12 February 2007

"Return to me...with fasting" Joel 2

Auf Deutsch, Lent is Fastenzeit. Fasting-time. And the readings for Ash Wednesday invite us to this discipline as part of our "return," our repentance.

But how does one fast? As Lutheran Christians we know that there can be no laws about HOW to fast in the Church for the simple reason that neither our Lord nor the Holy Apostles have given us any. There have always been divergent practices on fasting in the Church. Not without reason did St. Irenaeus confess "differences in fasting do not destroy the unity of faith."

Further, we know that fasting is not pleasing to God when it is offered in any way as a propitiation for sin; then, in fact, it becomes an abomination. There is but one propitiation for the sin of the world and that was offered once and for all by the Lamb of God upon the cross.

So why should we fast? We have to think no further than our Catechism: fasting is "a fine outward training." Now, that was spoken in regard to the Eucharistic fast, but it applies to fasting as a whole. On Septuagesima we heard St. Paul speak of how he disciplined his body, kept it under control, lest he end up being "disqualified" after preaching to others.

Well, if we can admit that fasting is a "fine outward training" the question still arises of what to do?

Many people confuse fasting and abstinence. To fast is to be hungry; to abstain is forego certain kinds of food. The traditional fast of the Western Church was 1/4 meal for breakfast and lunch, with a simple dinner. In other words, for breakfast maybe half a slice of toast, for lunch an orange. Then a regular dinner - but nothing fancy. Something like that was observed throughout the days of Lent. Further, Western Christians have traditionally abstained from meat and wine on the Fridays (and sometimes the Saturdays, and some would say the Wednesdays - all depend on whom you ask) of Lent.

Now, fasting was never meant to live by itself. It is joined to the other two Lenten disciplines: almsgiving and prayer. An increased giving to the poor and an increased time of prayer can go hand in hand with fasting: by not eating so much, you actually have more money to give to others who have less than you, and by not fixing elaborate meals, you also have more time to spend in the Word and prayer. Further, by going hungry each day you experience solidarity with those many members of the human race who also go hungry each day. Above all, we teach ourselves that the hunger behind all hungers is the hunger for God Himself.

In the freedom of the Gospel, we can discipline our wayward flesh by not letting it dictate to us what and when to eat. Give it some thought and prayer and then rejoice in the truth that "man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." Wishing one and all a joyful time of renewal during the upcoming Fastenzeit!

15 comments:

Paul T. McCain said...

Fasting is indeed fine bodily discipline, but...he who is truly worthy and well prepared is he who has faith....

So, while it is good, right and salutary to mention fasting and even encourage its proper place, let's be careful we not get to caught up in talking about our fasting that the focus of Lent turns from Christ to us.

Respectfully offered.

Chris Jones said...

As Lutheran Christians we know that there can be no laws about HOW to fast in the Church for the simple reason that neither our Lord nor the Holy Apostles have given us any.

This seems wrong to me in any number of ways.

First of all, I do not think that we can say that neither our Lord nor the Holy Apostles have given us any direction on fasting. What we can say is that we have been given no explicit law in the Scriptures. But when St Basil speaks of the authority of Tradition, he says that written Scripture and oral tradition have equal force for piety (my emphasis; and note that he does not say "equal force for doctrine"). And fasting is precisely an example of something that pertains to piety. I am not ashamed to agree with St Basil that this is a matter on which we have received direction from our Lord and the Apostles via the oral tradition. And to agree with him further that this is of equal force with the written Scriptures, and that to ignore this is to eviscerate the Gospel.

Secondly, in this context I think the contrast between "law" and "Gospel freedom" is a false dichotomy in any case. The canons and rubrics are not "laws" -- certainly not "law" in the sense that the Torah is "law", or the natural law is "law". The canons and rubrics are the application of dogma to the practical living-out of the life in Christ. They are the record of the way of living that has proven to be effective in living the Christian life, in the experience of the saints and of the Church. The Church gives us her discipline not as a constraint but as a help and support for our spiritual growth. To mistake the Church's salutary discipline for "law" and so to reject it in the name of "Gospel freedom" is to reject something that God has given to us through His Church for our good.

