John Henry Newman

Parochial and Plain Sermons
San Francisco (Ignatius Press) 1987
p 1177-1185
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BOOK VI
SERMON 1

FASTING A SOURCE OF TRIAL

(First Sunday in Lent)

"And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He was
afterward an hungered." (Matt. iv.2)

The season of humiliation, which precedes Easter, lasts for forty
days, in memory of our Lord's long fast in the wilderness. Accordingly
on this day, the first Sunday in Lent, we read the Gospel which gives
an account of it; and in the Collect we pray Him, who for our sakes
fasted forty days and forty nights, to bless our abstinence to the
good of our souls and bodies.
We fast by way of penitence, and in order to subdue the flesh. Our
Saviour had no need of fasting for either purpose. His fasting was
unlike ours, as in its intensity, so in its object. And yet when we
begin to fast, His pattern is set before us; and we continue the time
of fasting till, in number of days, we have equalled His.
There is a reason for this;--in truth, we must do nothing except
with Him in our eye. As He it is, through whom alone we have the power
to do any good thing, so unless we do it for Him it is not good. From
Him our obedience comes, towards Him it must look. He says, "Without
Me ye can do nothing."(John xv.5) No work is good without grace and
without love.
St. Paul gave up all things "to be found in Christ not having his
own righteousness which is of the law but the righteousnesses which is
from God upon faith.(Phil. iii.9) Then only are our righteousnesses
acceptable when they are done, not in a legal way, but in Christ
through faith. Vain were all the deeds of the Law, because they were
not attended by the power of the Spirit. They were the mere attempts
of unaided nature to fulfil what it ought indeed, but was not able to
fulfil. None but the blind and carnal, or those who were in utter
ignorance, could find aught in them to rejoice in. What were all the
righteousnesses of the Law, what its deeds, [1178] even when more than
ordinary, its alms and fastings, its disfiguring of faces and
afflicting of souls; what was all this but dust and dross, a pitiful
earthly service, a miserable hopeless penance, so far as the grace and
the presence of Christ were absent? The Jews might humble themselves,
but they did not rise in the spirit, while they fell down in the
flesh; they might afflict themselves, but it did not turn to their
salvation; they might sorrow, but not as always rejoicing; the outward
man might perish, but the inward man was not renewed day by day. They
had the burden and heat of the day, and the yoke of the Law, but it
did not "work out for them a far more exceeding and eternal weight of
glory." But God hath reserved some better thing for us. This is what
it is to be one of Christ's little ones,--to be able to do what the
Jews thought they could do, and could not; to have that within us
through which we can do all things; to be possessed by His presence as
our life, our strength, our merit, our hope, our crown; to become in a
wonderful way His members, the instruments, or visible form, or
sacramental sign, of the One Invisible Ever-Present Son of God,
mystically reiterating in each of us all the acts of His earthly life,
His birth, consecration, fasting, temptation, conflicts, victories,
sufferings, agony, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension;--He
being all in all,--we, with as little power in ourselves, as little
excellence or merit, as the water in Baptism, or the bread and wine in
Holy Communion, yet strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.
These are the thoughts with which we celebrated Christmas and
Epiphany, these are the thoughts which must accompany us through Lent.
Yes, even in our penitential exercises, when we could least have
hoped to find a pattern in Him, Christ has gone before us to sanctify
them to us. He has blessed fasting as a means of grace, in that He has
fasted; and fasting is only acceptable when it is done for His sake.
Penitence is mere formality, or mere remorse, unless done in love. If
we fast, without uniting ourselves in heart to Christ, imitating Him,
and praying that He would make our fasting His own, would associate it
with His own, and communicate to it the virtue of His own, so that we
may be in Him, and He in us; we fast as Jews, not as Christians. Well
then, in the Services of this first Sunday, do we place the thought of
Him before us, whose grace must be within us, lest in our
chastisements we beat the air and humble ourselves in vain.
Now in many ways the example of Christ may be made a comfort and
encouragement to us at this season of the year.
And, first of all, it will be well to insist on the circumstance,
that our Lord did thus retire from the world, as confirming to us
[1179] the like duty, as far as we can observe it. This He did
specially in the instance before us, before His entering upon His own
ministry, but it is not the only instance recorded. Before He chose
His Apostles, he observed the same preparation. "It came to pass in
those days that He went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all
night in prayer to God."(Luke vi.12) Prayer through the night was a
self-chastisement of the same kind as fasting. On another occasion,
after sending away the multitudes, "He went up into a mountain apart
to pray;"(Matt. xiv.23) and on this occasion also, He seems to have
remained there through great part of the night. Again, amid the
excitement caused by His miracles, "In the morning, rising up a great
while before day, He went out and departed into a solitary place, and
there prayed."(Mark i.35) Considering that our Lord is the pattern of
human nature in its perfection, surely we cannot doubt that such
instances of strict devotion are intended for our imitation, if we
would be perfect. But the duty is placed beyond doubt by finding
similar instances in the case of the most eminent of His servants. St.
