A distinctive feature in Judaism is its way of integrating the spiritual with the physical through fasting. For them, fasting was a way of denying the body all natural food for a determined period for moral or religious ends. When the bodily desires (food, sin, etc.) tend to separate them from the loving relationship with God, they often see the need to abstain from food in order to reconnect to God in a stronger way; thus, through fasting a deeper level of repentance is expected to be achieved. The sublimation of one’s own desires for food in favour of the directive to fast is itself an offering. Although, outside these reasons, many other reasons motivated the Jews to fast. Summarily, the primary purpose of fasting is to bring one to repent, and true repentance brings about a change in actions (cf. Isa. 1:13, Jer. 36:9, Joel 1:14; 2:15–17 I Kings 21:27–29 Ps. 35:13; 69:11; Ezra 10:6, etc.)
In today’s First Reading (cf. Isaiah 58:1-9), God is reflected as being very critical of the Jewish post-exilic fast in relation to their hypocrisy. Here, apart from the fast recommended for the Day of Expiation (cf. Lev 23:26-32), a number of fasts were added to commemorate national disasters (Zc 7:1-5; 8:18-19) or to implore God’s mercy – thus, being a form of prayer (cf. Jer. 36:6,9; Jon 3:5, 1Kg 21:9,12). However, the fasting was not helping them reconnect to God or receiving his mercy, instead, it placed them at a spacious distance from God. Put differently, while they fasted in sackcloth and ashes, they oppressed their fellowmen, they quarrelled and bore hatred in their mind, went contrary to God’s commands. In this way, God called them to order, making them realize that their fasting was useless and asking them to repent from their evil ways and practice charity – feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked etc., which is the sort of fasting that pleases God. Similarly, today’s Psalmist (cf. Psalm 50(51):3-6,18-19) emphasizes that God does not delight in sacrifices: “For in sacrifice you take no delight, burnt offering from me you would refuse, my sacrifice, a contrite spirit. A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn.”
Since fasting is a form of prayer, the Pharisees and their disciples, likewise John the Baptist and his disciples devoted their time to fast in the hope that their fast would hasten the coming of the Messiah – the “Bridegroom”. Jesus Christ in today’s Gospel Reading (cf. Matthew 9:14-15), identified himself as the expected bridegroom; thus, there was no need for his disciples to fast because, with his coming, the messianic age has dawned; however, they would fast when He departs from them.
Dear friends in Christ, as we journey through the “Lenten Wilderness” with ashes, fasting and abstinence, etc. – looking forward to the second coming of Christ (parousia), we pray that our case would not be like the Jews who God criticized for hypocrisy – fasting from food and placing ashes on themselves but failed to love God and their fellowmen. May God fill us with his graces so that our Lenten fast would enable us to reconcile with God through a “humbled contrite heart” and with our brothers and sisters by the daily practice of the corporal works of mercy (i.e. feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, living at peace with our brothers and sister, etc.) which is considered the fast that pleases God.
© Fr. Chinaka Justin Mbaeri, OSJ