our right to use every resource and creature on earth for personal enjoyment or gain. The goal of human life is to acquire more, to stimulate every sense to capacity and beyond.
This has consequences for faith. A life that recognizes no limits cannot recognize the sovereignty of God. When created things have become an end in themselves, instead of a means of divine grace, they can no longer offer real life. Death and suffering entered into creation because we human beings could not keep the fast.
Our word Lent is derived from a Saxon word meaning “Spring.” Lent as a spiritual springtime, a time of light and joy in the renewal of the soul’s life. It represented a return to the fast that Adam and Eve broke: a life in which God is once more the centre and source and the material world is once again received as a means of communion with God.
This return to authentic human life was made possible by the incarnation, the reversal of Adam’s sin in Christ. After his baptism, Jesus began the work of redemption by fasting in the wilderness. When he became hungry, he refused the lie that life depends on bread alone, reaffirming that human beings depend in all things on God for life. He rejected the kind of power Satan tempted him with. Every temptation to self-sufficiency, self-display, power at the price of integrity – would have placed Jesus at centre stage rather than God. Throughout his life, Jesus consistently pointed to God’s authority, power and will in him. Jesus kept the fast, abstaining not only from food but also from the illegitimate exercise of power. He accepted his limits, living within the normal constraints of human life and accepting a human death. Jesus lived out God’s deepest intention for human beings in the created order. Through him, we too begin to live as a new creation. The possibility of genuine communion with God in and through creation is restored.
Fasting serves to remind us not only of our dependence on God, but on others, for the food which sustains us and which most of us so easily take for granted. We do not even have to go to the shop to buy it or our kitchens to prepare it: some lad with a bike with a zero hours contract will deliver it to our door at a touch of our smartphones.
We take food so much for granted in our society that the idea of going without it, even for a day, can seem threatening. But that is why fasting is more relevant for believers today. In a way which we can actually feel, fasting and abstinence reveal our excessive attachments and what underlies them. Food is necessary to life, but have we made it more necessary than God? Do we forget God when we would never forget to eat? Fasting brings us face-to-face with how we put the material world ahead of its spiritual Source.
The discipline of fasting has to do with the dynamic of accepting that limits are life-restoring. Our culture would seduce us into believing that we can have it all, do it all, and that we deserve it all – “We’re worth it.” Yet in refusing to accept limits on our consumption or activity, we perpetuate a death-dealing dynamic in the world. That is why this discipline is so important today.
Fasting for our own spiritual improvement, while it may be good, unless it is accompanied with a sense of others in their need, can simply become a pious vanity.
As we hear God saying in Isaiah:
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your kin?”
In a world in which the hunger of many co-exists with food waste on a huge scale in societies like ours (something in which we are all complicit) we have a problem that is both spiritual and social. In a world in which we are able to enjoy food in and out of season, and wear clothes produced by the labour of people we never see; Isaiah is telling us not to ignore the injustice that can lurks unseen behind the shelves of our supermarkets and the clothes racks of Oxford Street.
Ours is society in which obesity, fed by lack of discipline in consumption; both in what we eat and drink and how much of it, has a major impact not only on individuals but on society. The alarming rates of diet-related diabetes in our society means that the NHS is collapsing under our collective weight. The physical and mental effects of smoking and the excess consumption of alcohol adds more billions to the healthcare budget. Can we complain about having to wait for our hip replacement if we are contributing to this waste of resources?
Unless we are genuinely poor we spend a far smaller proportion of our income on food and necessities than earlier generations. We have more disposable income. What do we spend it on? What other areas of our lives generate dependencies which distract us from love of God and neighbour?
How much time, for example, do we spend looking at screens, on social media, watching TV? The other the day the BBC news had an item about a young man, a latter-day Narcissus, who takes 200 “selfies” of himself every day. Surely, one would be more than enough. I don’t want to deny the benefits of social media. I use Facebook to keep in touch with what a small army of, cousins, nephews and nieces and their children, not to mention friends, around the world are doing. I don’t sue Twitter – it sounds so much like “twit.” I hope that I have not substituted virtual friendship for the real thing,
In a society in which we are urged to consume; how much stuff do we accumulate? How much does our image of ourselves depend on having the latest device or designer outfit? “I shop, therefore, I am.”
We are going to end this service with devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and we will hear the priest sing, “Thou gavest them bread from heaven.” Let me end by linking fasting with feasting; with the banquet of the Eucharist.
Some of us are old enough in the faith to have been brought up on the Eucharistic fast. Nothing was to be consumed before we had received Holy Communion. Pope Pius XII reduced this fast one hour.
There is more than one serious point in all this. Anyone who has tried to pray immediately after eating a meal will know the sluggishness and distraction caused of the digestive process is anything but conducive to recollection and prayer.
When Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread, Jesus responds, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” In John’s Gospel, he tells his disciples: “My food is to do the will of the One who sent me.” (John 4.31-34). In the same gospel, he calls himself “the bread of life” (John 6.35). Are we aware of how much sustains our life apart from physical food? Do we have an inner belief that Christ is our life? We will grasp little of how we are nourished by Christ until we have emptied ourselves of the kinds of sustenance that keep us content to live at a superficial level. The Eucharistic fast is a reminder of that priority.
The disciplines of fasting and abstinence work to free us for eucharistic, thankful living. They help us see the world aright as a means of grace, of communion with God and with each other. In helping us to examine and re-order our use of the good things of this world, we learn to experience feasting as a source of lasting joy, of true companionship with family and friends and fellow-believers, rather than an exercise is self-indulgence or a means of deadening the pain of life.
We keep Lent as the traditional season of fasting and prayer in preparation for the “Feast of feasts,” Easter. The Church’s year and life has a rhythm of feasting and fasting. What real significance can Easter have if we do not know the experience of Lent? The joy and delight of a feast is proportional to the deprivation of a fast. Have we lost the art of true feasting through rejection of the fast?