Paul, in the Epistle for this day, mentions among other sufferings,
that he and his brethren were "in watchings, in fastings," and in a
later chapter, that he was "in fastings often." St. Peter retired to
Joppa, to the house of one Simon, a tanner, on the sea-shore, and
there fasted and prayed. Moses and Elijah both were supported through
miraculous fasts, of the same length as our Lord's. Moses, indeed, at
two separate times; as he tells us himself, "Thus I fell down before
the Lord, as at the first, forty days and forty nights; I did neither
eat bread, nor drink water."(Deut. ix.l8) Elijah, having been fed by
an Angel, "went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty
nights."(I Kings xix.8) Daniel, again, "set his face unto the Lord his
God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth,
and ashes." Again, at another time, he says, "In those days, I Daniel
was mourning three full weeks. I ate no pleasant bread, neither came
flesh nor wine in my mouth, neither did I anoint myself at all, till
three whole weeks were fulfilled."(Dan. ix.3; x.2, 3) These are
instances of fastings after the similitude of Christ.
Next I observe, that our Saviour's fast was but introductory to His
temptation. He went into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil,
but before He was tempted He fasted. Nor, as is worth notice, was this
a mere preparation for the conflict, but it was the cause of the
conflict in good measure. Instead of its simply [1180] arming Him
against temptation, it is plain, that in the first instance, His
retirement and abstinence exposed Him to it. Fasting was the primary
occasion of it. "When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He
was afterwards an hungered;" and then the tempter came, bidding Him
turn the stones into bread. Satan made use of His fast against
Himself.
And this is singularly the case with Christians now, who endeavour
to imitate Him; and it is well they should know it, for else they will
be discouraged when they practise abstinences. It is commonly said,
that fasting is intended to make us better Christians, to sober us,
and to bring us more entirely at Christ's feet in faith and humility.
This is true, viewing matters on the whole. On the whole, and at last,
this effect will be produced, but it is not at all certain that it
will follow at once. On the contrary, such mortifications have at the
time very various effects on different persons, and are to be
observed, not from their visible benefits, but from faith in the Word
of God. Some men, indeed, are subdued by fasting and brought at once
nearer to God; but others find it, however slight, scarcely more than
an occasion of temptation. For instance, it is sometimes even made an
objection to fasting, as if it were a reason for not practising it,
that it makes a man irritable and ill-tempered. I confess it often may
do this. Again, what very often follows from it is, a feebleness which
deprives him of his command over his bodily acts, feelings, and
expressions. Thus it makes him seem, for instance, to be out of temper
when he is not; I mean, because his tongue, his lips, nay his brain,
are not in his power. He does not use the words he wishes to use, nor
the accent and tone. He seems sharp when he is not; and the
consciousness of this, and the reaction of that consciousness upon his
mind, is a temptation, and actually makes him irritable, particularly
if people misunderstand him, and think him what he is not. Again,
weakness of body may deprive him of self-command in other ways;
perhaps, he cannot help smiling or laughing, when he ought to be
serious, which is evidently a most distressing and humbling trial; or
when wrong thoughts present themselves, his mind cannot throw them
off, any more than if it were some dead thing, and not spirit; but
they then make an impression on him which he is not able to resist. Or
again, weakness of body often hinders him from fixing his mind on his
prayers, instead of making him pray more fervently; or again, weakness
of body is often attended with languor and listlessness, and strongly
tempts a man to sloth. Yet, I have not mentioned the most distressing
of the effects which may follow from even the moderate exercise of
this great Christian duty. It is undeniably [1181] a means of
temptation, and I say so, lest persons should be surprised, and
despond when they find it so. And the merciful Lord knows that so it
is from experience; and that He has experienced and thus knows it, as
Scripture records, is to us a thought full of comfort. I do not mean
to say, God forbid, that aught of sinful infirmity sullied His
immaculate soul; but it is plain from the sacred history, that in His
case, as in ours, fasting opened the way to temptation. And, perhaps,
this is the truest view of such exercises, that in some wonderful
unknown way they open the next world for good and evil upon us, and
are an introduction to somewhat of an extraordinary conflict with the
powers of evil. Stories are afloat (whether themselves true or not
matters not, they show what the voice of mankind thinks likely to be
true), of hermits in deserts being assaulted by Satan in strange ways,
yet resisting the evil one, and chasing him away, after our Lord's
pattern, and in His strength; and, I suppose, if we knew the secret
history of men's minds in any age, we should find this (at least, I
think I am not theorizing),--viz. a remarkable union in the case of
those who by God's grace have made advances in holy things (whatever
be the case where men have not), a union on the one hand of
temptations offered to the mind, and on the other, of the mind's not
being affected by them, not consenting to them, even in momentary acts
of the will, but simply hating them, and receiving no harm from them.
