Ash Wednesday 2012
14 Then John’s disciples came and asked him, How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast? 15 Jesus answered, How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.
Heavenly Father, may the words of my lips this evening reflect something of your written word and so lead us ever closer to your living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday, or pancake day and I can tell you that it is always a special evening in the White household with much sugar and lemon juice and even, I am sorry to say, the occasional dropped pancake which didn’t survive the double backhanded flip. Shrove Tuesday is the day when we are supposed to be Shriven not only from our sins but also from all the eggs, butter and milk in our larders which were forbidden to be eaten during the great fast of Lent.
Today’s gospel, coming as it does at the beginning of Lent, presents us with some stark challenges: – what do we, as 21st century Christians living in the affluent West think about the practice of fasting, and, perhaps going even deeper, are we as a church currently in the presence or the absence of Jesus?
“…John’s disciples came and asked him, How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”
I would love to know exactly how the disciples of John the Baptist said these words to Jesus because there are at least two ways in which this could be interpreted:
Were the disciples of John the Baptist being self-righteous, in a way that the religious are so good at, claiming the moral high ground in their practices whilst looking down their collective metaphorical noses at the way Jesus and his disciples carried on?
Or, perhaps controversially, could we detect an element of jealousy in their voices? Being a disciple of John the Baptist undoubtedly meant living a life of deprivation and hardship, probably living in the wilderness with their master, eating nothing but honey and locusts and certainly drinking no alcohol, and yet here was another teacher, one who had actually been baptised by John, whose followers seemed to be having a good time.
What is going on? Who has it right? Does God want us to fast or to feast?
What is Jesus’ response to this seemingly straightforward question? The first part of his answer is easy enough:
“15 Jesus answered, How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them?.”
Jesus says that his disciples are eating and drinking and making merry because they are celebrating as if they were at a wedding feast and that he is the bridegroom at the centre of this feast – that may well bring back memories of the wedding feast at Cana where, when the wine ran out, the same Jesus produced the equivalent of 726 bottles of the finest wine so that the party could continue.
Let’s face it, it would be a fairly unwelcome sort of wedding guest who sat around fasting and being abstemious in front of the bridegroom – in fact it would be an affront to his presence and his hospitality.
However, as much as we may want it to, Jesus does not end his answer there, but he continues:
“The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast”
Jesus knows that the party will not go on forever, a time is coming when he will leave the feast and then it would be appropriate for his followers to fast.
So is Jesus present or absent for us, and should we feast or should we fast?
In perhaps an annoyingly Anglican way, the answer is yes.
Jesus is present in his church through the Holy Spirit, he is present through the body of the Church which is us and is he present in the bread and wine of the eucharist. However he is also absent in the sense that he sits at the right hand of the Father and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. The bridegroom is both here and not here.
So, yes, we should feast to celebrate all that he has done for us and none more so than at the great feast of Easter which is coming, but in this time of Lent we should also not forget that we are not there yet and that there is nothing like a fast for honing the appetite – our appetite, yes, for the feast but most especially our appetite for God, whom we know and worship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.