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CHAPTER 2:18

THE CONTROVERSY CONCERNING FASTING

THE Pharisees had just complained to the disciples that Jesus ate and drank in questionable company. Now they join with the followers of the ascetic Baptist in complaining to Jesus that His disciples eat and drink at improper seasons, when others fast. And as Jesus had then replied, that being a Physician, He was naturally found among the sick, so He now answered, that being the Bridegroom, fasting in His presence is impossible: “Can the sons of the bridechamber fast while the Bridegroom is with them?” A new spirit is working in Christianity, far too mightily to be restrained by ancient usages; if the new wine be put into such wineskins it will spoil them, and itself be lost.

Hereupon three remarkable subjects call for attention: the immense personal claim advanced; the view which Christ takes of fasting; and, arising out of this, the principle which He applies to all external rites and ceremonies.

I. Jesus does not inquire whether the fasts of other men were unreasonable or not. In any case, He declares that His mere presence put everything on a new footing for His followers who could not fast simply because He was by. Thus He assumes a function high above that of any prophet or teacher: He not only reveals duty, as a lamp casts light upon the compass by which men steer; but He modifies duty itself, as iron deflects the needle.

This is because He is the Bridegroom.

The Disciples of John would hereupon recall his words of self-effacement; that he was only the friend of the Bridegroom, whose fullest joy was to hear the Bridegroom's exultant voice.

But no Jew could forget the Old Testament use of the phrase. It is clear from St. Matthew that this controversy followed immediately upon the last, when Jesus assumed a function ascribed to God Himself by the very passage from Hosea which He then quoted. Then He was the Physician for the soul's diseases; now He is the Bridegroom, in whom center its hopes, its joys, its affections, its new life. That position in the spiritual existence cannot be given away from God without idolatry. The same Hosea who makes God the Healer, gives to Him also, in the most explicit words, what Jesus now claims for Himself. “I will betroth thee unto Me forever . . . I will even betroth thee unto Me in faithfulness, and thou shalt know the Lord” (Hos. 2:19, 20). Isaiah too declares “thy Maker is thy husband,” and “as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee” (Isa. 54:5; 62:5). And in Jeremiah, God remembers the love of Israel's espousals, who went after Him in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown (Jer. 2:2). Now all this is transferred throughout the New Testament to Jesus. The Baptist is not alone in this respect. St. John regards the Bride as the wife of the Lamb (Rev. 21:9). St. Paul would fain present his Corinthian Church as a pure virgin to Christ, as to one husband (2 Cor. 11:2). For him, the absolute oneness of marriage is a mystery of the union betwixt Christ and His Church (Eph. 5:32). If Jesus be not God, then a relation hitherto exclusively belonging to Jehovah, to rob Him of which is the adultery of the soul, has been systematically transferred by the New Testament to a creature. His glory has been given to another.

This remarkable change is clearly the work of Jesus Himself. The marriage supper of which He spoke is for the King's son. At His return the cry will be heard, Behold the Bridegroom cometh. In this earliest passage His presence causes the joy of the Bride, who said to the Lord in the Old Testament, Thou art my Husband (Hosea 2:16).

There is not to be found in the Gospel of St. John a passage more certainly calculated to inspire, when Christ's dignity was assured by His resurrection and ascension, the adoration which His Church has always paid to the Lamb in the midst of the throne.

II. The presence of the Bridegroom dispenses with the obligation to fast. Yet it is beyond denial that fasting as a religious exercise comes within the circle of New Testament sanctions. Jesus Himself, when taking our burdens upon Him, as He had stooped to the baptism of repentance, condescended also to fast. He taught His disciples when they fasted to anoint their head and wash their face. The mention of fasting is indeed a later addition to the words “this kind (of demon) goeth not out but by prayer” (Mark 9:29), but we know that the prophets and teachers of Antioch were fasting when bidden to consecrate Barnabas and Saul, and they fasted again and prayed before they laid their hands upon them (Acts 13:2, 3).

Thus it is right to fast, at times and from one point of view; but at other times, and from Jewish and formal motives, it is unnatural and mischievous. It is right when the Bridegroom is taken away, a phrase which certainly does not cover all this space between the Ascension and the Second Advent, since Jesus still reveals Himself to His own though not unto the world, and is with His Church all the days. Scripture has no countenance for the notion that we lost by the Ascension in privilege or joy. But when the body would fain rise up against the spirit, it must be kept under and brought into subjection (I Cor. 9:27). When the closest domestic joys would interrupt the seclusion of the soul with God, they may be suspended, though but for a time (I Cor. 8:5). And when the supreme blessing of intercourse with God, the presence of the Bridegroom, is obscured or forfeited through sin, it will then be as inevitable that the loyal heart should turn away from worldly pleasures, as that the first disciples should reject these in the dread hours of their bereavement.

Thus Jesus abolished the superstition that grace may be had by a mechanical observance of a prescribed regimen at an appointed time. He did not deny, but rather implied the truth, that body and soul act and counteract so that spiritual impressions may be weakened and forfeited by untimely indulgence of the flesh.

By such teaching, Jesus carried forward the doctrine already known to the Old Testament. There it was distinctly announced that the return from exile abrogated those fasts which commemorated national calamities, so “the fast of the fourth month, and of the fifth, and of the seventh and of the tenth shall be to the house of Israel joy and gladness, cheerful feasts” (Zech. 7:3, 8:19). Even while these fasts had lasted they had been futile, because they were only formal. “When ye fasted and mourned, did ye at all fast unto me? And when ye eat, and when ye drink, do ye not eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves?” (Zech. 7:5, 6). And Isaiah had plainly laid down the great rule, that a fast and an acceptable day unto the Lord was not a day to afflict the soul and bow the head, but to deny and discipline our selfishness for some good end, to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, to deal bread to the hungry, and to bring home the poor that is cast out (Isa. 58:5–7).

The true spirit of fasting breathes an ampler breath in any of the thousand forms of Christian self-denial, than in those petty abstinences, those microscopic observances, which move our wonder less by the superstition which expects them to bring grace than by the childishness which expects them to have any effect whatever.

III. Jesus now applies a great principle to all external rites and ceremonies. They have their value. As the wineskin retains the wine, so are feelings and aspirations aided, and even preserved, by suitable external forms. Without these, emotion would lose itself for want of restraint, wasted, like spilt wine, by diffuseness. And if the forms are unsuitable and outworn, the same calamity happens, the strong new feelings break through them, “and the wine perisheth, and the skins.” In this respect, how many a sad experience of the Church attests the wisdom of her Lord; what losses have been suffered in the struggle between forms that had stiffened into archaic ceremonialism and new zeal demanding scope for its energy, between the antiquated phrases of a bygone age and the new experience, knowledge and requirements of the next, between the frosty precisions of unsympathetic age and the innocent warmth and freshness of the young, too often, alas, lost to their Master in passionate revolt against restraints which He neither imposed nor smiled upon.

Therefore the coming of a new revelation meant the repeal of old observances, and Christ refused to sew His new faith like a patchwork upon ancient institutions, of which it would only complete the ruin. Thus He anticipated the decision of His apostles releasing the Gentiles from the law of Moses. And He bestowed on His Church an adaptiveness to various times and places, not always remembered by missionaries among the heathen, by fastidious critics of new movements at home, nor by men who would reduce the lawfulness of modern agencies to a question of precedent and archaeology.

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