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Fasting or Feasting

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Fasting and Feasting 

Read : St Matthew 9 : 14-17 (NLT) 

Those of us who have been observing some kind of abstinence during Lent, or have been undertaking a course of reading or study on a Lenten theme, must be aware that the season is nearly over. Next week is Holy Week when we follow Christ day by day on His way to the Cross, and afterwards we celebrate His glorious resurrection. Whether you look forward to the daffodils in church, the chocolate eggs or the first glass of wine at Easter lunch, there is always a wonderful golden light shining over this Festival which seems set in the heart of springtime. 

To fast, or at least to give up something one enjoys, has become a common practice in Lent and is even observed by those who have no particular religious affiliation but who really only wish to prove that they can undertake this exercise in self-control. What Christians are marking is the forty days which Christ spent in the wilderness preparing for his ministry. We are told by Mark that John was baptising in the wilderness by the river Jordan and that Jesus went there from Nazareth. Afterwards Jesus was 'driven by the Spirit' further into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil, lived among the wild beasts but angels came and waited on him.  

Life in the wilderness was a time of testing, of danger and deprivation, but there were also the ministrations of the angels. If we make changes during Lent in our normal lives, these can be times of value and spiritual growth. We can be renewed in our spirit and in our faith, we can grow in our knowledge and understanding and find this a time of refreshment. 

The two stories which we have just read appear together in three of the gospels although they do not seem to be linked in any way. The passage on fasting which we read in Matthew shows that Jesus did not believe in fasting for the wrong reasons; it had to be a natural expression of repentance or grief, observed in private. He probably presumed that the disciples fasted on the few occasions when it was decreed by Judaic law but these days had been augmented by oral tradition and many people made a show of their fasting so that everyone knew of it.  

In the story of the bridegroom, clearly joy prevails through the week-long wedding celebrations of those times. To fast at such a time could only be appropriate because of some disaster such as accident or death. It is presumed that Jesus was referring to himself as the bridegroom and to the disciples as his friends. The reference to the bridegroom being taken away points to his death and the subsequent fasting practised by the early church.  

feasting or fasting

The Christian religion is epitomised by joy, what Stevenson called 'my great task of happiness', and this joy once rooted in the heart can never be taken away by the changes and chances of earthly life. A gloomy Christian somehow negates the great hope at the heart of our faith. 

The parable of the wineskins would have been readily understood by a Jewish audience. Old wineskins gradually hardened and became inflexible. If new wine was put in, it would give off gases as it matured which would split the skins. New wine must be put in new skins which would have a natural elasticity which could cope with the maturing process.  

Jesus had a respect for the Judaic forms of worship but knew that they would not be able to adapt to the inclusion of the new ideas he was putting forward in his preaching of the coming kingdom. Many churches and institutions cling to the old ways but it is well known that to survive there must be change. Many people look back to 'the good old days' and wish to maintain traditions; but how old are these traditions?  

Over the centuries since this land was first given to the monks of St Cuthbert, there have been several churches on this site. This building contains parts of its two predecessors. This religious site has seen many changes, of denomination, lay-out and type of building. People have stood, sat or knelt to pray. But we move on. It has been said that those who long for the old days are worshipping the past and not God. But there is nothing wrong in being moved by the chain of prayer across the ages in a place like this. As T. S. Eliot wrote 'You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid.' We can be encouraged by the past as we journey into the future, but we must remember that renewal begins with us.  

Lent can seem like a journey, a journey in the footsteps of Christ. We can learn and grow and mature as the springtime world is growing and maturing all around us. The forty days in the wilderness can indeed be forty days of renewal. May this Lenten season have been that for us. 

Bridget Cameron, 2017


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