21st February: The Slow Repentance of Fasting


Jonah 3: 1-10

The three-day Fast of Nineveh is a practice that originated in the Eastern Church. The Septuagint version of the Old Testament stated that the city of Nineveh will be overthrown in 3 days (instead of 40) and it is likely that it is from this translation that this tradition came about. Usually, Christians would abstain from dairy foods or meat.  

In the Western Church, these three-day fasts are known as Ember Days and it is listed as such in our Provincial lectionary from today till Friday

A good question to ask is: Why do Christians fast? Today we see fasting as a Christian discipline to help us grow in holiness through abstinence. Some may practise it for health reasons.

Here in Jonah chapter 3, the inhabitants of Nineveh were threatened with divine punishment (Jonah 3:4). The king asked them to fast from food and drinks, call out on the Lord and turned away from their evil deeds (Jonah 3:7,8). As a result, God did not judge them. 

Christians today tend to read a passage like this and translate it into a doctrinal framework such as “we no longer need to work for forgiveness”. Or that fasting as an act of repentance belongs to the old covenant and should no longer be practised in the new. While the doctrine of salvation by grace is certainly true and we should no longer mandate human acts as conditions for divine forgiveness, it will be to our loss if we stop the practise of fasting as an act of repentance. 

The practise of penance can sometimes help a person to find forgiveness experientially. It is a process which can help a person find healing. Undoubtedly, God is ready to always forgive, but such disciplines can be an unhurried way for a person to enter into true contrition of heart and through that, experience a deep forgiveness and healing. 

Perhaps one of the best illustrations of this joy of forgiveness is found in the 1986 movie, The Mission.

Rodrigo Mendoza was a former slave trader and mercenary, and he had spent years capturing native Guarani people and selling them into slavery. In a fit of rage and jealousy, he killed his own brother, Mendoza, whom he loved very much. He was imprisoned, and worse of all, he was trapped in his unconsolable guilt and grief. He is visited by Jesuit Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), who, after hearing Mendoza’s confession, challenges him to do penance for his sins. Rodrigo agrees, and he decides to accompany the Jesuit missionaries on the difficult journey to their remote jungle mission—all the while dragging behind him a heavy burden of armor and weapons he used during his sinful life as a mercenary.

On their way to the mission, the travelers encounter a band of Gaurani natives. Unsurprisingly, the atmosphere is tense, as both Rodrigo and the missionaries are unsure how the natives will respond to the man who sold many of their family and friends into slavery. The natives approach him with a knife, not to kill him, but to cut off the heavy burden. Mendoza wept and at that moment, the powerful message of Christian forgiveness moved many viewers to tears.  

Un-rushed and reflective penitential repentance can be a powerful healing process. Our Lord who is always willing and ready to forgive, often uses this process to help us find the complete healing we need: to know that you are forgiven and to be able to forgive yourself and move on. May we slow down in Lent, that guilt and grief may turn into joy. 

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