Finally, the Scriptures instruct us to obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you. Why should we be instructed to obey, if the Church (through her shepherds) is not given the responsibility and the authority to instruct us and to guide us as to what is "profitable for us"? "Gospel freedom" does not make it profitable to us to regard all discipline as "optional" nor to disregard the counsel of our spiritual fathers.

The sad thing is that what we really "know as Lutheran Christians" is that, out of a mistaken scruple as to "Gospel freedom", most of us will not receive any counsel from our spiritual fathers on such matters.

William Weedon said...

Paul,

I don't think it's something that Lutherans anywhere are in danger of, do you? Really?

Chris,

The point was not to suggest that mortification of our flesh was not commanded by our Lord - of course it is. It is the question of whether the Church can command as divine law the "how". As always, Rome's treatment looms large for Lutherans, and so looming in the background is when it was taught that it was a SIN not to follow the dietary laws of Rome, and that doing so was meritorious towards salvation. This is the sort of thing that invariably informs a Lutheran discussion, even after all these years.

William Weedon said...

Oh, and one more point, Chris. You wrote:

"The sad thing is that what we really "know as Lutheran Christians" is that, out of a mistaken scruple as to "Gospel freedom", most of us will not receive any counsel from our spiritual fathers on such matters. "

That IS sad, and it is one of the reasons that I wanted to post about the topic on my blog. It was inspired originally by one of my parishioners just asking for help in knowing how to observe the fast. Our people are - pardon the pun - hungrier for this than we realize.

Chris Jones said...

This is the sort of thing that invariably informs a Lutheran discussion, even after all these years.

Then it's high time we got over it.

I understood what "the point" was; but I think the point is misplaced. If Rome thought that "the Church can command as divine law", she was wrong. But the Church can counsel as to what is salutary. If we are so afraid of "commanding as divine law" that we are unable to counsel as to what is salutary, then we are still captive to Rome, albeit in a negative, reactive way. And to the extent that we are unable to counsel as the Church ought to do, we are not "being the Church".

I've been Lutheran for over ten years now, and I have never heard any recommendation about fasting from the pulpit; I have never been offered any guidance as to a rule of prayer; private confession and absolution has never been available in any parish; and I have heard all manner of talk about "Gospel freedom" and never a word about the discipline that is required to exercise that freedom responsibly.

Like I said, we need to get over it.

William Weedon said...

Chris,

Rather than "getting over it" I think the case is we need to return to the sort of robust faith practiced during the Reformation. If we teach clearly about Christian liberty, then we are free to teach the TRUTH about fasting and such bodily disciplines. They don't impress God; they don't earn brownie points; but they DO discipline the body and school it to be a servant of the soul, and not vice-versa.

But how on earth is it possible for a pastor not to preach on fasting in all these years - given the Ash Wednesday readings??? Surely they are not ignored in your parish?

ptmccain said...

Chris, returning to the swampy lands of church "law" is no option for the Christian. Rather, as Pastor Weedon urges, we do far better simply to return to the robust and hearty Christ-centered and Gospel-focussed piety of our Lutheran fathers.

My concern is that to speak of fasting in any way that leaves the impression that it is the fasting that is "the thing" about Lent is unwise. I do not believe Pastor Weedon is doing this, by any means, but I have in fact known those who have, and their parishioners are left with sermon after sermon that lays burdens on them and effectively takes the focus off Christ and puts it on their fasting. The pastor is so eager to commend fasting, that before he even realizes it, he is talking more about our fast and not about our Savior as much as he ought.

One important point, and I know Pr. Weedon would heartily concur, fasting by itself is nothing other than a diet program and is common to many world religions, but it is fasting AND PRAYER that are connected in Christian piety that is the key.

