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Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Fast that Satiates our Hunger

Texts: Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5.12-19; Matthew 4.1-11

This morning I want to talk about a spiritual practice that, like most spiritual practices in modernity, is rarely practised anymore.  Fasting: going without food. Allowing oneself to experience genuine hunger.

Fasting used to be a very important part of Christian discipleship, especially during the season of the church year that began on Wednesday, the season of Lent.  ‘Lent’, which means ‘spring’ (somewhat anachronistically for us in the southern hemisphere) has served, since its inception in the second century, a dual purpose: (1) to prepare the newly converted for their baptism into the life, death and resurrection of Christ; and (2) to renew the baptised, all the people of God, in the life and discipline of that same Easter faith.  The practice of fasting was seen as an essential part of this purpose because it taught people the discipline of letting the old desires go—the desires that belonged to the old, pre-Christian, way of life—in order to embrace a radically new set of desires, the desires planted in our hearts by the Spirit of Jesus Christ.  Here a clear connection was being drawn between desire and hunger.  The church reasoned that if one could learn to discipline the body’s basic desire for food and drink then one might also learn to discipline the wayward desires of the heart, that these might come to more accurately reflect the love of God in Jesus Christ.

With that history in mind, it is perhaps easy to see why fasting is no longer seen as a particularly relevant or beneficial thing to do, even by many a good Christian.  Modern wisdom has become suspicious, after all, about any practice that would seem to limit or deny what the body (or the soul) feels it ‘needs’. According to the prevailing common-sense, self-denial is a bad thing, an ancient evil, a form of repression which turns perfectly happy, actualized, assertive and confident people into miserable door-mats for others to wipe their feet upon.  What is wrong, after all, with getting what you want?  Greed may not be good, but don’t we all have a right to be happy, and to follow whatever path we choose in order to obtain that happiness?  What is so wrong with eating, or drinking, or sex, if it feeds one’s inner hungers?  What is so wrong with gaining the world through financial or social 'success' if it enlarges one’s happiness?  If I were to name an anthem that sums up all this modern mythologizing, it may well be the Queen song, ‘I want it all’, which seeks to re-define the traditional notion of love so that it is no longer about putting limits on one’s own wants or needs for the sake of the other person, but about enlisting the other person -  indeed all things -  to the cause of one’s own insatiable desire.

Of course, as well as accepting and absorbing the popular mythology, many contemporary Christians have found additional reasons not to fast. Baptists, for example, often reject the practise as too 'Catholic', too much to do with working one’s way to salvation and not enough to do with being saved by God’s grace alone.  The irony here is that many of the first Baptists were very diligent fasters.  Not because they accepted the supposedly Roman Catholic notion of working one’s way to God through good works and self-discipline, but because, for them, fasting was a way to make room in one’s life for a different kind of feasting, a feasting upon the word of God.  One cannot attend to God or God’s word, which is the only source of life, they argued, unless one also, and at the same time, seeks to put aside the many false gods which clamour for our attention.  Like the god of one’s stomach, for example.  In this, ironically, the early Baptists were closer to both Catholic and biblical teaching than they are to a great many of the moderns who bear their name.

For what does the Bible actually teach us about hunger, desire, and fasting?  Well, there’s the story from Genesis, for a start, the story about Adam and Eve eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and of evil.  Note, here, that in contrast to many contemporary assumptions about the story, the problem is not that Adam and Eve gave in to desire as such (for God had told them that they could eat and drink pretty much anything else they desired from the garden in which they lived), but that they desired more than was actually good for them.  It might just be possible, you see—despite what the prevailing wisdom says—that desire and need are often rather different.  It might be possible, in fact, that some of the things we desire are really rather poisonous.  Unfortunately, a great many poisons do not advertise their nature as a matter of course.  They can look and taste rather heavenly! That in no way mitigates a poison's essential function and identity, however: ultimately to do little else but injure, deceive or destroy whomever would take it to one's lips or heart.   

