Editor’s note: this was our homily for the Holy Communion service on Ash Wednesday 2019, adapted from the first part of the Homily “Of Good Works and First of Fasting” in the Second Book of Homilies. The two Books of Homilies are the official sermons of the Church of England in the 16th Century, endorsed by the 39 Articles of Religion. At the time of the Reformation, clergy formation had been so poor that the reformed English Church issued two volumes of official homilies that were to be read by the priests until they would be licensed to preach their own homilies. While they have unfortunately fallen into disuse, they are one of the classical elements of post-Reformation Anglican theology, and are good reads to this day.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, our (approximately) 40-day period before Easter, when we prepare for our greatest feast by taking time for repentance, fasting, almsgiving, prayer, and general good works. Following the lead of great Christian teachers throughout the ages, and especially our own Reformation-era Books of Homilies, I’d like us to consider good works in general, and fasting in particular.
Earlier this week, many of us began to read St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians in our Morning Prayer New Testament lesson. In last night’s reading, the Apostle gave us this exhortation: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” This is a good reminder as we head into Lent: as Christians we ought to be doing good works, even as our Lord did when he walked the earth. Indeed, Lent is really a time for us to intensify the kinds of things that we Christians are called to do all the time! Fasting, prayer, repentance, and the like are supposed to be part of our Christian walk all the time, but Lent is a good time to focus on it a bit more.
Remember, though, that we are not supposed to trust in our good works to redeem us, to save us. We don’t make God like us better by being obedient children; there are no “brownie points” with God. Our good works are “in Christ Jesus” because it’s his blood that makes our works good, and his Spirit that enables them in the first place. No, our salvation is by grace, not by our good works. It is only by Christ’s blood, by Christ’s sacrifice, once offered, as we pray in Communion, that we are made righteous before God. St. Augustine wrote:
Grace belongeth to God, who doth call us: and then hath he good works, whosever received grace. Good works then bring not forth grace, but are brought forth by grace. The wheel turneth round, not to the end that it may be made round; but because it is first made round, therefore it turneth round. So no man doeth good works, to receive grace by his good works; but, because he hath first received grace, therefore consequently he doeth good works.
Fasting is the main good work discussed in today’s readings, as it’s the primary theme of Ash Wednesday, one of the two specified days of public fasting in our Prayer Book. When we look at good works, we can see that some good works, such as loving God or loving our neighbor, are inherently good in themselves. Other good works are indifferent in of themselves, but can either be good or evil, depending on how they’re used. Fasting is this sort of work.
If we think by fasting we will earn heaven, fasting is actually a bad work because we’re trusting in it rather than in Christ. Anything that we trust in rather than Christ for our Salvation is an idol. An example of this in the Scriptures is the parable of the Pharisee and Publican. If you remember the parable, the Pharisee was proud before God, praying “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” The tax collector, on the other hand, wouldn’t even look up to heaven and could only pray “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus said that the tax collector was justified, but the pharisee was not. Indeed, St. Luke tells us that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that the were righteous, and treated others with contempt.”
In our Gospel reading this evening, Jesus warns us not to fast like a hypocrite. This doesn’t mean that its wrong to have ashes on our heads, or to divulge what you’re giving up for Lent, or decline to join your friend for that steak dinner because you’re fasting. But it does speak to the state of our hearts. If we’re doing these things to be seen by others, our fasting becomes evil. It does us no good, and indeed puts us in a bad place, spiritually.
Similarly, if we fast just for the sake of fasting, if we observe Lent because that’s the Anglican or Catholic or Lutheran or Orthodox thing to do, our fasting does no good. No, fasting without repentance is just another form of spiritual hypocrisy. Israel often fell into that pattern in the Old Testament, just going through the religious motions. In the beginning of the book of Isaiah, God says of that situation: “Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them… cease to do evil, learn to do good.”
By contrast, we see in the Scripture that fasting is for repentance, to change our hearts. In our Epistle from the Prophet Joel, we read:
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.
Returning to God is the essence of repentance. Indeed, this is what the very word means in the Hebrew of the Old Testament. When our fasting begins in repentance, reflecting our hearts, we can know that it is indeed a good work, for good purposes.
Scripture gives is three reasons to fast:
First, we see that fasting disciplines our flesh. It teaches us that our belly (and by extension any of our passions) is not in charge. St. Paul tells us that this is why he fasted. He writes:
But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified(1 Cor. 9:27).
Secondly, we see that fasting can help us to be more focused in a time of prayer. In the Book of Acts, the prophets and other leaders of the Church often fasted during their times of prayer before sending our starting out on new missionary efforts. They wanted to be sure they were indeed hearing from the Holy Spirit.
Third, our fasting can be a witness of our repentance, as we see in the book of Jonah when the people of Nineveh fasted or when King David fasted, when confronted with their sins. Their fasting was actually a sign and proof of their repentance, showing that the physical discomfort brought on by the fasting matched the inward discomfort of a person who has come face-to-face with the sinfulness of their sins.
Again, these things are supposed to be part of everyday Christian living. We should be repentant, we should be fervent in prayer, we should be self-controlled and disciplined. The Church has given us this season of Lent to help us put these things in focus, not so that we would earn God’s favor by our good works, but so that our good works would reflect who we really are in Christ: redeemed people who have been brought to new life as new creatures by the Holy Spirit because of the blood of Christ.
I close this evening with a prayer from the Homily on Fasting from the Second Book of Homilies. Let us pray:
Lord, have mercy upon us, and give us grace, that while we live in this miserable world, we may through thy help bring for this and such other fruits of the Spirit, commended and commanded in thy holy word, to the glory of thy Name and to our comforts, that after the race of this wretched life we may live everlastingly with thee in thy heavenly kingdom; not for the merits and worthiness of our works, but for thy mercies; sake, and the merits of thy dear Son Jesus Christ: to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all laud, honour, and glory for ever and ever. Amen.