Second Friday of Advent: Fasting and Feasting

Second Friday of Advent: Fasting and Feasting

Readings: Isaiah 48:17-19; Psalm 1:1-4,6; Matthew 11:16-19

You just can’t please some people. One can sense Our Lord’s frustration in today’s Gospel as he rebukes the crowds for their unbelief. Their hard-heartedness has left them unable to see an exemplar and prophet in their midst in the person of St. John the Baptist. Rather than be impressed by his austerity and observance of the law, they dismissed him thinking he was possessed.  

Similarly, and more troubling still, the crowds fail to accept Jesus Christ, “the Son of man”. He who, in contrast to John, had worked miracles before them – changing water into wine, and had preached a compelling message of compassion and love. Their response was to brand him “a glutton and a drunkard”, echoing the rebellious good-for-nothing type described in the book of Deuteronomy [21:18-20].  

Neither John’s abstinence nor Jesus’s mildness satisfied them. Like obstinate children, they refused to be moved. “Why?”, one might well ask. John and Our Lord were impressive all right, but perhaps they were a bit too challenging; they made the crowds feel uncomfortable. Perhaps John seemed too zealous, whereas Jesus was thought perhaps too radical – breaking all the laws.  And, after all, one wouldn’t have wanted to rock the boat too much lest the powers-that-be might get wind of it. The problem, then as now, was fear.  Maybe this is why Jesus says time and again in Scripture, “Do not be afraid!”

St. John the Baptist, Giovanni Barbieri
Given that Jesus is the person who we are called to follow, one might well wonder at the significance of John the Baptist in this account. Why did the Lord choose a more lenient life and through John demonstrate a harsher one? St. Thomas suggests three reasons. First, John did not perform miracles so he needed to lead an impressive life so that his testimony, which prepared a way for the Lord, would be accepted. Secondly, John showed one way of living the good life through abstaining from human carnal desires. John was a man of purity. But Jesus was God, and if he had taught severity, he would not have been shown to be also man so he assumed a life which emphasised his humanity. What could be more human than food and drink? Thirdly, John represented the end of the Old Testament, in which heavy burdens were imposed; but Christ was the beginning of the New Testament – with a new law – which proceeds by way of meekness.

Jesus holds up both John’s example of fasting, and his own example of eating and drinking – or feasting. Each have their place and time. In this season of Advent, we are presented with an opportunity to fast and abstain from certain pleasures in order to focus our minds on the coming of the Christ child – preparation never more needed than in contemporary culture. Such preparation will have the additional benefit of making the great feast that celebrates the the birth of Our Saviour all the more fitting.

Samuel Burke OP

Fr Samuel Burke is based in St Albert the Great in Edinburgh, where he serves as a university chaplain.