The disciples of John came to Jesus, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.’
I heard that some famous dietician says to weight-watchers, “It isn't what you eat, it is why you eat it.” He urges them to identify that ‘why’. That is what powers you towards the biscuit tin, he tells them – or the cookie-jar if you live across the water. Unless you can switch off the power at its source, your whole life will be a war of attrition with cookies.
A good idea pops up in more places than one; it connects different things in our life. ‘Not what but why’ is a good idea for any part of our life. It throws light equally on eating and on fasting – pursuits that appear opposite.
I wonder why John the Baptist’s disciples were fasting. They were followers of a very ascetical leader, and I suppose that had a quenching effect on their appetite. But from the way they asked Jesus’ disciples about fasting, it appears that they also felt rather superior. “It is likely that the disciples of John the Baptist were thinking highly of themselves,” wrote St John Chrysostom (c. 347 AD – 407), “and because of this Jesus put down this inflated conceit through what he said.” What do you think? I don’t believe that Jesus would engage in such tit-for-tat. It would make him no better than those conceited disciples. And besides, he told them why his disciples were not fasting: they were not fasting because it was not a time of preparation but a season for joy. They were not preparing for his coming; they were celebrating it.
But to get back to the fasters. St Jerome (347 AD – 420), who knew a lot about fasting, wrote, “What Jesus is saying is this: ‘Until a person has been reborn – putting aside the old person, and putting on the new – he or she cannot fast aright.’” The ego, the old self, is the problem; it will use even fasting as a way of fattening itself. Unless we have some inkling of our own Christ-nature our fasting and all our efforts will be expressions of ego.
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