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tradition, to abstain from their food, on certain occasions, as an exercise of piety. The Jewish law could not be the original of an observance, that had spread so wide: especially, as that law appoints but one single day in the whole year to be kept as a public fast, and gives no orders for private fasting at all. Yet we find, from the early times of their commonwealth downwards, many other public facts observed by them, as exigencies required : we find the Prophets approving and enjoining them, and directing how they are to be solemnized : we find the most exemplary in goodness amongst them taking this way of humbling themselves before God in secret, not only on personal and domestic, but national accounts, and graciously accepted in so doing.
The same usage continued to our Saviour's days. For we read in St. Luke*, of Anna the Prophetess, that she served God with fastings and prayers night and day. Indeed by this time, over and above several yearly fasts, appointed by authority t, the stricter sort observed two every week voluntarily I. And not only the Pharisees, but John's disciples also, fasted often §. Nor doth our blessed Lord condemn any part of these things: but, leaving the frequency of fasting to public and private prudence, regulates only the manner of it; and by so doing, plainly treats it as a practice intended for perpetual use. It is true, he doth not, in so many words, command his disciples to fast: he only saith, When ye fast. But so he had said just before, when thou dost thine alms, when thou prayest l. Yet these are certainly duties of Christianity. And had he not designed, that fasting should be considered in some degree as a * Luke ïi. 37. + Zacch. viii. 19.
Luke xviii. 12. Matth, ix, 14. || Verse 2.
duty also; he would never have promised a reward to the right performance of it, as he doth in the next verse, but one, after the text. And besides, he not only fasted himself, in a manner quite beyond our imitation, but declared, that though then his disciples did not fast, yet after he was taken from them, they should*: which they verified accordingly. Cornelius indeed was not yet a Christian, when he fasted to the ninth hour +: but that was amongst the means of his becoming one. We read in the following chapters of the Acts, that congregations, under the guidance of Prophets and Apostles, fasted on more occasions than one I. St. Paul enjoins private persons to give themselves at times to fasting and prayer g. The whole Christian church, from the beginning, hath both esteemed and practised it not a little: and to this day both the ecclesiastical and civil powers continue to prescribe it.
If then we have any regard to the example and experience of good persons, to the injunctions and commands of our earthly superiors, or to the authority of Scripture itself; we cannot think fasting an observance to be either blamed or slighted. But for yet fuller satisfaction, and indeed for our direction also, let us inquire more particularly, what its meaning and uses are.
One very useful meaning is, to express our sorrow for having offended God, and our sense of not deserving the least of his favours. By some it hath been thought, that our first parents introduced it, as a penitential memorial of their eating the forbidden fruit: which indeed it might very properly express. But without insisting on this, for which we have no
* Matt. ix. 15.
Acts xiii, 2, 3. xiv. 23.
+ Acts x. 30. $ 1 Cor. vii. 5.
warrant, abstaining for some time from our daily food signifies, most naturally, that we are unworthy of it; and can take no comfort in it, whilst we are under the divine displeasure. And as anciently, every thing of importance was denoted, especially in the Eastern countries, by actions as well as words; this was probably the original purpose, for which men used fasting. And it was then sometimes ex-· tended to children, and cattle; in token, that the parents and owners of them had forfeited the dearest blessings, and most valuable conveniences of life *. It is true, a proper confession in words would have expressed the same thing, that this ceremony doth, and somewhat more clearly, unless it were explained by words. But in all likelihood it usually was: or if not, the difficulty of understanding it cannot be accounted great. And where it is appointed by authority, or prevails by custom, as the established method of signifying humiliation, we are as much bound to comply with it, as with any other appointment or custom; and should be as justly thought disobedient or unsociable, if we refused : even though it had no peculiar advantages to compensate for its being of less obvious meaning: whereas indeed it hath considerable ones. For words alone are far from carrying with them that energy and influence upon the mind, which the superadded solemnity of such an abstinence must, even in private cases; and much more, when whole assemblies, and cities, and countries, join in it. But above all, when either persons or nations have been remarkably wicked, such moving and afflicting acknowledgments of it are singularly adapted to produce more powerful and lasting impressions on those, who make use of them; and by
* Joel ii. 16. Jonah iii, 7, 8.
Judith iv. 10.
that means to render them fitter objects of divine mercy. Indeed, were every method, which the warmer imaginations of the Eastern people suggested formerly, and found really conducive to this end, practised now among such, as are less accustomed and disposed to significative actions, considerable inconveniences might follow: and in fact, multiplying ritual observances hath contributed almost every where to darken religion, and corrupt it. But so simple and intelligible an usage, as mere fasting, may surely be employed, in any age and place, without danger.
And, besides the good effects it may have, as a strong outward mark of repentance, it may be a cause, by its physical effects, of our feeling greater degrees of inward conviction. The faculties of many persons are overloaded by continual excess, and the corruptible body presseth down the soul* : nor can it exert itself, till the burthen upon it is lightened. And without what is commonly called excess, a constant course of high or full living hath so powerful a tendency to immerse our thoughts in worldly objects, and make us, both indolent as to our eternal interests, and fearless of the consequences of such indolence: that all, who pass their days in the free enjoyment of plenty, have need frequently to interrupt their indulgences, however lawful in their nature: to admonish themselves, by so doing, that they have much more important concerns, than the gratification of sense and ease: and to view the state of their souls with attentive thoughtfulness, which abstinence, and its proper companion retirement, would beget. Assuredly numbers of them would then see their condition in respect of God, and a future life, in a very
* Wisd, ix. 15.
different light, from that, which warm blood, gay spirits, and presumptuous imaginations place it in. And for want of such views it is, that so many are grossly wicked, and so many more very imperfectly and insufficiently good : whom a habit of considerate self-restraint would render by degrees indifferent to earthly enjoyments, and solicitous for those of a better world. Nay, even single acts of such restraint will usually, for the time, lower our passions into some good measure of composedness, and make our sorrow for sin humbler and deeper; on both which accounts fasting is called in Scripture, afflicting the soul*. For it mortifies the desires of the sensitive part, and enlivens the remorse of the rational. By these means, it may contribute much to render our faith of invisible things more lively, and our devotions more fervent: for which reason fasting is always understood in Scripture, and always ought in practice, to be accompanied by prayer. And in proportion as it qualifies us to pray as we ought, it assures us of obtaining our requests; whether they be for averting God's judgments, or deriving his mercies upon us, in our public capacity or private.
But farther yet, fasting not only assists humiliation and devotion, but is in other ways also friendly to virtue. Inflicting it on ourselves as a penalty, when we have been guilty of any great sin, will contribute greatly and yet with perfect safety, if it be done with discretion, to our becoming weary and afraid of sinning. Accordingly St. Paul speaks of self-punishment, as a very useful and beneficial fruit of true repentance. For behold, your sorrowing after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you ; yea, what zeal; yea, what revenget. But especially, if
Is. lviii. 3. 5.
† 2 Cor. vii. 11.