Christ The Teacher: When You Fast

Today is Ash Wednesday which begins the season of Lent, that time of the year when we open ourselves to grace, to the meaning of repentance, death and resurrection.

Lent prepares us for the gifts of the Spirit at Easter.

All religions have times for prayer and penitence, for fasting and almsgiving, and these are often conducted in public. Jesus is firmly against all such ostentatious behaviour.

He knows all too well how human vanity can infect even the most devotional of all exercises. So he urges his disciples to pray, to fast and to give alms in secret so that it is only God who knows, and God who will reward. Lent is this time to encounter God in the secret places of our heart. For unless our heart is transformed, in vain is our fasting, our prayers and our giving of alms.

This command is of a piece with the rest of the Gospel, which addresses itself to our heart, not to our external behaviour. The ‘heart’ is the core of our being, our secret self, sometimes unknown even to ourselves. Our heart is where the vast river of our feelings flows, driving us this way and that, often against our conscious volition. Psychologists today call this the ‘unconscious’, which like an iceberg is nine-tenths under the surface, and therefore unknown and unseen.

Although our conscious mind rules our waking day, or at least tries to, we know that we are often overwhelmed by desires, feelings and urges over which we have no control, and we wonder where they all come from. This then is our ‘self’, our ‘soul’, where our true being resides, and it is this that Jesus came to transform and to save. It is from this core that all our motivation springs, and it is here that we ‘turn away from sin and receive the good news of salvation.’

It is here that God’s Spirit meets our own tainted spirit, and purifies it, and gives us ‘a heart of flesh, not a heart of stone’.

May each season of Lent open our hearts more and more to the invasion of God’s Spirit – the Spirit of joy and peace, of understanding and wisdom, of courage, moderation and generosity.

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