We continue our lectio divina by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
OLD AND NEW
Jesus, in today’s lectio passage, challenges our reception and interpretation of regulations. We might very well recall a maxim used by St Gregory the Great in this, and quoted by the Cistercian fathers: Observance without rigidity, and compassion without relaxation. If regulations are found to be unyielding, monolithic and impersonal they will end up suffocating those whom they are supposed to support. Often in our zeal to be ‘good’ disciples of Jesus we can be hyper-observant of the rules, and forget why they were invented in the first place!
So it is with the laws on fasting. There is a suggestion that, while the followers of the Pharisees and the Baptist are doing a commendable thing by fasting, they have forgotten why they should fast. In essence, this is always the most important question to ask when we are confronted by a rule or regulation which might puzzle us – why does it exist and how do I apply it now in my life? Behind something like a fast – which is a serious undertaking at any level – there is usually a spiritual impetus which asks us to grow a little more deeply than before. Fasting for most of us is a choice, sometimes today, even a ‘lifestyle’ choice. In religious practice it always expresses a need, a yearning, a consciousness that we are lacking some gift or attitude which will hone our spiritual senses a little more. But fasting, like most spiritual tools, can become a matter of outward show, a source of pride, an empty practice which wins praise for ourselves but little glory for God.
This is Jesus’ point here – if you fast, make sure it is an intentioned fast. Make sure it expresses a need. Make sure it points to a lack of something which means more than food or drink and brings real life with it to the disciple.
Jesus, below the surface of this discussion, is talking about his own Passion and death. He will be the grain of wheat which falls and dies. That will be the moment when he – the Bridegroom – will be taken away. In that moment the greatest hunger of all will be revealed – the hunger which we feel when God appears to be absent from us. Then fasting is appropriate, not only as a means of expressing our deep need, but also as a sign which points in the direction of the Bridegroom’s eventual return.
Fasting for us, who are Jesus’ disciples – the Bridegroom’s attendants – is a reality in our spiritual armoury and a tool which we use in a discerned way. It heightens our appreciation of God’s gifts to us – and not just food – and places us in right relationship with the greater needs of those around us.
And so it is with Jesus’ little parable here about new patches and old skins and cloaks. We should never think that we can reject well established practices and traditions simply because they don’t seem to ‘fit’ our way of behaving or our desire to be up to date and moving with the society around us. To do so is to become a law unto myself, and that always ends in catastrophe! In one sense, our spiritual practices, which have been bedded into our lives and faith, never go out of date – but we must constantly reflect on the value which is hidden within them and, in humility, finds ways in which they fit into our lives now.
Something similar can be said about the following verses concerning the purpose of the Sabbath. Obviously, Jesus does not wish to devalue the keeping of the Sabbath day – its place as a day consecrated by God and our participation in that consecration are not open to question, and we know from other places in the gospel narratives that Jesus observed the Sabbath and worshipped with his own believing community. But it is precisely this observance which he wishes to throw into relief. The Sabbath should make us fully human, fully the people that God has always intended us to be, and so we must discern the balance of how we keep it. It is a constant reminder that we must give to God the worship which is his alone, and we do this by stepping aside, consciously, from the usual business of our lives – we leave the arena of the secular and embrace the arena of the sacred. For Jesus, the Son of man will indeed be master of the Sabbath because he will raise it to a new consecration in his own resurrection. The content of holiness will be measured in his very person and this will invest the keeping of the Sabbath with a newness which is altogether redemptive. Ultimately our keeping of the Sabbath now is a preparation for the eternal Sabbath and our participation in the life of God in his kingdom – our practice, therefore, must be given life and meaning by our intention, which always goes beyond mere outward observance.
Christ very seriously asks us about how and why we keep the Sabbath, and other regulations concerning our faith practice. The realisation of the ‘why’ in our lives points to a move from childish performance to mature acceptance and praxis. We may not always grasp the full meaning of rite and ritual but they are offered to us by the Church both as a means of evangelisation and an invitation to greater personal growth as Christians. They at once teach us and at the same time invite reflection.
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-