Sunday, February 26, 2006

Not so fast there

The lessons for the eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time:

  • Hosea 2:16b, 17b, 21-22
  • Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 8+10, 12-13
  • 2 Corinthians 3:1b-6
  • Mark 2:18-22
A wedding usually means parties and food, but you would have to ask someone else about that. My wife and I were married more than 25 years ago in the Episcopal church we attended, and our reception was at my mother's house. (Mom was the only parent either of us had left.) However, the photographer did not show up (mistake in communications) and we sat and waited at the church for a while. By the time we got to the reception, almost all the food, with the exception of the cake, was gone. Even worse, our friends arranged to have dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant after we left. We were very hungry by the time we got to San Francisco.

Jesus knows that food and celebration goes with weddings -- his very first miracle at Cana made sure a wedding dinner had enough wine. Another time for food and celebration around much of the Catholic world right about now is Carnival, in it's traditional sense, which is called Fasching in parts of Germany and Mardi Gras in New Orleans and some other French speaking communities. Parties and food and drink right up to the start of Ash Wednesday (just this next Wednesday), then it all stops. The flash and revelry falls away for the ashes and fasting of Lent.

Feasting right next to fasting can be confusing -- and that predicament is what Jesus deals with in this Gospel story from Mark:
The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were accustomed to fast.
People came to him and objected,
'Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast,
but your disciples do not fast?'
Jesus answered them,
'Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?
As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast.
But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them,
and then they will fast on that day.
No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak.
If he does, its fullness pulls away,
the new from the old, and the tear gets worse.
Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins.
Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins,
and both the wine and the skins are ruined.
Rather, new wine is poured into fresh wineskins.'
My word, there is a lot here. Jesus is saying that fasting is not wrong, but it can be inappropriate at times, and this has to do with weddings and celebrations, and that this is involved in something very new.

When we look at the lesson from Hosea, we start to see why marriage, and therefore weddings, are very special. When Hosea speaks of the relationship of God and Israel, he often uses the image of husband and wife. His own insight into the troubled nature of the relationship of his people and their God came from his own troubled marriage to Gomer, who was unfaithful to him. Such a marriage image was not unusual for that time as other cults described a kind of sacred marriage between a deity and its worshipers. Israel has been unfaithful to God in much the same way that Gomer was unfaithful to Hosea. But, like Hosea, God will remain faithful to his unfaithful people, and will rebuild that relationship in right, justice, love, mercy, and fidelity.

Fasting in the ancient world was a form of self-humiliation or protest intended to move someone to action. The mandatory fast day in the Jewish calendar is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, where the people of Israel fasted to urge God to forgive their sins. In the first century, groups such as the Pharisees had expanded the number of fasts, but retained the same motive, to plead with God for forgiveness of the sins both of individuals and the nation. It is, in a sense, the action of Israel beseeching God for the restoration of relationship that He promised in Hosea, to reestablish that marriage bond between God and His people.

Jesus is the answer to those pleas, the response to that fasting. God has heard us and sent his only son, to re-establish the relationship that we have been unfaithful to over and over again. This is a time for joy and feasting, just the same way that the friends and family of the newly married couple celebrate this newly established relationship of love and faithfulness. To fast in Jesus' physcial presence, if we understand the mission of Jesus, is unthinkable as it is asking God for what he has already given us. It is a sign either of profound misunderstanding or colosingratitudeutde. But the celebration, at least in this world, comes to and end at some point. Jesus'us's very presence is a new thing, and the old rules are not so much wrong, as indadequate and inappropriate in this particular circumstance. Jesus reminds us that if we try to fit this new experience onto the old understanding without change and development, we will ruin both the old and the new.

This is a very appropriate lesson for the last Sunday before Lent. It reminds us that whatever we do for Lent, it is with the purpose of tearing down the barriers between us and God, with God's help. During this holy time we once again beseech God for forgiveness. God said, through Hosea, that "I will espouse you to me forever . . . and you shall know the Lord." It is time once again to take on ashes, to ask for forgivess, and to prepare for the Easter foretaste of the wedding feast of the Messiah.

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