"Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked that thou cover him: and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Is. lviii, 6-7.
The prophet thus sternly rebukes the house of Jacob for their meaningless and hypocritical fasting. They did indeed bow down their heads "as a bulrush," they spread sackcloth and ashes under them, they scrupulously performed all the outward duties of the fast, yet they utterly ignored both God and their fellow-men. In the day of their fast they found pleasure, and they exacted all their labours. Instead of being holy to the Lord the fast day became a day of merrymaking, and instead of it being a blessing to the poor and the afflicted, the slave was not released from his burden nor was the oppressed relieved, the hungry were not fed nor the homeless sheltered, the naked were left in their nakedness and the right of the stranger to brotherly kindness was ignored. In other words the pretended fast was an utter mockery, an act of sheer hypocrisy utterly displeasing to the Most High.
Yet the casual reader is very apt to miss the true force of the passage and to put upon it a meaning not really justified. He reads and cries, That is my idea exactly of fasting, feeding the hungry and caring for the destitute, not going without food and making one's self miserable with all sorts of penances. The going without one's ordinary food is a mere bit of formalism, worth nothing at all in the eyes of God--is if there were virtue in being hungry because it is voluntary! If there were but food enough for one, and a man relinquished his own dinner, going hungry, that a hungrier than himself might eat--that were very good indeed, genuine Christian charity; but to go without one's meals merely for the sake of afflicting one's body is the variest unreality of devotion.
What then, let us ask of the objector, is your idea of common-sense fasting, such as one might profitably make use of in Lent?
I. First, one should reduce one's table, giving up certain luxuries and delicacies, innocent enough in their way but which could be spared without hurt to health and strength, saving the money ordinarily expended on these to give in alms. In the matter of many small luxuries the same thing might be carried out during the Lenten season, as a man's wine or cigars, and a very considerable sum of money be thus accumulated for the poor.
2. Then there are many small kindnesses we might do, as taking a certain amount of time every week for going to see and cheer up some sick person, or in visiting among the poor. Poor people almost always like to have pleasant unofficial calls made upon them by kindly bright-faced visitors, and many a sick man is vastly cheered by a half hour's call from some business comrade or social acquaintance. Often a man starts out with this as one of his Lenten rules, that once a week he will go to see some sick friend he knows of. It is a capital rule, the only trouble is that too often it is a rule not carried out, or he goes once, and then never finds a convenient season for going the second time.
3. Again every one is better for a little rest from one's ordinary social joys and gaiety, even though the gaiety be of a very mild character. It is a good thing in Lent to go to bed earlier, to lead a more regular life, giving up parties and places of public amusement. To do this for a season like Lent, once a year, is conducive both to bodily and mental health, and we are often told that in this way Lent has its distinct hygienic value regarded merely from the worldly point of view. It answers the same purpose for the man or woman in society as does the two weeks' vacation for the tired clerk or salesman.
I think most people would say, There is a great deal of common-sense in that idea of Lent, it is practical, it certainly must be useful. More devout ones would add that the holy season should be a time for special self-examination and reflection upon our lives and the things of eternity, a time of greater prayer and worship. One should try to increase one's devotions, to go to Church more frequently and to cultivate a more spiritual atmosphere than at other times. That devotional idea added to those of self-denial to save money for the poor, of visiting the sick, and of resting from social dissipations, seems to give one a very practical and rational plan for Lenten observance; most people would say it is a very common-sense view of fasting.
Let us test it by going to our Bibles, not so much to that Old Testament teaching as in our text which indeed only insists upon fasting being real and not hypocritical, but rather to the great Teacher of all good things, our Divine Master Himself, Who in His own Person gives us the fuller and more perfect conception of fasting, of which the Old Testament fasting was but an undeveloped type.
We behold Him as the Evangelists picture Him, in the wilderness, far from the haunts of men. He is with the wild beasts; and there He fasts forty days and forty nights, and is afterward a hungered. Why do you think it is said He fasted forty nights as well as forty days? I think perhaps to remind us that He did not even take to Himself that refreshment of sleep by night that might somewhat have assuaged the rigors of His great fast, but passed the nights as well as the days in prayer and meditation. Is it not said that He was with the wild beasts? and they, we know, roam at night time. So we may believe that by night as well as by day He kept His vigil. We are quite familiar with the story of our Lord's great fast--we have read it very often in our Bibles; it is without doubt the model upon which the Church's Lenten fast is framed. The question is surely pertinent therefore, Was His fasting what we might call common-sense fasting?
1. We have no reason to suppose that by thus going without food for forty days He saved up money to give in alms to the poor. It is utterly unlikely that He left directions at home to have the probable cost of His meals thus saved put by to be given in alms. There is not a hint of such a thing. It were quite gratuitous to suppose it.
