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What are you giving up for Lent? I wonder how many times you have been asked that question. Will it be chocolate? alcohol? cigarettes? Our nine-year old son said that he was going to give up school for Lent.
For most people, Lent has become less and less important. I was even at a church service recently where the idea of Lent as a time of self-denial was virtually dismissed as something old-fashioned and unnecessary. It is all part of the growing tendency for people to see faith as something whose main purpose is to make them feel good, rather than something which should inspire us to higher levels of service and commitment to God and our neighbour.
The Anglican church, alarmingly, seems to be one of the most relaxed of all the denominations in matters of spiritual discipline. So much of what we do has become optional; to be fitted in if and when we feel like it, with no real rigour to it. (I sometimes wonder if this is one of the reasons why we often seem to offer so little of enduring spiritual value to attract outsiders). It has come as a disturbing discovery to me to find that we are particularly lax with regard to something that is far more central to the faith of other Christians: which is the matter of fasting.
Now I am not the best person to preach about fasting; but I believe that this is an area of the Christian life which we should be looking at afresh, and the beginning of Lent is a good time to do this. I wonder what you understand by ‘fasting’? You may think, perhaps, of Jesus’ time spent fasting in the wilderness; of the old tradition of eating fish on Fridays; or of people who have gone on hunger strike for political reasons. But there is much more than this to fasting in the Christian tradition. In fact the more we look at the history of the Church, the more we discover that our current failure to take fasting seriously is an exception to what has been the norm throughout much of the Church through much of its history.
Let’s look briefly at the history of fasting in the Church – which, as we will see, is closely connected to the place of Lent in spiritual discipline. From the earliest days of the Church, it seems that Friday was observed as a day of fasting, in preparation for the celebration of Sunday, the day of resurrection. Easter Day itself was of course the climax of the Church’s year, and by the early years of the fourth century the period of forty days before Easter, during which Christians were expected to fast, was being observed in some parts of the Church. The length of this period varied at first, as did whether Sundays were included or excluded from the fast. The nature of the fast also varied, with some Christians – particularly the clergy and those in monastic orders – often undertaking more severe fasts than lay people. For most Christians fasting involved not eating meat; sometimes fish also; usually also eggs and dairy products. (This is the origin of the custom of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, so that all one’s remaining eggs and milk products might be eaten up).
But whatever variations there were, the expectation was that Lent was a period of fasting for all Christians; indeed St. Athanasius, writing to the church in Alexandria in 339, said that the church in Egypt risked becoming a laughing stock by being the only place in the world where Christians were ‘taking their pleasure’ during Lent, and not fasting. This continued through the Middle Ages, in the Church in both eastern and western Europe, although the nature of the fast tended to evolve as time progressed. The Church in the west originally defined a fast day as one on which only one meal was taken, in the evening; although the time of eating was gradually moved forward, until it became usual to take one’s meal in the middle of the day. This is the current Roman Catholic position. The Orthodox churches allow for the equivalent of one and a half normal meals on a fast day. The Protestant churches never placed a great emphasis on fasting, and this remains the case today.
But what is the purpose of fasting? Why has it been such an important part of Lent for countless Christians through the years? The Eastern Orthodox understanding of fasting is, I believe, especially useful:
There is another aspect to fasting which we find in Judaism, and in some parts of the Christian church. This is the idea that when we become hungry, and desire the food which we might normally be eating, we should remember why we are fasting – and remember God. This keeps us mindful of God more than we might normally be. As one writer put it, fasting helps us to pray more intensively: one’s appetite acts as a prayer alarm – instead of one’s usual treat, one prays.
I have often wondered what Jesus meant when he said that one particular kind of demon could be cast out ‘only by prayer and fasting’. It seems likely that Jesus understood that fasting was a good way of strengthening the power of one’s prayers – he also clearly saw the importance of spending long periods in fasting, as when he went into the wilderness to fast and pray for forty days.
Fasting is not comfortable – indeed that is the whole point of it. It seems so unfashionable to say this, when Church seems to be more and more a place where we expect to feel good all the time. But pleasure and satisfaction are not the same as blessedness and holiness. (Several other religions know this too, and fasting as a form of self-discipline plays a greater part in Islam, Judaism and certain forms of Hinduism than it does for many Christians today).
So when I ask you once again, “What are you giving up for Lent”, I hope you can see that this is not just a trivial question to which we need to pay only lip-service. Can you give up a meal a week? or more than one meal a week? can you give the money that you save to someone in need? I shall be trying to practice what I preach – bearing in mind also the Jewish teaching that the rigours of fasting are not an excuse for irritability or for self-indulgence in other ways (at least that is the aim!) I sometimes feel that Lent has become so watered-down that by the time we get to Easter Day, our resurrection celebrations are also rather weak and superficial. So let’s try hard to make something of Lent – in the expectation that the blessings and joys of Easter will be all the greater.