Because fasting is an integral practice of Lent, and a weekly spiritual practice in our community, we wanted to share with you this meditation on Luke 5:33-39 as some “food for thought” and a potential aid to growing in union with Jesus through fasting this Lent and beyond.
The Scribes and the Pharisees said to Jesus, “The disciples of John the Baptist fast often and offer prayers, and the disciples of the Pharisees do the same; but yours eat and drink.” (Luke 5:33) When the Scribes and Pharisees approach Jesus to ask Him about fasting, they want to discredit Him. They are trying to trip Him up and point out that He is different because He does things differently and therefore is wrong. In His response to them He is trying to draw them to Himself. He wants to draw them to the truth, away from their superficial, externally focused way of seeing things.
Jesus wants them to go deeper, to look at the true purpose, the authentic meaning of fasting. The purpose of fasting, for Jesus (and so for us) is this: union. In response to their accusation against His disciples who did not fast, the first words He speaks are surprisingly about a wedding: “Can you make the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” (Luke 5:34) He does not speak of practices, rituals or rules. Instead, He refers immediately to a bridegroom rejoicing in his bride and the celebration of the bridegroom’s friends.
Jesus thus calls to our mind’s eye the beautiful scene of a Jewish wedding. There is joy and deep love that can almost be felt as we think of such a celebration. The Lord is presenting to the Pharisees and Scribes what is taking place between Himself and His friends. They are celebrating the wonderful gift of God, the Divine Bridegroom, becoming man and taking to Himself a bride. From Scripture we learn that this bride is the chosen people of God, the Church. From the saints and spiritual writers, as well as our own personal encounters with Christ, we can also consider that our soul is the “bride” that Jesus wants to take to Himself.
Why would Jesus respond in this way, with this evocative imagery, to a question about penance and fasting? He wants us to understand that fasting is not about rituals and regulations but rather it is a means of union with Him. He is the long awaited Bridegroom who has finally come. At the time of His coming, and from then on, everything is changed; everything is now centered in Him. Fasting thus becomes focused on our relationship with the Lord, a means for union with Him. We grow in this union by letting Him have the freedom to enter more deeply into our hearts and fill them with Himself.
“Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, ‘sackcloth and ashes,’ fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance.”(CCC 1430)
In the second sentence of Jesus’ response, we start to learn how. “But the days will come, and when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast in those days.” (Luke 5:35) Our Lord did not tell the Pharisees that His disciples would never fast, but that it would be for the appropriate reason. Feeling the need for their absent, beloved Friend, they would embrace fasting as a means to be reunited with Him, an expression of their desire for Him. Through fasting they would “make room for Him” in their hearts.
Jesus continues to explain, revealing further the true purpose of fasting. And he also told them a parable. “No one tears a piece from a new cloak to patch an old one. Otherwise, he will tear the new and the piece from it will not match the old cloak. Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins, and it will be spilled, and the skins will be ruined. Rather, new wine must be poured into fresh wineskins. And no one who has been drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’” (Luke 5:36-39)
If His disciples would have taken on the rigors of fasting too soon, with the mentality like that of the Pharisees and Scribes, it would have taken them away from Jesus and the new teaching He came to impart, the new grace He wanted to give, the “new wine.” The Pharisees clung to themselves when they fasted, rather than letting it lead them to God. They used it as a means of self-glorification, “I fast twice a week” rather than self-emptying, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:12,13) Like inflexible wineskins, they relied upon their own efforts, their own labors, their own merits.
Jesus, meek and humble of heart, has come to teach us another way: to trust in Him and let go of our self-reliance. When we come to the Lord, we need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, docile in His hands, like soft clay that He can form, or like new wineskins that He can fill. If we cling to our old ways, our self-reliance or our own understanding, we will not be able to receive fully all that He wants to give to us. We will render ourselves incapable of being filled with that new, super-human life that will change the way we think and act and live.
In the Prayer In Union with Jesus, which we pray every day after Mass, the first thing we ask our Lord is for the grace to empty ourselves. “Lord Jesus, grant me the grace to empty myself . . . ” By this we mean that we need His help to let go of that which gets in the way of our union with Him. When, by His grace, we are able to do so, even if it is just a little at a time, we can then be filled that much more with Him (as the rest of the Prayer In Union says, “ . . . and be filled with Your Love, Peace, Patience . . . ”). Through fasting we can deny ourselves as a way to tell the Lord, “Jesus, I want more of You.” With Saint John the Baptist we can say, “He must increase, I must decrease.” More of You, Lord, less of me.
By Sr. Teresa of the Two Hearts, OSIHJM