2. Nor did He pass His quiet time in ministering to the sick and to the afflicted. He purposely separated Himself from all His fellow men. For the time being He became that which to our modern humanitarian notions is most unlovely--a recluse, spending His magnificent powers of sympathy and help upon the fierce brutes of the desert. There is a weird pathos in this stooping down of His great soul to these humblest of His creatures, letting them know the wonders of His love, assuaging their fierce passions, healing their wounds, making them to feel the gracious peace of the garden of Eden before man fell, aye, making them to love Him as only brutes can love. Your utilitarian Christian would say this love and sympathy were wasted because they were not bestowed upon rational creatures. No doubt indeed the Master in His solitude was praying for men and all their needs, and prayer, especially such prayer as His, must be the greatest in power of all deeds of mercy, yet we feel that it ought to be accompanied with active benevolence to be truly effective, and this was wholly wanting in our Lord's fasting.
3. We may not think that He retired into the wilderness that He might rest awhile from the work and pleasure of every day life. There is no thought of any hygienic consideration in our Lord's Lent, rather does it appear as if He had gone out of the quiet life of His humble world to meet a terrific struggle, a deadly conflict in the wilderness. For while the greatest temptations came at the end, after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, St. Mark expressly declares "He was there in the wilderness forty days tempted of Satan," implying that the whole of His Lent was full of temptation.
It would appear therefore that the Master's fasting was in no sense what we have already described as common-sense fasting, it lacks everyone of the important elements of that exercise. How are we to account for this? How are we going to reconcile our theory and our facts? The unbeliever, possibly the broad Churchman might answer, The Master Himself shared in the fanaticism of His time; He chose not to anticipate the better and truer views of fasting that an enlightened religious sentiment was to adopt. We cannot admit such ideas for a moment; it were treason to our Lord to suppose that He could make a mistake on such a point--on any point.
What then? Let us try to understand why He thus fasted. There are two reasons that must be plain to every thoughtful student of His life.
i. The most obvious is that He would thus prepare Himself to meet successfully the terrific assault the Tempter should bring upon Him when the forty days were ended and He was a hungered. Our Lord's temptation will always be a mystery to us in this world, but we can have no doubt that it was a real temptation, that He was tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin, and also in that He Himself hath suffered being tempted, He is able to succour them that are tempted.
By sharp austerity, fasting indeed, He so disciplined the natural inclinations of the flesh, which in Him could only be innocent as the proper craving for food, that they might not get beyond control of His human will even in such matters. By the dreariness of the desert He effectually schooled His natural inclinations towards the things of this world, which He could only desire for holy and beneficent purposes such as the saving of the nations, that they might not go beyond the control of His human will in anything God had not clearly appointed for them. By separating Himself from the haunts of men, being forgotten or ignored by them, left only to the company of the wild beasts, He practised His great spirit in that sublime humility which should enable His human will effectually and under greatest stress of temptation to resist all natural inclination to be honoured and esteemed even for the noble purpose, the only one that could be in Him, of lifting up the world to salvation.
Thus in every way did He make His Lent a true time of severest discipline of the natural man, that acquiring absolute self-mastery He might meet the Tempter with the weapons vouchsafed by God to man, and conquer.
2. The other reason for His fast if not quite so obvious is none the less real. His will from the Jay of His first coming into the world was to suffer on man's behalf. Why to suffer? Because only by suffering can sin be taken away. Does this seem strange? It is because by sin man inverted the true order of his nature. He set everything at odds with the true. He can only be restored by a new overturning, by the contradiction of his present fallen nature. And that involves pain. To be sure the Master had no fallen nature, but He willed, so far as the consequences were concerned, to be as in fallen nature; He came in the likeness of sinful flesh, and therefore willed to suffer as a sinner Who knew no sin. We might say that the awful woe of .Gethsemane and Calvary was sufficient to take away the sin of the world, even as we might say that one single drop of His most precious Blood could wash free from stain the universe; yet such was the prodigality of His self-surrender for His creatures that He willed to make His whole life one prolonged Passion, and to pour out the whole full stream of His glorious Blood. It is true that we speak of the sufferings of the last hours of His earthly life as the Passion, for they were the climax and fulness of it, but it is not less true that His whole life was voluntarily filled full of suffering for us His creatures. His fasting in the wilderness was surely endured as a part of His suffering for the sins of the world, and all to teach us that He would atone for sin not merely with the atonement justice required, so much and no more, but with the atonement which love prompted, which should lavish so much of voluntarily endured pain upon His creatures' salvation that not only should redemption for all be provided, but that also a treasury of grace and merit might be laid up for the continual blessing of all His faithful ones with good things inexhaustible in eternity.
