8th Sunday of the Year Hosea 2:16–17, 21–22; 2 Corinthians 3:1–6; Mark 2:18–22
Why Don’t They Fast? We must be aware, lest habituation destroy our worship of God.
Ancient Egyptians fasted to look younger. Ancient Greeks fasted to be more mentally alert. American Indians fasted to show courage. Russian icon artists fasted to paint better.
These interesting facts, and many others, are found in Dr. Allan Cott’s provocative book, Fasting: The Ultimate Diet. The cover of the popular book proclaims that fasting can help us feel better, physically and mentally.
Contrary to popular belief, fasting by adults, even for long periods of time, does not harm their health. On the contrary, it benefits them. Dr. Cott cites two interesting cases to make his point.
Japanese soldiers who hid in the jungles of the Philippine Islands for up to 30 years after World War II, rather than surrender, were found to be much healthier than their countrymen back home.
And the British people, whose food supply was severely rationed during World War II, remained remarkably fit. When the severe rationing ceased, the national health declined; and ailments that had been almost nonexistent during the rationing began to reappear.
Dr. Charles Goodrich says the chief obstacle that keeps people from fasting today is the initial fear of doing without food. This fear, he says, is deeply ingrained in us.
Besides fasting for natural reasons—to look younger, stay healthier, and show courage—ancient people also fasted for spiritual reasons.
Almost all world religions give an honored place to fasting. Legend says Buddha grew so thin from fasting that he was able to touch his backbone when he pressed his stomach.
Early Christians fasted to imitate Jesus’ own 40-day fast in the desert, to atone for sin, and to seek God’s special help.
Ancient Jews fasted for similar reasons: to repent for sin, to mourn a death, and to prepare for and hasten the coming of the Messiah and God’s kingdom.
And so it is no surprise to find fasting being discussed so vigorously in today’s gospel.
The gospel doesn’t tell why John’s disciples were fasting, but they were probably preparing for the coming of the Messiah and God’s kingdom. After all, John had told his disciples that something big was about to happen.
This would explain Jesus’ response. In effect, Jesus is saying:
“Something big has happened. The Messiah has come; the kingdom is at hand. The reason for fasting is now ended.”
To keep fasting now would be like continuing to bandage an arm after it has healed. It would be like continuing to hold an umbrella after the rain has stopped.
This brings us to an important point.
Sometimes our own practice of religion can become like that of ancient Jews who had been fasting to prepare for the coming of the Messiah and God’s kingdom.
They continued to fast even with the coming of the Messiah and God’s kingdom.
They had been fasting for so long that they had forgotten why they were fasting in the first place.
It had become a matter of routine or habit with them.
Psychologist warn us about letting routine or habit take over certain areas of our lives. Habit can be immensely helpful in some areas of our lives, but it can also be hurtful in other areas.
Religion is one area where habit can be helpful. For example, the habit of daily prayer can be extremely helpful. But there are other areas in our religious life where habit can be hurtful.
For example, taking holy water and signing ourselves upon entering a church can become so routine and habitual that we can do it without thinking. We can become so mechanical about it that it loses all meaning for us.
We can become like the Jews of Jesus’ time, who lost sight of why they were fasting. Likewise, we can lose sight of why we take holy water and sign ourselves when entering a church.
And so we need to refresh our memory from time to time. We need to recall the reason why we take holy water and sign ourselves “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
It’s to remind us of that day when we were baptized with water, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Taking holy water and signing ourselves is intended to be a conscious renewal of our baptism.
Similarly, standing, kneeling, and sitting during Mass can become so routine and habitual that we can do these things without thinking.
We can become so mechanical about them that they lose all meaning for us.
We forget that, as a general rule, we kneel to show special reverence, we sit to listen and reflect with special attention, and we stand to proclaim with special emphasis.
Likewise, we sign our forehead, lips, and heart before the reading of the Gospel to petition God that his Word may be ever in our mind, on our lips, and in our heart.
This brings us back to the gospel reading and our original point. Habit and routine can be immensely helpful in certain areas of our religious life. But if we are not on our guard, they can also become immensely hurtful.
For example, we can perform certain religious practices so routinely and habitually that we do them without thinking. We can become so mechanical about them that they lose all meaning for us.
When this happens, we are in danger of doing what some Jews did in today’s gospel. They forgot why they were fasting. They forgot that it was a sign of hungering and preparing for the coming of the Messiah and God’s kingdom.