At least, I can conceive this--and so far persons are evidently
brought into fellowship and conformity with Christ's temptation, who
was tempted, yet without sm.
Let it not then distress Christians, even if they find themselves
exposed to thoughts from which they turn with abhorrence and terror.
Rather let such a trial bring before their thoughts, with something of
vividness and distinctness, the condescension of the Son of God. For
if it be a trial to us creatures and sinners to have thoughts alien
from our hearts presented to us, what must have been the suffering to
the Eternal Word, God of God, and Light of Light, Holy and True, to
have been so subjected to Satan, that he could inflict every misery on
Him short of sinning? Certainly it is a trial to us to have motives
and feelings imputed to us before men, by the accuser of the brethren,
which we never entertained; it is a trial to have ideas secretly
suggested within, from which we shrink; it is a trial to us for Satan
to be allowed so to mix his own thoughts with ours, that we feel
guilty even when we are not; nay, to be able to set on fire our
irrational nature, till in some sense we really sin against our will:
but has not One gone before us more awful in His trial, more glorious
in His victory? He was [1182] tempted in all points "like as we are,
yet without sin." Surely here too, Christ's temptation speaks comfort
and encouragement to us.
This then is, perhaps, a truer view of the consequences of fasting,
than is commonly taken. Of course, it is always, under God's grace, a
spiritual benefit to our hearts eventually, and improves
them,--through Him who worketh all in all; and it often is a sensible
benefit to us at the time. Still it is often otherwise; often it but
increases the excitability and susceptibility of our hearts; in all
cases it is therefore to be viewed, chiefly as an approach to God--an
approach to the powers of heaven--yes, and to the powers of hell. And
in this point of view there is some thing very awful in it. For what
we know, Christ's temptation is but the fulness of that which, in its
degree, and according to our infirmities and corruptions, takes place
in all His servants who seek Him. And if so, this surely was a strong
reason for the Church's associating our season of humiliation with
Christ's sojourn in the wilderness, that we might not be left to our
own thoughts, and, as it were, "with the wild beasts," and thereupon
despond when we afflict ourselves; but might feel that we are what we
really are, not bondmen of Satan, and children of wrath, hopelessly
groaning under our burden, confessing it, and crying out, "O wretched
man!" but sinners indeed, and sinners afflicting themselves, and doing
penance for sin; but withal God's children, in whom repentance is
fruitful, and who, while they abase themselves are exalted, and at the
very time that they are throwing themselves at the foot of the Cross,
are still Christ's soldiers, sword in hand, fighting a generous
warfare, and knowing that they have that in them, and upon them, which
devils tremble at, and flee.
And this is another point which calls for distinct notice in the
history of our Saviour's fasting and temptation, viz. the victory
which attended it. He had three temptations, and thrice He
conquered,--at the last He said, "Get thee behind Me, Satan;" on which
"the devil leaveth Him." This conflict and victory in the world
unseen, is intimated in other passages of Scripture. The most
remarkable of these is what our Lord says with reference to the
demoniac, whom His Apostles could not cure. He had just descended from
the Mount of Transfiguration, where, let it be observed, He seems to
have gone up with His favoured Apostles to pass the night in prayer.
He came down after that communion with the unseen world, and cast out
the unclean spirit, and then He said, "This kind can come forth by
nothing but by prayer and [1183] fasting,"(Mark ix.29) which is
nothing less than a plain declaration that such exercises give the
soul power over the unseen world; nor can any sufficient reason be
assigned for confining it to the first ages of the Gospel. And I think
there is enough evidence, even in what may be known afterwards of the
effects of such exercises upon persons now (not to have recourse to
history), to show that these exercises are God's instruments for
giving the Christian a high and royal power above and over his
fellows.
And since prayer is not only the weapon, ever necessary and sure,
in our conflict with the powers of evil, but a deliverance from evil
is ever implied as the object of prayer, it follows that all texts
whatever which speak of our addressing and prevailing on Almighty God,
with prayer and fasting, do, in fact, declare this conflict and
promise this victory over the evil one. Thus in the parable, the
importunate widow, who represents the Church in prayer, is not only
earnest with God, but against her adversary. "Avenge me of mine
adversary," she says and our "adversary" is "the devil, who, like a
roaring lion, walketh about seeking whom he may devour; whom resist,"
adds St. Peter, "stedfast in the faith." Let it be observed that, in
this parable, perseverance in prayer is especially recommended to us.
