Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to [Jesus], “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. (Mark 2:18-20)
I’m not surprised that today’s Gospel lection gets classified as a text about the spiritual discipline of fasting in the Bible I’m using from Renovaré, which defines fasting as “the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.” Clearly, there are significant benefits to this discipline — e.g., “it reminds us that we are sustained by every word of God and it restores balance in a believer’s life regarding priorities and nonessentials.”
But in a time when we are involuntarily denied so many normal functions, it feels like “balance” should instead push us to practice the other spiritual discipline present in this story: celebration.
It’s the last of the disciplines defined by Renovaré, but certainly not the least. Celebration “manifests in endless ways: singing, dancing, laughing, as well as taking advantage of celebrating festivals, holidays, and the milestones of life.” And even in an act as mundane as a meal.
After all, the reason the question of fasting came up is that Jesus and his disciples were eating with Levi (soon to become Matthew), his tax collector friends, and other “sinners.” Whether it was just the “dinner” of Mark’s spare account (2:15) or the “great banquet” described elsewhere (Luke 5:29), any meal is a chance to celebrate how God has blessed us: with life itself, sustained by food; with beauty, evident in the needlessly wondrous diversity of foods and drinks; with love, as we share an intimate experience with family and friends; and with grace, as we pray to a Christ who came “to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17) — like Levi, and like us.
Celebration reminds us that “God loves to celebrate and loves even more when we, as his people, join him in celebrating all the wonderful things he has done for us.” If that’s all we take away from this passage, maybe it’s not enough.
Indeed, I don’t want to get caught up in trying to interpret the metaphor that ends this brief reading. As I read those verses today, I cared less what distinguished new wineskins from old and more that Jesus was undoubtedly pointing to the wine on the table in front of him.
That’s Mark’s earliest portent that the “bridegroom” would soon be taken away, to bleed on a cross. (And I can’t help thinking that it’s now been almost seven months since I last shared in the sacrament of communion. There’s a fast for you.) But given that we’re in the second chapter of one gospel, it’s hard not to think of another, describing a more famous meal whose guest list includes Jesus and his disciples. Among many other things, John’s story of that wedding feast at Cana — filed with Celebration in my Bible’s index of spiritual disciplines — reminds us that our bridegroom shares his grace as lavishly as he shared that wine.
What can his disciples do but discipline ourselves to celebrate as joyfully?