In the last note, I spoke about receiving Holy Communion in obedience to our Lord's command to "do this in remembrance" of Him. I also talked about the meaning of remembrance. In the next few notes I want to discuss the guidelines for preparing to receive communion and how when observed with the right attitude, they help us to remember God. With the ever popular Peter & Paul Fast beginning on June 4th this month, what better time to ask the question, "How does fasting help us to remember God?"
The Tradition of fasting on Wednesday and Fridays in the Church comes to us from an early 2nd century document known as "Teaching of the Twelve Apostles." The document simply calls upon believers to fast on Wednesday and Friday as way of remembering the Lord's Passion. On Wednesday Jesus was betrayed by Judas and arrested, and on Friday he was crucified. The issue here is not whether it is a sin to eat meat and dairy products on Wednesday or Friday. Rather it is our failure to observe these two days of the week as a time to remember our Lord's suffering and passion; this is what is sinful.
Fasting itself is an act of self denial. By giving up certain foods and activities, it does bring about a type of suffering in us because we are going without something that we are accustomed to having. That causes us to yearn for and hunger for what we have given up. As we reflect upon our sacrifice it hopefully brings us to greater awareness of what our Lord suffered and that does two things. First it hopefully causes us to identify with Him and with others who suffer wrong at the hands of others. We begin to identify with the Lord and have empathy for those who are in pain and suffering. Empathy is not just an emotion, but an attitude that leads us to act with compassion towards others; putting others first instead of fulfilling our wants and desires. I have often found in life that our passion for food and material things can get out of control. It seems as if the more we have the more we want. We can become very self-centered and demanding when our passion for earthly things goes unchecked. There are certain kinds of suffering that are necessary for us to go through if we are ever going to become a virtuous people. Such virtues as love, patience, and self control, cannot be properly formed in us if we are always having it our way. It leads to people living a life where they "live to eat rather than eat to live." Fasting on one level is returning to a proper understanding what your body needs in order to live as opposed satisfying a craving for food or certain activity. If our lives are about living to eat, the more we feed this passion it will only lead to becoming slaves of creation instead of stewards of creation. It is my conviction that our failure to fast and to remember our Lord's Passion and suffering only causes us to become more demanding, possessive (or being possessed), self-centered, and ungrateful in our actions and attitudes. Unfortunately fasting for the wrong reasons can also lead to the same attitudes and behaviors I just mentioned. We know that from the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. On the other hand, fasting combined with prayer, confession, and almsgiving can show us how to be grateful for what we have received, more appreciative of others, and more compassionate and charitable in our dealings with others.
Secondly in remembering our Lord's sufferings, we seek to transform our passion for earthly things into a passion and hunger for our Lord Jesus Christ; to hunger for communion with Him. I can best illustrate this by discussing several examples from the New Testament. The first concerns the 40 day fast of our Lord in the wilderness after he was baptized by St. John. As most of you know, during the 40 days in the wilderness, our Lord went without food or water and He was tempted by the devil. The interesting thing is that devil didn't tempt Him with torture and horrifying things. He tempted him with things we all seek in life: nurturance, security, and power. The devil tempted Him to turn a stone into bread, to be protected by angels if He jumped off a cliff, and finally he tempted Him with worldly power and wealth if only the Lord would worship the devil. Jesus responded to the first temptation by saying "Man shall not live by bread alone, but from every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." On a side note, I smile at this because I once had a former parishioner (who was a convert) tell me about an experience he had getting his kids used to fasting Sunday morning before receiving communion. One of his kids was not happy about this and said to his dad, "If I don't eat I am going to die." From the mouths of babes come great things to reflect upon. There are two kinds of death in this world. It is true if we go indefinitely without food or drink we biologically die. But there is another kind of death that occurs when one excludes oneself from a life that is in communion with God. This is what Jesus is talking about when He speaks of man living by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. When we place our hunger for earthly bread ahead of our desire to live by every word (or bread) that comes from the mouth of God, we are dead already even if we are biologically alive. It is this spiritual death we suffer from that motivated God to send His Only Begotten Son into the world that "whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." In Chapter 6 of the gospel of John, Jesus says, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst." This truth is wonderfully illustrated in the story of the Samaritan Woman at Jacob's well in Chapter 4 of John (that we just read in church last month). That story begins with Jesus asking the woman for a drink because He is thirsty and the disciples going into to town to get food for them to eat. Jesus engages the woman in a dialogue about the shortcomings of Jacob's well as opposed to the drink He can offer her that will eternally quench her thirst. By the end of the story the woman puts down her water pail, and goes into town to tell people about this person she met "who told me all that I ever did." When the apostles return with earthly food, Jesus replies that he has food they don't know about; that His food is "to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work." This woman came to the well to take care of a physical thirst, but after her encounter with Jesus walked away having quenched a deeper spiritual thirst in her.
To have this kind of hunger for God, to live by His word, requires that we put to death our passion for food or anything else that would interfere with this hunger for God. I keep on referring to a passion for things of this world because there are many things we want in life that we don't need. Those passions and desires, if not dealt with properly, can be destructive and harmful to our well being. In fasting we do battle with these passions that enslave us so that we can redirect them to a life saving passion and hunger for God the Father, His Word, and His Holy Spirit. This is the goal of fasting. May the foolish Peter and Paul fast this month become the means by which we come to experience a hunger and longing to know our Lord Jesus Christ. God bless you all. Fr. Paul