Let’s close with a brief prayer.
Lord, keep us from praying or performing our religious practices routinely and mechanically.
Help us make all of our words and all of our actions conscious acts of worship.
We make our prayer through Christ our Lord.
Series II 8th Sunday of the Year Hosea 2:16–17, 21–22; 2 Corinthians 3:1–6; Mark 2:18–22
Parallel Relationships The relationship of husband and wife parallels the relationship of God and the believer.
Vic and Rita Galier have been married for nearly 30 years. They have six children and are now in the grandparent phase.
In an interview, Vic said that one of the big things that has helped their marriage endure is the fact that they’ve been praying together as a couple all of their married life.
This daily prayer, he said, did far more than draw them closer together. It literally held them together, especially during their first seven years when they went through some really difficult times.
Vic’s reference to some “difficult times’’ during the first seven years of marriage recalls something important about marriage.
The normal marriage, according to marriage counselors, often goes through a four-phase cycle:
the “attraction’’ or “falling in love’’ phase, the “integration’’ or “settling down’’ phase, the “crisis’’ or “bottoming out’’ phase, and the “maturing’’ or “starting again’’ phase.
Let’s take a closer look at each phase.
First, consider the “attraction’’ or “falling in love’’ phase.
This phase begins with two people being drawn or attracted to each other. The attraction normally passes through the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual stages and, eventually, flowers into marriage.
Next comes the “integration’’ or “settling down’’ phase.
Once married, the couple begins the process of integrating their love with the ordinariness of daily life.
A big challenge of this phase is to keep the ordinary from becoming routine and to keep the routine from becoming boring.
A big danger of this phase is that of taking the relationship for granted and subordinating it to other activities.
The third phase of the cycle is the “crisis’’ or “bottoming out’’ phase.
It begins when one or both parties fail to meet the challenge of the second phase: they begin taking the marriage for granted and subordinating it to other things.
When this happens, the relationship drifts into stormy water. Slowly and subtly the “adoring partner’’ becomes an “angry adversary.’’ What was once accepted in love now becomes a bone of contention.
A big challenge of this phase is to steer potential conflict into constructive directions.
A big danger of this phase is that of allowing conflict to continue to the point where communication decreases and resentment increases.
Only by dealing with differences (sometimes with the professional help of a marriage counselor) can the relationship remain intact and survive.
This brings us to the final phase: the “maturing’’ or “starting again’’ phase.
Of the four phases, it is the most beautiful and the most rewarding. Commenting on it, Andrew Greeley (whose insights we follow here) writes:
“Awkwardly, clumsily, blunderingly, they stumble into one another’s arms, forgive each other, and begin again in a new burst of romantic love.’’
And so, by way of review, normal marriages often follow a fourfold cycle: falling in love, settling down, bottoming out, and starting again.
It’s interesting to note that Scripture compares the love relationship of husband and wife to our love relationship with God.
For example, in today’s first reading, God assumes the role of a groom, saying to Israel: “Then once again she will call me her husband—she will no longer call me her Baal.” Hosea 2:16
And in today’s gospel reading, Jesus assumes the role of a groom, comparing his presence among his disciples to that of a groom among wedding guests.
It is even more interesting to note that from our point of view, our relationship with God frequently follows the same four-phase cycle as does the love relationship of a husband and wife.
It begins with a “falling in love’’ phase, which flowers into a commitment to God.
It continues with a “settling down’’ phase, which involves integrating our love for God with our daily life.
Next, it not infrequently moves to a kind of “bottoming out’’ phase. This can happen when the integration process breaks down and, instead of dealing with it, we cease dealing with God as a loving partner and begin dealing with God as a demanding adversary.
Finally comes the “starting again’’ phase. It takes place when we stumble back into God’s arms, ask God’s forgiveness, and are drawn to God with a new burst of love.
And so our love relationship with God follows a similar four-phase cycle as does the love relationship of a husband and wife: falling in love, settling down, bottoming out, and starting again.
Let’s close with these words of Paul to the Christians of Corinth:
Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs; love is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth. Love never gives up; and its faith, hope, and patience never fail. 1 Corinthians 13:4–8
Series III 8th Sunday of the Year Hosea 2:16b, 17b, 21–22; 2 Corinthians 3:1b–6; Mark 2:18–22
External religious acts We must never lose sight of why we do them.