And this is part of the lesson taught us by the long continuance of
the Lent fast,--that we are not to gain our wishes by one day set
apart for humiliation, or by one prayer, however fervent, but by
"continuing instant in prayer." This too is signified to us in the
account of Jacob's conflict. He, like our Saviour, was occupied in it
through the night. Who it was whom he was permitted to meet in that
solitary season, we are not told; but He with whom he wrestled, gave
him strength to wrestle, and at last left a token on him, as if to
show that he had prevailed only by the condescension of Him over whom
he prevailed. So strengthened, he persevered till the morning broke,
and asked a blessing; and He whom he asked did bless him, giving him a
new name, in memory of his success. "Thy name shall be called no more
Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince hast thou power with God and with
men, and hast prevailed." (Gen. xxxii.28) In like manner, Moses passed
one of his forty days' fast in confession and intercession for the
people, who had raised the golden calf. "Thus I fell down before the
Lord forty days and forty nights, as I fell down at the first; because
the Lord had said He would destroy you. I prayed therefore unto the
Lord, and said, O Lord God, destroy not Thy people and Thine
inheritance, [1184] which Thou hast redeemed through Thy greatness,
which Thou hast brought forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand." (Deut.
ix.25, 26) Again, both of Daniel's recorded fasts ended in a blessing.
His first was intercessory for his people, and the prophecy of the
seventy weeks was given him. The second was also rewarded with
prophetical disclosures; and what is remarkable, it seems to have had
an influence (if I may use such a word) upon the unseen world from the
time he began it.--"The Angel said, Fear not, Daniel, for from the
first day that thou didst set thine heart to understand, and to
chasten thyself before thy God, thy words were heard, and I am come
for thy words."(Dan. x. 12) He came at the end, but he prepared to go
at the beginning. But more than this, the Angel proceeds, "But the
prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me one and twenty days;"
just the time during which Daniel had been praying--"but lo, Michael,
one of the chief princes, came to help me, and I remained there with
the kings of Persia."
An Angel came to Daniel upon his fast; so too in our Lord's
instance, Angels came and ministered unto Him; and so we too may well
believe, and take comfort in the thought, that even now, Angels are
especially sent to those who thus seek God. Not Daniel only, but
Elijah too was, during his fast, strengthened by an Angel; an Angel
appeared to Cornelius, while he was fasting, and in prayer; and I do
really think, that there is enough in what religious persons may see
around them, to serve to confirm this hope thus gathered from the word
of God.
"He shall give His Angels charge over Thee, to keep Thee in all Thy
ways;" (Ps. xci. 11) and the devil knows of this promise, for he used
it in that very hour of temptation. He knows full well what our power
is, and what is his own weakness. So we have nothing to fear while we
remain within the shadow of the throne of the Almighty. "A thousand
shall fall beside Thee, and ten thousand at Thy right hand, but it
shall not come nigh Thee." While we are found in Christ, we are
partakers of His security. He has broken the power of Satan; He has
gone "upon the lion and adder, the young lion and the dragon hath He
trod under His feet;" and henceforth evil spirits, instead of having
power over us, tremble and are affrighted at every true Christian.
They know he has that in him which makes him their master; that he
may, if he will, laugh them to scorn, and put them to flight. They
know this well, and bear it in mind, in all their assaults upon him;
sin alone [1185] gives them power over him; and their great object
is, to make him sin, and therefore to surprise him into sin, knowing
they have no other way of overcoming him. They try to scare him by the
appearance of danger, and so to surprise him; or they approach
stealthily and covertly to seduce him, and so to surprise him. But
except by taking him at unawares, they can do nothing. Therefore let
us be, my brethren, "not ignorant of their devices;" and as knowing
them, let us watch, fast, and pray, let us keep close under the wings
of the Almighty, that He may be our shield and buckler. Let us pray
Him to make known to us His will,--to teach us our faults,--to take
from us whatever may offend Him,--and to lead us in the way
everlasting. And during this sacred season, let us look upon ourselves
as on the Mount with Him--within the veil--hid with Him--not out of
Him, or apart from Him, in whose presence alone is life, but with and
in Him--learning of His Law with Moses, of His attributes with Elijah,
of His counsels with Daniel--learning to repent, learning to confess
and to amend--learning His love and His fear-- unlearning ourselves,
and growing up unto Him who is our Head.
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