Ought Christians to Fast?

Jesus is approached by John the Baptist’s disciples who are perplexed about this new fast (or lack thereof) which Jesus seems to promote for his followers. In asking their question, John’s disciples begin with reference to themselves and to the Pharisees. Each of these groups represents a stage in the development of how fasting is understood to order our relationship with God. Fasting for the Pharisees is a ritual activity synonymous with mourning and with repentance. In times of affliction or calamity, fasting would complement Israel’s cry for help (e.g. 2 Chronicles 20) by an outward expression of their desire for reconciliation and restoration.

John’s disciples no doubt imitated his penitential use of hair shirts and locust diet in response to his call to “produce good fruit” or else “be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Lk 3:9) However, in our readings we find that the Psalmist echoes the deeper disposition which the Lord Jesus calls us to express outwardly: “For you are not pleased with sacrifices; should I offer a burnt offering, you would not accept it. My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn” (Ps 51:18-19). Still, the coming of the Lord in the flesh added a completely new dimension to fasting which even the ascetic practices of John’s disciples did not fully encapsulate. In verse 13 just preceding our Gospel passage, Jesus reveals the heart of the Father: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” The prophet Isaiah tells us what this entails – essentially corporal works of mercy. It is precisely these which are the true ‘fasting’ which the Lord desires.

We might be tempted to think that Jesus no longer wants us to fast. His response to his inquirers – “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” – begs an implicit ‘no’. Moreover, since Christ promised to be with us “always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20), we might even reply ‘never again’. Yet, it is not ‘fasting’ which will cease but ‘mourning’. Indeed, Jesus reiterates the message of the prophets (in this case both Hosea and Isaiah) and calls us to devote ourselves to a more profound fasting – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, abstaining from all that oppresses the poor (whether by act or omission). After all, the end goal of fasting from food and drink per se is precisely to strengthen us spiritually. It serves as a sort of exercise for our wills so that we may overcome vice, reign over our passions, and reach out in true charity.

In virtue of the redemption won by Christ, fasting is no longer impelled by guilt or fear of John’s “unquenchable fire” but is the natural by-product of love of God in neighbor, of genuine conversion, and of thanksgiving for the bridegroom eternally present with us especially in the Eucharistic wedding feast of the Lamb.