Grace and peace in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
People today talk about giving something up for Lent, maybe chocolate. This is a faint memory of Lent as a season of obligatory fasting. Although in times past fasting was a widespread practice in many churches, including Lutherans, it is not very common now. However, what is most important during Lent is not outward deeds, but confession of sin and true repentance, which is a change of heart.
In chapter 6 of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, our Lord teaches us that alms, prayer and fasting should be done without spectacle. Actions that arouse the admiration of the people cannot aspire to a divine prize.
In the context of the Old Testament, the Law of Moses mandated a single fast, that of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-34). This is specifically called “the fast” in Acts 27:9. The fast on the Day of Atonement was a 24-hour fast, beginning on the night of one day and extending through the night of the next.
Four fasts were later observed in commemoration of the dark days of the fall of Jerusalem. These are mentioned in Zechariah 8:19. The origin of these fasts is described in Jeremiah 41 and 52. Furthermore, fasts were declared by public decree in seasons of drought or other calamity. Fasting was also done individually and voluntarily from time to time. Most fasts were for one day, but there are examples of fasting that continued for three or even seven days. Long fasts normally only were in effect during daylight hours.
And not only the people of Israel fasted. In the book of Jonah, the people of Nineveh, the city of the Assyrians, heard the message of the prophet Jonah and believed and decreed a fast from the greatest to the least. Even the king of Nineveh rose from his throne, took off his royal garments, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down on ashes. He then ordered the animals were not to eat or drink either.
Intense emotions are closely related to the Old Testament fast. Ana's pain because she was barren makes her cry, fast and pray (1 Samuel 1: 4-10). David fasted after the deaths of Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:12) and before the death of his son with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12). The motive for fasting was often sorrow for personal sin or for the nation.
However, the abuse of fasting was already evident in the Old Testament. Isaiah rebuked the people of his day for their insincere, formal fasts and called them to accompany their fasts with a humble spirit and upright living (Isaiah 58:3-12).
In New Testament times it is obvious that the Pharisees regarded fasting as a work of merit (Luke 18:12). The Pharisees were in the habit of fasting two days a week, Monday and Thursday, because it was believed that Moses went up Mount Sinai on the fifth day of the week and came down on the second. Individuals seem to have been in the habit of imposing additional fasts on themselves, as Hannah did (Luke 2:37).
In our text today, our Lord condemns the ostentatious practices of the Pharisees. He, however, assumes that his own disciples would fast, just as he assumed that he would pray. Commenting on Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees' fasting, Luther says: It is not his intention to reject or despise fasting in itself, any more than he rejects almsgiving and prayer. Rather he supports these practices and teaches their proper use. Saint Paul in Colossians 2:16-23 and 1 Timothy 4:1-3 says that care must be taken that the various forms of abstinence and external performances do not become a matter of legislation or a source of spiritual pride.
Other fast days were added to the church calendar after the time of the apostles. An ancient church practice was for Christians to fast in the morning before receiving the sacrament. Sadly, fasting for many church members became a mechanical process and not a spiritual ritual. The church increasingly required fasting, perhaps in order to bring a semblance of order and religiosity. The laity learned to keep the rules of the fast because they were the rules, but they had little heart for them. Under these circumstances, people imagined that such a fast was meritorious.
Fasting during Lent today can be a way of remembering Christ's perfect obedience, and his sacrifice for our salvation. One might consider abstaining from food before partaking of the sacrament. Never forget that fasting is not a forbidden practice, nor is it commanded.
On the other side, repentance and confession of our sins is necessary. However, the words from our mouths must come from a change of heart. The Augsburg Confession reads thus, “Concerning repentance it is taught that those who have sinned after baptism can obtain forgiveness of sins provided they repent and that the church should not deny them absolution. Properly speaking, true repentance is nothing more than contrition and pain or terror because of sin, and yet, at the same time, believing in the gospel and absolution, that is, that sin has been forgiven and that by Christ it is he has obtained grace.” Also, “confession has not been abolished by preachers on our side. The custom of not offering the sacrament to those who have not been heard and acquitted in advance is preserved among us.”
Therefore, the confession of sins is the oldest part of the preparatory section of the Divine Office. This is public confession, as a congregational act. Also, we have not abolished private confession, before the pastor, but the enumeration of all sins is not mandatory. Regardless, confession should not be seen as a source of anguish or terror, but rather a blessing. Because absolution is an act of God, not of us. Let us receive forgiveness on the merits of Christ, not on our own merits.
Therefore, we must understand this season of Lent as an opportunity to receive the consolation of the gospel. To receive the imposition of ashes is an expression of our repentance, it is not a meritorious act, nor is it mandatory. Above all, the Lord wants a contrite and humble heart. This is the best offering that we can present before the altar.
May the peace that passes all understanding be with you all. Amen.
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