This world is made up of all sorts of people. We have different characters and different mindsets. Very often, it is the fixed mindsets that cause much division and misunderstanding among peoples. Some people are comfortable with rules and structures. Everything must be organized and work like clockwork. They cannot tolerate changes and modifications. They would get very upset if anyone were to change the system or the schedule. For this group of people, they need to be in control of their lives and the situation. They do not like surprises.
This was the case of John’s disciples when they came to Jesus and asked, “Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not?” Indeed, they were brought up in a religious tradition where they were taught to fast. In itself, fasting is good for the soul and the body. Even Jesus Himself fasted 40 days and nights in the desert after His baptism before He entered into the ministry. He also advocated fasting and prayer when the disciples could not exorcise an evil spirit from the boy suffering from epilepsy. (cf Mk 9:28f) But there is a time for everything. This is the point of today’s gospel reading. Just because fasting is good, it does not mean that we should be fasting day and night. This will rob us of the joy of living and the beauty of creation. God created the world for us to enjoy, not for us to shun. In the book of Genesis, the Lord gave man dominion over the earth, and the right to use what the earth produced for food. (cf Gn 1:27-29)
However, because the things of this earth are plentiful, man needs to discipline himself and not allow the things of this world to dominate him. He is called to be the steward of creation, to multiply and steer creation to its fullness. He must not destroy or abuse creation, otherwise he would suffer the backlash of the natural forces of creation. If he does not control his diet, he would fall sick and die. Hence, in the Book of Genesis, immediately after speaking about creation and its use for man’s pleasure in chapter 1, Chapter 2 tells of the story of how the Lord put man in the Garden of Eden. There, He planted many fruit trees but in the middle of the Garden, there was this tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was this tree that man was told not to eat of its fruits. Man was put to the test to see whether he had grown in maturity to make proper choices in life for his well-being and that of the good of others. In other words, man must learn to practise self-control.
Consequently, for Jesus, fasting is just a means, not the end itself. We do not fast for the sake of fasting. It is meant to be a discipline for us to strengthen our will to do the right things by controlling our sensual appetites. In this way, we will not be a slave to the world. A man of God must have self-control over his appetite, whether it be for food, sex or pleasure. Otherwise, if he is addicted to the pleasures of life, he will lose his perspective. Fasting is useful to help a person to transcend the world so that he could be in touch with his spiritual hunger. It is helpful for a good prayer life and to live a life of wisdom and self-awareness.
Hence, Jesus gave three examples of when it would be the right time to fast. Jesus replied, “Surely the bridegroom’s attendants would never think of mourning as long as the bridegroom is still with them? But the time will come for the bridegroom to be taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunken cloth on to an old cloak, because the patch pulls away from the cloak and the tear gets worse. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; if they do, the skins burst, the wine runs out, and the skins are lost. No; they put new wine into fresh skins and both are preserved.”
Indeed, it would be incongruous and odd for the bridegroom’s attendants and guests to fast on their wedding day. It should be celebrated as a day of joy. Life is not always gloom and doom. God wants us to celebrate and be happy. So we should not be afraid to celebrate. This explains why even in the Church, we do not fast or abstain from meat on Sundays and all Solemnities because they are days of celebration. We should not be so robotic and fall into routine and custom of fasting because we are used to doing so.
This is the real problem of the rule of abstinence from meat on Fridays. Many Catholics were practising it and observing the rule out of routine. Unfortunately, they forgot the real spirit of fasting, which is to remember the passion of Christ, so that we too will rekindle His love and mercy for us as we contemplate on His sufferings, and in turn love our neighbours the same way He has loved us and forgiven us. So whilst Catholics were observing the canonical law of abstinence on Fridays, they were not observing the spirit of the fasting. It becomes even more ludicrous when Catholics use it as an occasion to dine in luxury on Fridays by going for seafood, which by far is more expensive than eating meat!
Another reason for fasting is to long for God. We fast because we have lost our bridegroom. Through fasting and prayer, we hope to focus our hearts on God and on heavenly things, as St Paul urges us. “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” (Col 3:2-4) Because of our sins and sullen hearts, we can no longer hear what God is saying to us. That is why fasting always goes with prayer, otherwise it becomes merely an act of discipline of the will. Instead of making us humble, we could end up like the Pharisees, self-righteous and proud of our achievements. If fasting does not help us to pray better and identify with the suffering of Christ, we have missed the point of fasting.
But this basic principle of fasting applies to every area of life as well. We should not be a slave to rules and customs. Rather, we must observe the spirit and intent of the law. We are called to live a life of freedom in Christ. The only law, as St Paul says, is the law of love. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom 13:8,10) We must be consistent with what we do and why we do what we do. If not, we are acting hypocritically. So whilst we must act in freedom with respect to the observance of the laws and customs, it also presupposes that we are mature, wise and enlightened enough to act with purity of heart and with sincere intentions. Many in the name of freedom disregard all laws when they are in truth using freedom for self-indulgence. Unless we are spiritually mature, it would be wiser to observe the rules if we are not sure. It is always better to err on the side of the law than falsehood.
Yet, another truth in life is that we are ignorant. Like the Israelites, they turned away from God, then suffered the consequences of their sins of complacency, injustice and superficial religiosity. God allowed the natural development of history to unfold itself. They were punished by the Assyrians. We, too, often come to self-realization only when we are punished by the sins and wrongs we have committed. If we are lustful, we suffer the consequences of a broken marriage and family, or being blackmail by others. If we are not eating healthily, we fall sick and develop all kinds of illnesses. If we are ambitious, we create many enemies and have no peace. Indeed, most of our sufferings are the consequences of our folly.
But God is great. He is patient with us. He knows when is the right time to act and how to help us come back to our senses. When the time is right, He will call us back. Conversion is always the grace of God. As the prophet says, “The days are coming now – it is the Lord who speaks – when harvest will follow directly after ploughing, the treading of grapes soon after sowing, when the mountains will run with new wine and the hills all flow with it. I mean to restore the fortunes of my people Israel; they will rebuild cities and live in them, plant vineyards and drink their produce. I will plant them in their own country, never to be rooted up again out of the land I have given them, says the Lord, your God.” Indeed, God acts in His time.