Article 26: Is this going to get me in trouble with you guys?
Having recently delved into the rich issues of Ecclesiology, Pneumatology, the Sacraments and so forth, it may seem that the issue of fasting is relatively insignificant. I would argue, however, that it is a significant, salutary practice with an important part to play in the life of the church. Thus while not commanded in Scripture, it is certainly recommended. Even the CA maintains this point:
… So Christ commands, Luke 21, 34: Take heed lest your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting; also Matt. 17, 21: This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting. Paul also says, 1 Cor. 9, 27: I keep under my body and bring it into subjection. Here he clearly shows that he was keeping under his body, not to merit forgiveness of sins by that discipline, but to have his body in subjection and fitted for spiritual things, and for the discharge of duty according to his calling.
The CA takes issue not with fasting per se, then, but the use/abuse of fasting. What do the abuses center on? It comes down to three somewhat interrelated ones:
1. An illegitimate exercise of church authority (as Josh points out in the Comments)
2. Obscuring the Gospel
3. Putting an undue burden on the conscience of the faithful
Does the church run the risk of these things by including the practice of fasting in her liturgical and moral life? If by doing so, the faith is reduced to the external, to the “observance of certain holy-days, rites, fasts, and vestures,” then I would certainly say so. Likewise, the fathers of the Confession describe the Roman side saying, “with the gathering of these traditions, the schools and sermons have been so much occupied that they have had no leisure to touch upon the Scripture.” But, what could be said of the churched divorced from these traditions? To proclaim the Gospel rightly in the Word and Sacrament, is to do so in the life of the church. This life manifests in the interior life of the faithful, but also in the exterior life of the church as a whole – foremost in the sacramental and liturgical dimensions, but also in the traditional practices and observances that render one fit for such spiritual things.
So, precisely how can the church, in living the sacramental life of the Gospel, commend fasting? First of all, she can as something that is rooted in the Scriptures, particularly in the public life of Jesus Christ and his disciples. Secondly, fasting is consonant with long standing tradition and is advocated by the Fathers, Doctors and especially the Mystics. But lastly, the church can confront us in a present sense in two ways. Fasting can be recommended as a spiritual practice for the individual seeking to live the life of interior faith with his or her body. Fasting, then, “brings the body under subjection” and renders the faithful fit and hungry for things of a spiritual nature. More importantly, though, fasting takes on communal significance in the liturgical life of the church. By fasting communally in Lent, the church as the body of Christ mirrors Christ’s own life. Unity in Christ’s body takes on a rich meaning, including even unity in suffering and waiting. Thus the corporate body, as the individual’s is rendered fit by participating in the life of Christ. Far from obscuring the Gospel, fasting (and communal/liturgical fasting in particular) highlights it and makes it present in a real, almost visceral sense as the Good News that feeds yet also causes great hunger and anticipation. That fasting is so often connected with the time leading up to the great feasts (particularly Easter) and the Eucharist is demonstrative of its rôle. Instead of putting a burden on the conscience of the faithful, a sacramentally focused fasting is rooted in and anticipatory of the Gospel which is freedom. In prescribing such fasts the church exercises not power so much as ministerium and does so fundamentally as an assembly around the Eucharist.