Advent II, 6th Dec 2020
When I was training to be a priest we had breakfast together every morning and usually it was bacon and eggs. And so, it was often commented that students put weigh on while they were there! On Fridays however we would try to take the Church’s call to abstinence seriously, well I’m not sure we did all the time, if I’m honest. Abstinence on a Friday is to unite us to the death of Jesus, for it is the day on which He hung on the Cross. That’s why it’s good for us not to eat meat as a general rule on Fridays. Unfortunately, the breakfast at the seminary didn’t really seem to get the point. The bacon was not replaced with simple toast and butter or a bowl of porridge, but what I consider quite a treat today, namely a croissant and pain au chocolat. Not quite the spirit of abstinence but I must say I rather enjoyed them.
The connection between Lent and fasting is well established and remains in the popular mind by giving things up for Lent. We must never be fooled in to thinking we can take extra things on instead: self-denial is a non-negotiable bit of the Gospel our Lord preaches to us. I want to encourage us to reconnect this season of Advent with fasting, which was certainly the historic practice of the Church and is something kept alive in the East, in the Orthodox Church is much of Russia, Greece and other nearby nations.
St John the Baptist is introduced to us in our Gospel today, the opening chapters of St Mark’s Gospel, and we’re told John appeared wearing a camel-skin and eating locusts and wild honey. It sounds pretty awful and undoubtedly if he walked in to Church today, we’d be a bit suspicious of him. We don’t know when John felt called to this life of being separated from normal society but he had always been called to be the forerunner of our Lord Jesus Christ. His ministry is seen as similar to what in the Old Testament was the vocation of a Nazirite. The Nazirite, as described in Numbers 6, would avoid wine and strong drink and would shave his or her hair off as a sign that they were given over to God. Samson with his super-human strength and Samuel the prophet are the two main examples. Like John the Baptist, what they eat indicates their character and their role in the scheme of human salvation.
St Mark sees John the Baptist’s message as one of humility: “I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals.” And, as whenever we hear of feet in the Scriptures, we are to think yuck, smelly, unclean, don’t go near. Humility and fasting go hand-in-hand. Indeed one of the reasons we fast is to let the power of God shine through in our lives. Remember the fast that Daniel underwent in chapter one of the book that bears his name in the Old Testament. He didn’t want to eat the meat sacrificed to pagan idols and wanted only vegetables and water. The palace master was worried that the king would find out and reprimand him for not looking after Daniel properly. But by God’s grace Daniel and his three companions ended up being fatter and healthier than the other slaves who had been eating the lovely meat. We mustn’t turn fasting in to an endurance test which makes us feel like we’ve achieved it because of our own strength. Fasting and abstinence must also not be confused with dieting, though there will be times when we need to do that too, to look after our physical health. Abstinence reveals all we need is God, His grace and His love.
When Jesus teaches us about fasting, He tells us to make sure we are not looking miserable: “Do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting” (Matthew 6:16). There’s a broader point, which Pope Francis made in one of the documents he published a few years ago where he said most people engaged in mission look like they’ve just come back from a funeral and this is no good (Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, I.9) Note also that the messenger in our first reading from Isaiah 40 is described as “joyful” for he has a message of comfort and consolation. Isaiah 40 is heralding a new dawn, a new beginning. It’s not clear what precisely “double punishment” in verse 2 means but what is clear is that it is settled, done, atoned for. A relationship which God’s people have consistently got wrong has been put right by God and supremely this is done by Jesus, His Birth, Death and Resurrection.
We’re to radiate this same joy when we speak to others about our faith. Imagine I came here to you today and whinged about another church. Would that make you want to go there? Nope. So, we are to speak to those outside the Church, be it our children or our colleagues or the person we buy food from about the joys received here, not the problems. This must not be with the result of creating a culture where we can’t talk about problems or failures within our Church Family. But we are to approach the problems in this place in a constructive way, seeking to resolve, proposing solutions, willing to roll up our sleeves and help, never trying to blame, willing to hear criticism, telling who needs to be told. Then the joy of the Gospel can indeed be shared with others.
Humility and joy come together so often in the life of St Therese of Lisieux who wrote this poem:
“My joy is to stay little,
So when I fall on the way,
I can get up very quickly,
And Jesus takes me by the hand.
Then I cover him with caresses
And tell Him He’s everything for me,
And I’m twice as tender
When He slips away from my faith.”
Joy will come when we’re close to Jesus and fasting is to remove some of those things that get between us and Him. When we fast, it’s often amazing how we don’t need the food we consume and can carry on, especially when we’ve begun a period of abstinence with prayer. I’m sure we’ve all seen situations where people’s preoccupation with food has taken away their joy. I can recall one occasion when a grandmother was unable to attend her grandchild’s baptism because she was too busy getting the party food ready afterwards. How often will we hear of folk not able to get to Mass at Christmas or to service on Good Friday because they’ve got to prepare the food? Notice always the use of the phrase “got to” in these situations. As Jesus says to Mary and Martha: “only one thing is necessary” (Luke 10:38-42) and yes, it’s Him.
Fasting will sometimes be giving up things we really enjoy and with which there is nothing wrong at all. It might be that after the period of abstinence we go back to them with a fresher and better relationship to them. Equally, fasting might be giving something up temporarily that we need to get rid of long term and this can be the first step. Fasting is not a criticism of the creation God has made. At the heart of our fasting must be a sharing in the perspective of God who looked at the world when He created it and saw that it was very good. God’s Priests take bread and wine at Mass, pretty ordinary stuff, and it becomes by the Holy Spirit and by our prayer the Body and Blood of God’s only Son. This is a great world we live in.
And yet it is a world where many hunger. The humility our fasting will give us will enable us to travel along side those for whom hunger is not a choice but a necessity. Human beings long for God, whether they realise it or not. When false imitations of Him are created, it is a sign of this deep inner longing everyone has, even the most ardent atheist. As well as wanting to feed those who hunger for earthly food, let’s also as we prepare for Christmas, reach out to those who hunger spiritually and invite them to Church and pray for them and give them a copy of the Mass Sheet or the sermon or some Advent reading.
Let’s embrace with joy then the Church’s call to fast, then we with John the Baptist may recognise our unworthiness to untie the strap of the sandals of the Lord. Our fasting will put right our relationship with the world, which is not to be uneasy, but one recognising God’s sovereignty over all things. With Him nothing is impossible. Amen.