What if, for example, we were to commit ourselves to fasting joined during Lent to prayerful reading of the entire New Testament, or to some other such daily exercise in piety of the sort that puts our eyes and minds on Jesus? Speaking of which, how about a prayerful reading of "Daily Exercise in Piety" or "Sacred Meditations" by Gerhard.

Chris bemoans the lack of guidance on these issues and sadly wishes for the pendulum to swing to the other side of the equation: a church "commanding" and "making laws" where our Lord has not made any such laws or commands. That is not an option for a truly Gospel-centered church. But, on the other hand, neither is simply silence on the issue of fasting.

I urge balance and the proper context for whatever spiritual exercises to which we commit ourselves during Lent.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

"... he who is truly worthy and well prepared is he who has faith...."

OTOH --

He who (having bodily health) does not try to fast, and even he who tries but doesn't succeed very well, discovers he has much less faith than he had previously suspected.

It's all to easy to fool ourselves -- until we try to put our faith into practice. "Lord, I believe! Help Thou my unbelief!"

Anastasia

Chris Jones said...

Dear Pr McCain,

Chris ... sadly wishes for the pendulum to swing to the other side of the equation: a church "commanding" and "making laws" where our Lord has not made any such laws or commands.

Why do you misrepresent what I said?

I made a distinction between "laws and commands" and "counsel as to what is salutary"; and I specifically said that it is wrong to think that the Church can command as divine law those things which are not divine law. And yet you write as if I had not made this distinction, and hold me responsible for a position which I specifically said was wrong.

If you think the distinction I am making is specious, fine. Then say so and show why. But don't use me as a stand-in for the same old Papist bogeymen.

William Weedon said...

It might be of interest that Urbanus Rhegius wrote:

"But certain traditions do serve a good purpose in the church, namely to preserve order. For not in vain did the Apostle admonish the Corinthians that in the church all things should be done decently and in order. We do not strive for righteousness in these matters; instead, we are trying to educate those who do not know any better, so that they learn to treat sacred things with reverence. We observe Sunday. *The bishop prescribes fasting so that prayer can be celebrated more fervently.* A day is set aside on which people are to gather to hear the Word of God and to receive the Sacraments.... No one should preach against those traditions having to do with adiaphora that were established for the sake of order. Rather, we should endorse them so that the laity are not frightened away from such ceremonies and traditions and start despising the exercise of piety in general. That will happen wherever preachers reject all traditions without distinction, as we see now in many places where people do not go to church, or if they go, disregard everything sacred." (Preaching the Reformation, pp.79,81)

ptmccain said...

Chris, if I misrepresented your position, I apologize.

Pr. W. good quote. I've already said my bit: as long as fasting doesn't become the focus of a pastor's comments at Lent, I'm fine with talking about fasting.

William Weedon said...

Pastor McCain,

Of course, not during Lent, but it should occupy some time during Pre-Lent - that's one of the purposes of Gesimatide: o prepare the people to come to Lent.

Fr John W Fenton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fearsome Comrade said...

But when St Basil speaks of the authority of Tradition

...he cites examples that are demonstrably different at various times and various places in the Church and are therefore completely dubious as to their apostolicity. One Father says it is the oral tradition of the apostles to fast on a certain day, while another says it is the oral tradition to fast on a completely different day. This completely undermines the authority of oral tradition rather than establishing it.

Fr John W Fenton said...

This completely undermines the authority of oral tradition rather than establishing it.

Actually, no. It undermines the notion that the rules for fasting and abstention must be identical everywhere. But it establishes the authority that (a) fasting and abstention is to be done, especially on certain days, (b) that fasting and abstention means something more than "what I prefer to give up" and (c) that fasting and abstention have clearly given rules or guidelines which come down from "above" (hierarchy), even if bishops in certain locales don't match identically.