We may be sure then that our Lord fasted in the wilderness not merely to prepare His soul for the mighty temptation Satan was to bring against it, but quite as much to do His own heroic share in that tremendous work of bearing penalty for human sin, without which that sin could never have been taken away from our race.
Then follows the pertinent enquiry, Shall the disciple be greater than his Master and the servant than his Lord? You know and I know the answer: "It is enough for the disciple that he be as his Master, and the servant as his Lord." Have we need to learn self-mastery by keeping under the body and bringing it into subjection? One says, perhaps, I am not grievously tempted by the lusts of the flesh, my besetting sins are of another sort. Was your Master grievously tempted by the lusts of the flesh that He had to fast forty days and forty nights to subdue them? Nay, only that He might refuse to eat bread when it was not the will of God that He should. And are you free from liability to self-indulgence in appetite, in ease and in pleasure?
After all the various forms of temptation, sensuality, covetousness and pride were each one, as we have seen, prepared for by cur Lord in the keeping of His great Lent. We are so dainty of cur flesh. We may not do this or that or the other thing lest we injure our health, or weaken ourselves in some way physically. Does not God mean us to care for our health? Aye, surely, but for what purpose? That we may serve Him faithfully and do His holy will; not that we may have a good time in this world, and eat, and drink and be merry. If you are going to care for your health by neglecting God's service, if you are going to stay at home on Sunday that your health may be better for your work on Monday, or you are going to neglect the Church's plain rule of fasting on Friday that you may be in better spirits for Saturday, then, I say, the sooner your health goes to pieces the better, the sooner you die the better, for your life is a failure, you were made to serve God and you are serving only yourself.
Ah these pampered all-important bodies of ours! Good were it for each strong man to have in his room, daily before his eyes, a skeleton of some former man. You are young and strong, full of health and vigor, athletic, magnificent; but how many years will it be before you are like this poor skeleton! Good were it for each fair young woman to have in her room, daily before her eyes, a grinning skull. Look in the glass--you are beautiful, lovely, all winsome, all graceful; you charm every eye, yet it cannot be long before your sweet face is as this doleful skull. Why then care so much for the body save only to spend its powers and energies, its grace and beauty in the dear service of the best and tenderest of Masters?
Common-sense fasting as our Lord teaches it means such hard discipline of the flesh as shall keep under the body and bring it into subjection, and that is a thing sadly lacking in most of our modern fasting. But let us not lose sight of the other aspect of it.
I think we too often forget in our conception of fasting and its purpose that we ought to suffer voluntarily for our sins. There may be those who can look back upon their lives past and feel no pang for many wilful transgressions and flagrant disobediences to the Divine law in bygone years; that find no occasion to reproach themselves for ingratitude to God and unkind-ness towards their fellow men; yet I am persuaded this is not the case with most earnest Christians. We look back upon the past with shame and humiliation, with tears of contrition in our eyes. What then? If the things of the past are so unlovely in our sight what must they be in God's sight? Have we truly repented of them, that is have we endured penalty because of them? Granted that our sufferings intrinsically are nothing worth to takeaway the stains of sin from our souls, yet by our voluntarily endured sufferings we may surely demonstrate the reality of our compunction. It is easy to say, 'lam sorry," and it is easy to believe that if we are sorry God does forgive us. But how may we be sure our sorrow is that of genuine contrition? People sometimes say the truest test of a man's sincerity is the financial one; if he will give his money for a thing he is in earnest about it. That may be true in many matters, but I do not believe even the financial test is as true a one in this case as fasting. I can quite imagine that if our Lord should promise heaven beyond a peradventure to every one who should raise a certain amount of money wherewith to buy his way in there, proportioning the amount so that each should have to work hard to acquire the requisite sum, thousands of men would work night and day with indefatigable assiduity, wearing their fingers to the bone, that they might buy for themselves this great bliss. Yet how few there are who will fast after any fashion that causes the body to suffer pain, and deny themselves in ways that hurt the flesh, that they may give proof of a true sorrow for their sins, and of a really desire to suffer such penalty as they deserve because of the outrage they have done to the love of God!
Ah, my friends, common-sense fasting is much more than giving up our luxuries to save money for the poor, much more than visiting the sick and resting awhile from social gaieties; it is the faithful imitation according to our measure of our Lord's fasting in the wilderness, bringing our bodily nature into subjection to the spirit by hard physical penances, hunger, cold, weariness and the like, and giving proof by the honesty of our suffering in the flesh that we are contrite in soul for the many misdeeds of our lives that are past. Then we fast as our Lord fasted, therefore we fast with genuine fasting.