First Sunday in Lent

Matthew 9: 14-15


When I was a seminarian, I remember being advised to watch television soaps. “If you do this” we were told, “you’ll always have a topic of conversation for any pastoral visit which you might make.”

I’m not sure the advice was good, but I am able to blame the adviser for the fact that I do watch both “Coronation Street”, and, I’m ashamed to say  “Emmerdale.”

And I’m continually amazed at the way in which the residents of Emmerdale live. Murder, robbery, rape, deceit, lies and sexual immorality is the lifestyle in which I think, every villager is immersed And this includes the lady Anglican vicar who’s just condoned the murder of the man with whom she was having an affair, before secretly burying him in a fresh church yard grave and subsequently digging him up for reburial in a local wood!

And yet, would you believe it, in one episode this week, I heard a particular villager claim that she was giving up chocolate, for Lent!

I’m glad I saw that episode because it reminded me just how common it is for people to say that they’re giving something up for Lent. Often when they have no idea what they’re talking about.

And it was with these thoughts going through my mind that I began to reflect anew on the whole business of “giving something up “for Lent. What does it mean? Why does anyone do it? How necessary is it? And should we perhaps bring a fresh look at the whole practise of fasting? Because “Giving something up for Lent” is just that. It’s the practise of Fasting as a part of your religious commitment.

Now, the Gospels recount how the followers of John the Baptist came to Jesus, in the earlier part of his ministry, and asked him why his disciples didn’t fast in the same way as they did. They also pointed out that the Pharisees practised fasting as well.

Jesus replied that wedding guests didn’t fast whilst the groom was present, but he went on to say that when the groom was taken away, then they would begin to fast.  Jesus was saying that after his death, those who followed him would fast, and in the next part of the conversation he pointed out that this was a new time and called for a new approach. You’ll probably remember his teachings about new skins for new wine.

So; should we practise fasting?

The answer is “yes”, but we need to be very clear about what fasting is and why we should do it.

We don’t do it just because it’s the kind of tradition often practised in Lent.  We don’t give something up in order to tell other people what we’re doing this year. That would put us right back into Emmerdale, and who wants to go there?!

We do it because Jesus said that his followers would fast after he’d been taken away, and the only reason this makes any kind of sense to me is that fasting is a way of drawing closer to the Lord whose historical bodily presence was taken away by his death, and whose presence we long for.

It means going without something in order that its loss will be a way into a greater awareness of the presence of Jesus in those new ways which God has given us.

There’s a strong tradition in the church which advocates the pain of fasting as being a sign that we put God before the hunger for physical food, and that therefore in some strange way, prayer in this condition is somehow more valid. I don’t personally find that particularly helpful. I don’t think that hunger for food would bring me any closer to Jesus, but I do think I could get up a bit earlier and start to say the morning office without convincing myself that I should first read my emails and look at the news headlines. And in this case, the giving up of the pleasure of an extra half hour in bed and the luxury of an early cup of tea and a biscuit whilst flipping through my iPad, would indeed help me to get a bit closer to Jesus.

This would be a Lenten Fast for me and `I’ve no doubt that you could think of Fasts which would suit your own particular journey as well. You see, I think we need to listen carefully to what Jesus is saying. We fast in order to get closer to him and it might be good to begin to think how this understanding of fasting fits into the story of fresh skins for new wine.

And perhaps we might also consider what other bodily habits we might deny ourselves in order to get closer to Jesus. Maybe we might consider a fast of speech when we meet someone whom we feel needs to be put straight with a few well-chosen words.

Or indeed, maybe a fast of the eyes from viewing Emmerdale would draw us nearer to the Lord by giving us some extra time in which we might reflect more deeply, on just what God has done for us through his Son.

May God support you all through your Lenten observances.