Today many Christians remember the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the temple. Lutherans actually kept that day on their calendars for many years, but without special liturgical observance. It reminds us, though, that Advent is just around the corner, and in the mind of the Church Advent is a fast. Not so strict a fast as Lent, but a fast nonetheless.
A salutary preparation for fasting in the Lutheran tradition is to read the Augsburg Confession, Article XXVI to remind ourselves of our church's teaching regarding "the distinction of meats." First thing to be clear on: distinctions of meats is a human custom, and observance of human customs cannot justify or make satisfaction for sins. The Confession is clear that the medieval Roman practice had obscured the Gospel of the grace of God, hindered obedience to God's commands by elevating human precepts as more important, and ensnared consciences by teaching that such fasting was an act of worship that God required. St. Augustine's letter 54 to Januarius is cited to stress the freedom Christians have in these non-universal traditions which are neither commanded nor forbidden by God in His Word. A whole plethora of Scripture passages are enlisted to show that bondage to distinction of foods has no place in the freedom of the Christian. But then the most neglected part of the article comes into play.
The opponents accused the Lutherans of "being against discipline and subduing the flesh." The AC protests this vigorously. "They have always taught that Christians are to bear the cross by enduring afflictions." But further, "they teach that every Christian ought to train and subdue himself with bodily restraints, or bodily exercises and labors. Then neither over-indulgence nor laziness may tempt him to sin." And further: "Such outward discipline ought to be taught at all times, not only on a few set days." The conclusion: "Therefore, we do not condemn fasting in itself, but the traditions that require certain days and certain meats, with peril of conscience, as though such works were a necessary service."
What a salutary reminder that the Church's "fasting seasons" are not intended to be blimps on the screen of our life, but training periods towards real control of our appetites at all times. God doesn't need us to fast; he isn't impressed by it, but fasting is indeed a "fine outward training" that should not be stranger among us. If we simply give to our bodies whatever they crave, whenever they crave it, is it any wonder we have so little strength to resist the allurements of the devil? The distinction of meats does not necessarily help in this battle. Recall Chemnitz' scoffing at the "fasting" of those who gorge themselves with fish on Fridays and think they are "fasting." Even if we do choose to forego a certain type of food, let us remember that the primary meaning of fasting is not abstaining from this or that, but going hungry, eating less, disciplining the flesh. Pigging out at Red Lobster on Fridays and calling this "fasting" is NOT the idea.
Let us in all Christian freedom, as we prepare to enter the season of Advent, remember the call to discipline our bodies, and then choose how this may best be done in our own lives. Let's forego the American pig-out that decrees from Thanksgiving to Christmas one long FEAST, and remember that the Church is actually calling us to enter a time of fast, and so we will come with bodies disciplined (and not sluggish from over-indulgence) and with sober joy to the Feast of our Lord's Nativity!