Fasting: It’s the Latest Fashion

With the Christian season of Lent upon us, Dr. Jenkins offered his thoughts to the Eastern University community:

“I want to talk a little bit about memory. Recently I’ve been remembering all sorts of hymns from my childhood, and one hymn in particular–I can’t get it out of my head—called “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” The last verse says: “When from Mt. Pisgah’s lofty height / I view my home and take my flight / these robes of flesh I’ll drop and rise / to take the everlasting prize.” We tend not to notice how much the Bible talks about vestments and robes and clothes. The idea of “robes of flesh,” or what the Fathers called “the garments of skin” (Genesis 3:20), is critical for understanding human nature because what we are now is not natural. In fact, we are unnatural in the sense that we are not suited for life. Prior to the Fall, we were oriented to God, and we had a body suitable for immortality. Adam fell by looking away from what God ordered him to do, and viewing the world in complete abeyance of God as creator. Thus “the garments of skin” that Adam receives are actually a suiting of mortality. . . . They were God’s provision for us, so that we could now survive.

Fasting existed prior to the Fall. What does God say? “Every tree of the garden you may eat, but the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” So fasting is one of the first commands, not because the tree of the knowledge of good and evil wasn’t good, but because it wasn’t meant for Adam at that moment. In other words, he had to realize that he could not live by what he wanted to do, but instead by God’s instruction. In this regard, when we fast during Lent, we are trying to, as it were, get back to Paradise.

What exactly was Adam vested with in Paradise? The Church Fathers talk about Adam being naked, but they also talk about him being robed with glory—glory which now is gone because we have put on corruptibility and mortality. The loss of glory brings shame: Adam reacts by getting fig leaves! But God instead gives him a body suited for the mortal world, and in this regard God has made us animalistic. We live as animals in that we now partake of the animalistic cycle of life, and are cut off from the immortal. The only way to obtain immortality is to again attain the robes of glory. And this, of course, is what we believe: we believe we obtain these robes of glory when we put on Christ.

So what is then fasting, having put on Christ? Why do still need to fast?

First, fasting teaches us that we do not live by bread alone. And so we see one of the beginning narratives of the Gospels: Christ, following his baptism, goes into the desert and confronts Satan. Unlike Adam, who is confronted in the garden, Christ goes into the desert and there he fasts. What does it mean to live “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4)? Essentially, it means that I should not order my life around my stomach or around my passions.

Second, Christians fast because [as long as?] fasting is not an end in itself. I don’t fast just to fast. Ultimately, I don’t even fast to discipline my body, even though it is a very good discipline. Instead, fasting is a reorientation of how I think about life. Thus fasting is not about food: as St. John Chrysostom warns us, “You abstain from food only to eat each other.”

St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 that we “groan . . . not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” In this image, Paul is talking to us about how we, as Christians, are in this mortal body. Too often we think that our bodies are evil, but this is not what the practice of fasting teaches us. Instead, fasting means reorienting how I think so that my body can be ready for immortality. We realize in fasting that this world is incomplete because it is insufficient for union with God. When we fast, then, we are putting on clothes for immortality.

Putting on Christ is not a metaphor for being happy. Nor is it merely some sort of legal transaction. Putting on Christ means that I gain immortality; it is given to me because it is what I was created for. In that I am created for it, I can no longer desire my own ends. I must figure out God’s purpose and see the world as God asks me to see it; and I do this by repentance. Repentance is far more than just being sorry for my sins. In repentance, I come to a new relationship with God. I am completely changing the internal eye of my soul so that I no longer look at the world as an end in itself. I no longer see food merely as that which sustains me to my next meal. I now look at my wife as someone who with me is going to be a saint. I see others as people who need me to get to Heaven, and whom I need to get there too.

Ultimately what repentance means, what fasting means, is nostalgia for heaven. The first time I heard that it immediately struck me, of course, how can we be nostalgic for someplace we’ve never been? And of course the answer is that we have been there. I get nostalgic for Baltimore, because it was always home. And although Baltimore will never be my home again, there’s something else for which I’d rather be nostalgic. There’s something else that I am longing for. When we think about all sorts of ideas that float around the world, some of the brutally murderous ideas that have floated around the world—people’s ideas of utopia at the end of a gun—what is repentance telling us? What is fasting telling us? It’s telling us “I can never hope—or more aptly I should never expect—justice and fairness, and probably not even happiness, real happiness in this world.” Now, I’m not telling you to go around being glum. We cannot be! Christ commands us: “When you fast, do not look dismal like the hypocrites, . . . but anoint your head and wash your face” (Matthew 6:16-17). Why? Because you’re not doing this to torture yourself. You’re doing this in order to orient yourself towards eternity, to orient yourself towards God. This is what the life of repentance is, this is what fasting is about—that we don’t live by bread alone, but by the word of the Father.”

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