Some people came to Jesus and asked him, “Why is it that . . . the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but yours do not?” Mark 2:18
Atroop carrier of marines stopped outside a harbor in Taiwan. Minutes later, a harbor pilot boarded it and took the wheel.
Suddenly, it started weaving this way and that way, even though the dock lay straight ahead.
The marines standing at the ship’s rail began to joke that the old man had a little too much to drink.
But then word was passed around that the harbor was heavily mined. If the hull of the ship nudged just one of those mines, a disaster would occur.
Finally, the ship reached the dock, amid the applause and cheers of the marines.
The old harbor pilot makes a good image of Jesus.
In so many of the gospel stories—like the one we just read—we find Jesus trying to steer the Pharisees through the mine fields of this life to bring them safely to the dock of eternal life.
In episode after episode, we find Jesus stressing with the Pharisees that religion is not about performing external acts.
It is not about healing sick people only on certain days. It is not about washing your hands in a certain way before eating. It is not about fasting on a certain number of days of the week.
When the Pharisees eventually asked Jesus why his disciples didn’t fast, Jesus responded with a parable to illustrate his point. He said that when the bridegroom is present, it is a time for celebrating and feasting, not fasting.
His point is that the Pharisees had forgotten one of the main reasons for fasting. They had forgotten that it was a way of preparing and praying for the coming of the promised Messiah and the promised Kingdom of God.
For example, the Pharisees had become so preoccupied with spying on Jesus to see if he would heal people on the Sabbath that they missed the deeper meaning behind these miracles.
They forgot that the prophets foretold that such miracles were the signs that would announce the arrival of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God.
And so the Pharisees failed to see that Jesus was the promised Messiah, come to inaugurate the Kingdom of God.
They failed to see that it was no longer a time for fasting, but a time for feasting and rejoicing.
To continue fasting would be like continuing to keep an arm in a sling once it was fully healed.
To continue fasting would be like continuing to do a search on a computer once you found the site you were looking for.
And so the Pharisees had gotten themselves into the situation of the townspeople of a certain European town a number of years ago.
The townspeople used to bless themselves each time they passed by a certain section of the town wall.
When asked why they did this, they could give no reason, other than it was a town custom, handed down by their ancestors.
One day workers were cleaning the wall. As they scraped away centuries of dirt, they found a mural of Mary and Jesus.
Now they realized why their ancestors blessed themselves as they passed this section of the wall. It was a sign of devotion to Jesus and Mary.
But now people did it mechanically and out of habit—without knowing why they were doing it.
Many Pharisees had gotten themselves into a similar situation. They followed certain customs, like fasting, blindly, mechanically, and out of habit. Jesus challenged this mentality, which was gradually distorting religion into something God never intended it to be.
It was changing it from a conscious act of love of God and neighbor into a series of external practices that had nothing to do with love of God or neighbor. It was robbing these acts of their meaning.
Touching on this mentality, Saint Francis de Sales once said:
One Our Father said with conscious devotion had greater value than many Our Fathers said hurriedly and out of habit.
Let’s be clear. Religion is an area of life where habit can be very helpful. For example, there is no substitute for a habit of daily prayer.
But there are also times in religion when habit can be extremely hurtful.
For example, signing ourselves with holy water upon entering a church can become so mechanical and habitual that it loses all meaning for us.
Originally, it was intended to remind us of our baptism and to serve as a conscious renewal of it. Similarly, external actions—like standing, kneeling, and sitting at Mass—can become so habitual that they, too, lose all meaning for us.
We forget that the purpose of kneeling is to show special reverence at a very special action of the Mass. The purpose of sitting is to help us listen and reflect better on what is being said.
And the purpose of standing for the Gospel and the Creed is to emphasize that this is what we Christians stand for—and are willing to die for.
Finally, signing our forehead, lips, and heart in anticipation of reading the Gospel is to ask God’s help to keep the Gospel ever in our minds, ever on our lips, and ever in our hearts.
This brings us back to our original point. Habit and routine can be very helpful in the spiritual life. But they can also become what they did for many Pharisees—a substitute for true religion: love of God and neighbor.
Jesus is, indeed, our harbor pilot. He is the way, the truth, and the life.
His message in today’s Gospel is clear. He is saying to the Pharisees, and through them to each of us:
Let me take the wheel of your lives. Let me be your harbor pilot. Turn your lives over to me. And I will lead you through the mine fields of this life safely to the dock of eternal life in heaven.