Saturday, the Pope declared a day of fasting for the worldwide Church. I have done enough hand wringing over the situation in Syria so I felt relieved for the opportunity to do something tangible. I abstained all day and broke the fast with dinner in the traditional Catholic way of fasting; my husband at the head of the table and our children on all sides. We bowed heads and prayed for the precious lives lost. I broke the bread and passed it, the body of Christ. Amongst flickering candlelight, as the sun made her departure, I recited a vespers prayer and quoted John of the Cross,
“In the twilight of life, God will not judge us on our earthly possessions and human success, but rather on how much we have loved.”
Isn’t that a wonderful story? Don’t you feel inspired? If only.
In reality, my blood sugar plummeted sometime around 10 am leaving me grumpy and ill tempered the rest of the day. I slammed dishes, I took deep breaths. I prayed for those precious babies in Syria. I called to mind their sweet faces, wet curls clinging to foreheads. How could they not be sleeping? The pictures looked just like they were sleeping?
I tried to imagine spending all day, every day like this. I thought of the Syrian mothers. I asked God to use my temporary weakness to illuminate in my heart the plight of the weak around me. I took quite a long nap to fill in the non-eating hours. I slammed some more dishes.
Dinnertime found me stuck in a stuffy gymnasium watching my boy’s soccer match. I was irritated by the noise and heat and snapped at my other son who was with me. By the time we came in the door at 6:30 I was downright irate. And starving.
So instead of sitting down at a candlelit meal to break bread and give thanks, my noisy, jostling kids fought with each other until I screamed above the mayhem. We ate in stony silence while I mulled over my failures. I asked for forgiveness once my blood sugar reached normal levels.
Even though I loathe fasting, and am clearly miserable at it, I am drawn still to the mystery of it. Jesus fasted before the Temptation in the desert. But its clear later from the Pharisees questioning that He didn’t always fast in the ways they thought He should. The Son of Man came eating and drinking. God Himself put on skin, made some wine and celebrated amongst us. Jesus fasted and feasted to the beat of His own divine drum.
I’ve spent months thinking it over and it is still confusing to me why He chose to fast sometimes and to feast other times. I don’t fully understand what He is trying to convey to us through it but it seems that Feasting and Fasting have this in common: They both acknowledge God as giver and sustainer. They both serve to prepare us for what is to come. But most of all, they allow us to enter into the place of the Other. When we celebrate and feast at a wedding, we are declaring it good and blessing it with our full stomachs and revelry. When we fast we enter into pain. Our empty hands and stomachs testify. We put aside ourselves and make room in our hearts for the sorrows of another.
Paradoxically, Jesus did not fast before the Passion and Crucifixion, the most intense trial of His life. He chose instead to Feast. He supped for the Last Time with the 12. And in this feasting, in this wine drinking and bread breaking He tells of an upcoming fast.
In Matthew 26:29, as Jesus was holding the cup of wine, telling the disciples to drink from it He says, “I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
I believe that He is choosing to fast because wine implies a celebration. Jesus is in Heaven, He has broken the bonds of sin, He is seated at the right hand of God and is reigning as King, yet He is not celebrating. He is king, but He is also our high priest who sympathizes with us in our weakness. His abstention is how He sympathizes with us in our weakness. This is Jesus acknowledging that in this life there is still unfinished business. By Him abstaining from celebrating He is in essence saying this to us:
“I see you. I see your suffering. I see your pain. I see your tears. I see it all and I fully understand it all because before any of that suffering came to you, it came to Me first. No matter how extreme, how unbearable suffering in this life may feel, nothing has come to you that did not pass through Me first. Because I go before you, I know how this story ends. The end is celebrating with you at the Big Table. After I have made all things right. After I have made all things new.”