I remember the verse that says, “This kind can only come out by prayer and fasting” (Mt 17:19-21, Mk 9:29). I became intrigued because of the Old Testament pericope from Isaiah for today (58:1-12) which teaches that fasting as self deprivation to please God is not necessarily Godly, but giving food, shelter, clothing, and material needs to the poor is pleasing. Of course, if the food and other goods are in short supply and we are sharing it for the common good even at the cost of our complete needs, there may be some fasting involved. There are several ways of defining fasting. Jesus fasted for forty days, testing himself and his calling against the assaults of Satan. One assumes this is meant to be a complete fast. A monastic fast is usually one meal a day, no meat, and whatever other restrictions are stipulated (dairy, for example, or sweets). The Muslim Ramadan fast is from sunrise to sunset, and given the time of year it falls and where it is being observed may last for differing numbers of hours. The Lenten and Friday fasts, which our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers remember from years past, meant eating fish, not foul or mammal meat, and perhaps other restrictions during Lent. Fasting practices vary, but in every case they require some self discipline and willing deprivation. And they can be made to pay for something to God, some sin committed, or to beg for a favor, or to make the fasting person more grateful to God our Creator for the good and necessary things by learning what living without them means. And in a society where the “haves” are hardly deprived and the “have nots” are seriously deprived, that well might provide some insight into Jesus’ teaching about caring for those on the margins.
But back to our opening quote, “and fasting” has been dropped from the newest Bible translations, and dropped down to a footnote (“other ancient sources add ‘and fasting’”). Today fasting is more often primarily a narcissistic practice for cleansing, health, beauty, and weight loss rather than a spiritual discipline.
The gist of the Isaiah reading is that the Holy One is chiding Israel, saying that they have not obeyed God and they are now making a show of fasting, when what he wants is for his people to humble themselves in order to care for those humble ones in need. This is much the same thing that Jesus says when he calls the Pharisees hypocrites, with their showy ritual cords and phylacteries, their demonstrations of fasting, but at the same time their self proclaimed entitlement, taking the best seats in the synagogue, and cheating the poor. Jesus instructs those who fast to wash their faces (Mt 6:16-17), as he instructs those who pray to do it simply, in faith that God hears them, and in the privacy of their own house (Mt 6:6-8). So fast, or do not fast, or fast in secret? Fast as David fasted (2 Sam12:16) until the crisis was over and then resume a life of luxury? Fast to turn: turn to God, turn to Truth, turn to Christ, a metanoia, a conversion of life and purification of soul before God? Fast because we are all imperfect beings and perhaps we can become a little more like Jesus if we ask for that grace and work on it with faith and discipline? Fast because we love the Holy One so much that even food, shelter, and rest are second to the engulfing love and protection of our God. Fasting is a sacrifice, a gift freely offered.
What we are warned not to do is become proud of our sacrifice. And just whom is this sacrifice for? Us? Yes, but only as a tool to use to become aware of God in our lives, in our bodies. And so the prophet goes on to warn us not to be pointing fingers at each other, blaming each other as we ride high on spiritual pride. “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today” (Isa 58:3b-4a). And here the prophet suggests that we humble ourselves by becoming servants, serving the poor and needy. Instead? Not necessarily. The discipline and deprivation of fasting does serve a purpose. We, too, are incarnate, and sometimes we need to address our bodies to reach our souls. And it never hurts to remember what is need and what is want.
Being ensouled bodies brings us to the second important word in this teaching, yoke. Probably the first thing that springs to mind is “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Mt 11:30) I have an ongoing, well, I can hardly call it an argument, cheerful discussion with a colleague. I insist that that is most hilarious thing that Jesus ever said. It is not easy. It is desired, even required, but easy? Not hardly. She says, oh, no, it is easy. God’s love makes everything easy. Of course, we are both right, and by listening one to the other are friendships made. But here the prophet gets down to what a yoke is and what it really means to be yoked. Yokes don’t only come in pairs. Most often they do, and so we can say yoked to Christ the load is easier. But basically a yoke is a hard wooden bar to tie a draft animal to a heavy load and control it. Here the yoke is the enslavement of pointing accusing fingers and speaking of evil, and freedom from yoke achieved is by turning to care for those who are in need. In other words, put aside spiritual pride and stop practicing righteousness and get to work doing God’s will and desire. That wrong yoke is a heavy burden to the soul. While this will gladden the hearts of the social justice folks, wait, not so fast. Doing can be as self-righteous as fasting.
In the Resurrection we please God by listening to him, as Jesus in Scripture, in prayer with our Father, and by the urgings of the Holy Spirit. It brings peace. It can also bring execution, pain, loss, death. But it is God’s will that we have free will, that we be yoked to our flawed selves as we are yoked to divine grace and love. God’s love and passion for us, God’s mercy, God’s goodness in our creation and adoption, will wipe away every tear. We are and always will be yoked, to each other, to society, to our sins, but also to Christ Jesus, if we chose to be. And we can always see more clearly that we are yoked to God when we pray, fast, and serve
The wheel of the year is turning, and Lent will be upon us before we know it. Perhaps some thought in advance of the season is not out of turn.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.