In the Small Catechism, under the topic of the Sacrament of the Altar, the fourth question, “Who then, receives this Sacrament worthily?”, Luther answers, “Fasting and bodily preparation are, in fact, a fine external discipline”. Luther then goes on to tell us that true preparation for the Lord’s Supper is faith. That is usually the entire discussion of fasting in the Lutheran Church. For some reason, we tend to simply dismiss the idea of fasting with Luther’s words about how they are “a fine outward training” (or, as above, “external discipline”).
What Luther said about fasting, however, was that it was a good thing to do. It did not serve as adequate preparation for reception of the Lord’s body and blood, but it was a good discipline. As a “discipline,” it is a training thing - what I often refer to as a “devotional exercise”. Although it is not required, it is often useful and even beneficial as an exercise, to discipline the flesh as we live out our vocation as the holy people of God. I bring this up because our topic for this month’s newsletter is “The Lenten Fast”.
The Lenten Fast is what I first encountered in life as “giving something up for Lent”. When I was a child, my mother, who had been raised Roman Catholic, taught us her childhood tradition of giving something up for Lent. It was typically something like your favorite candy, or, perhaps, deliberately not watching your favorite TV program for those six weeks. No one called it fasting, and I wasn’t always very clear on why we gave something up, but we did it every year. It set the season of Lent aside as something unique and special. Eventually, I learned that giving something up for Lent was a way of remembering the fasting of Jesus in the wilderness as He confronted the temptations of the devil head-on just after His baptism. We gave up something small, and frequently failed to discipline ourselves to maintain the “fast” throughout the six weeks. Our struggles to keep the fast disciplined us, that is, they taught us just a little about the enormous thing Jesus did when He went without food for those forty days and forty nights.
Our culture teaches us that we are individuals. Human society learned that principle from the Gospel. It was the Gospel which taught us that each of us was counted worth the love of God – by God! – and valued highly by the death of His Son in our place and for our redemption. Salvation was for each, individually, and suddenly we can to see ourselves as individual people rather than instances of a group, class, or caste. This was wonderful news! But our culture has evolved the notion of individuality into something radical and independent of anyone or anything. That notion is simply false, and when taken to an extreme is deadly dangerous.
Centuries ago this drift in popular philosophy - the way people tend to think - was already noted, and responded to. “No man is an island”, was how the poet John Donne stated it in the early 1600's. Donne wanted to remind people that all of humanity was interconnected - and that we all alike must die; “Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls (the church-bell tolling at the death of someone), it tolls for you.” My point here is not exactly the same as Donne’s, but while we are valued by God as individuals, while we live, we are never entirely free of others.
In the Church, we are taught explicitly that we are interconnected. We are members of the body of Christ and members individually of one another. Radical individualism and independence subvert the Gospel and the community of Christ’s people which we call the Church. But our culture teaches us that we are free, and we have rights. Neither statement is absolutely true. Freedoms have limits, and none of our rights are absolute in the realm of civil government. For the Christian, what society calls “rights” we call “blessings” or “privileges”. They are what the Lord makes them, because we are His, purchased and won at the price of the cross. We are not free, except as our God grants us liberties; but He never grants us liberties which set us free from Him or from the principle of love for one another.
The resulting conflict between what we want and what God would have for us, and have us to be, causes us frustration and anxiety, at times, and stress. For the Christian to live out his or her confession requires disciplining the flesh — which is where the fast comes in. Fasting and bodily preparation are, in fact, a fine external discipline.
The discipline of the fast is a way of training your flesh to walk in the light of faith. We deny ourselves something here, for a specific time and with a specific goal in mind, to teach our flesh to obey our spirit, and remind ourselves that God will provide, so we can ‘do without’ for a time without the worry that we will suffer any great injury. Somewhere in here comes the Lenten Fast. It is not a rule or Law. Many Lutherans are not even familiar with it as a tradition. If it can be done as a devotional exercise, it can be profitable. The idea is to keep one’s head in the game, so to speak. It should help you remember that it is Lent, and act devotionally to remind you of what our Lord endured for you, to some small degree.
The Lenten Fast should be something simple, but something that you will notice is missing. Giving up a food item that you really don’t like is not likely to serve you devotionally. You might consider abstaining from an activity that you find enjoyable, and reserve that time for a Lenten devotional reading instead. The goal of a fast should be to heighten your awareness of the season of Lent and prepare you to contemplate the Passion of our Lord and the joys of Easter more attentively. The fast is a spiritual, devotional exercise. It can be of great benefit as a discipline - a thing which disciples us. It can only do so, however, if we are already disciples. Because we make no command, one could look at the fast as a “voluntary law”. It is such a law as we may choose to pick it up and exercise ourselves with it, or elect to ignore it without injury to ourselves. It is also a manmade thing. God nowhere commands a Lenten Fast.
In the Old Testament, fasting was very much a part of repentance. Over and over again Israel would fast and pray, often in sack-cloth and ashes – the symbols of repentance – as they sought forgiveness and divine protection. In Isaiah 58, God even declares the sort of fast which He would see from His people - and why their fasts were so often unable to secure the blessings that they expected and desired from them. “Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free, And break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; You will cry, and He will say, 'Here I am.'”
Perhaps one of the customs of the Church that we have let slip away that we should not have is fasting. It isn’t appealing to our flesh or fun, but maybe we can find some good in the devotional exercise and spiritual discipline of a fast. If the thought is new to you, perhaps you could start slow and easy - like with a Lenten Fast, you know, giving something up for Lent, and thereby keeping Christ and Lent in the front of your mind this Lenten Season. “Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; You will cry, and He will say, 'Here I am.'”