That is why I often think of the serpent (who first introduced the ludicrous idea that poison might actually be good for you) as the very first advertising executive!  Just as the serpent argued that the fruit of the tree would not kill Adam and Eve, but make them like God, so modern advertising tries to convince us that bigger and shinier houses, cars, toys, drinks, gadgets and television programmes will make us the masters of our own destinies and fulfil our every hunger.  In truth, of course, they cannot and they do not.  More usually, these many shiny things make us miserable because we don’t actually need them: they do not fill the hole that is a non-possessive relationship with God, neighbour and creation.  For that is really all we need, according to Scripture: relationships of love in which there is nothing to possess, because everything we need has already been given us.  The truth is that all this other stuff, this consuming of things, does little else than distract us from what is really real: God, and who were are in God’s embrace.

Paul deepens the point in his reflection on this story in the letter to the Romans.  While sin and death came into the world via Adam’s desire for something he had never desired before - through his trust in the serpent’s lie - life and relationship come into the world through the simple and foundational reality of the gift, or grace.  I mean, think about it for just one second.  God has already given us all that we need in creation, and in the revelation that God, from eternity, desires nothing other than to know and love us.  The gift of Jesus Christ, says Paul, is first of all the good news that this is still the case, in spite of the fact that we have woven for ourselves so many other desires, desires for things that succeed only to maim or destroy human life.  Yet, in Christ, there is the further gift of forgiveness.  In Christ God teaches us that even where we have harmed and maimed and killed for the sake of our desire, even where we have forsaken the gifts or God for the sake of so many chimera without any substance or gravity whatsoever, God is willing to forgive.  To go searching for us in the wilderness of our sin, to take us again to Godself and give us the gift of life and of healing.  If only we will let go of our poisonous addictions!

The temptations of Jesus, as they are enumerated in Matthew’s account, make this point yet again, but in another way.  According to this story, the practise of fasting is indeed about the denial of self, but the self that is being denied is the self that buys into the lies of the devil.  For the self that desires to (1) turn the whole world, as if by magic, into something that I can consume; or (2) turn God into someone who is only there to confirm and serve my desire; or (3) turn every other being into my slave, engaged only to confirm and serve my desire; is ultimately a false self that has tragically retreated from the fulness of a world already given us in grace and love by God.  It is a self that indeed dreams of becoming like a god, but certainly not the God revealed in Jesus Christ.  For the Father of Jesus is a God who invites and pleads and remonstrates with his creation, but never bullies or coerces or forces us accept his path.  The god we would become, on the other hand - by all our misplaced faith in demonic lies - is a god who sucks our loved ones, the true God and, indeed, the whole world, into despotic slavery.

Therefore, when Jesus resists such lies, when he resists the temptations of the devil, he is not harming his essential self, the self that is God’s and belongs to God’s way of love.  It is the other self he is harming: the accumulating, consuming, magical self, the inner demon who would make all the world its food and its slave.  It is the self that Thomas Merton rightly called ‘the false self’, ‘false’ because it is built upon a lie.

As followers of Jesus, we too are called to resist such a self, and to do so because what we desire most of all is not a house built of lies on a foundation of sand, but the firm and real house that is God’s welcoming love.  This home is a gift of God, given in creation itself, and given again in Jesus Christ, who comes to us anew each day in the stories of Scripture, the sacrament of bread and wine, the call of the neighbour and the witness of the faithful.  In this perspective, to fast from all that is a lie in order to listen to what is true, to fast from all that would poison in order to drink from the waters of life, is not really a fast at all.  It is to quieten one's heart and its false desires, in order to listen for the one word, the one gift, that is able to save us from ourselves. It is to make room in one's longing for the immeasurable gift of God’s friendship, that is alone finally able to satisfy our deepest hunger and quench our deepest thirst.

Glory be to God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as in the beginning, so now, and for ever.  Amen.

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