The weather had been unstable. One day brilliant and warm, the next day stormy with a wintery edge to the wind. An autumn day in Judea, long long ago. Your friends and even strangers call you a God-fearer. Not born a Jew, but you know Torah better than a few descendants of Moses. You learned the household practices and public rituals. And then you heard him. This Jesus of Nazareth. The things he says and the things he does, he makes Torah come alive, fills it with flesh and blood, and love. Some people say he used to study with the Essenes, and yet others with the Pharisees. An old woman who walks with you says he is somehow kin to John, the one who is baptizing down at the river.
Somehow, you don’t really care about that. He is like no one you have ever met, and entirely just like everything you want to be. The day of Atonement, a fasting festival is coming, and it makes you wonder. So you speak up, and ask out loud in a clear voice: Why don’t we seem to fast?
Starve the emptiness and feed the hunger. How do you starve emptiness? Is it reasonable or possible to deprive nothingness? Not the emptiness of a solitary room, but the blankness of bored lives, the way you can feel lost in the middle of a crowd, how we might feel very shallow in the presence of plenty.
“Why do John’s disciples and the Pharisees’ disciples fast, but yours don’t?” It is a very reasonable question. Everyone you have ever known, every religious system they have ever heard of, the Essenes, the Zoroastrians, they all fast. From something. In a material world that can shift from grains of sand to stores of grain in a season, fasting reminds us of survival, of abundance and fragility. Food is survival memory.
Fasting in religious practices across time and place is commonly tied to penance, protest, mourning and discernment. When experienced with holiness it has been known for millennia to well, work. The followers of John the Baptist fasted, the Pharisees fasted. Yet, Jesus, who did fast, is not asking them to fast. There is this first somber hint of Jesus’ coming death, which is a reminder that this Gospel is not a live tweet, but a faith story of memory mixed with the needs of a Markan community, who will be people who religiously fast in the name of Jesus. Fasting is a core practice of Judaism to this very day, and the early communities we know in the New Testament are still deeply embedded in Jewish community life, that it is no surprise that some fresh evolution of fasting will soon become a part of Christian practice.
Yet, like so often, Jesus turns it upside-down. Right now, in this text, while Jesus is teaching and healing, right now is the time not to fast, but to Feast. While he is with us, he will reach into that other side of the survival memory. We will break bread together. He invites us to starve the emptiness and feed the hunger. Again and again, and in the days after his resurrection, he invites us to feast. A feast of new life and fresh understanding. A feast of clarity about the brokenness of the world around us, and how this man, his life and his teachings, are the way to salvation. Recalling the words of the book of the scrolls of Isaiah, he invites us to a new fast. One that feeds the hunger. Real hunger for real calories for real people, and the kinds of hunger that folks with full cabinets feel. Live in him and he will starve the emptiness. How does Jesus starve the emptiness? By feeding the hunger. The hunger for forgiveness and compassion. The desire for real solutions to real problems that can loosen yokes and shelter the refugee. Whatever you give to the Lenten season, my advice is this.
Whatever fast or project you choose, and you should choose something, how can it starve the emptiness and feed the hunger? Fasting is a practice across religions for one simple reason. It works. For all the human error and brokenness of the strangeness of religious systems of the questionable pursuit of embracing the Holy, over time what remains is what ‘works’. Fasting works because it invites us to redraw our parameters.
Poet-philosopher David Whyte suggests why in his essay, ‘Withdrawl’.
“We make ourselves available
for the simple purification
of seeing ourselves and our world
more elementally and therefore more clearly again.
We withdraw not to disappear,
but to find another ground from which to see;
a solid ground from which to step,
and from which to speak again,
in a different way, a clear, rested,
our life as a suddenly emphatic statement
and one from which we do not wish to withdraw.”
Jesus’ answer as to why he wasn’t fasting with his followers, is that what he invited us into is a kind of fast that is actually a feast. Neither chocolate nor cheese, nor sackcloth and ashes, but an invitation to a different way, that is a clear, refreshed and holy statement. Starve emptiness, feed hunger. This is the fast, the fast that is a feast, that Jesus chooses.
(There is no doubt the refrain from this homily came from this song.)
Holden Ecumenical Evening Prayer
February 18, 2016
Pioneer Methodist Church
Walla Walla, Washington