Why are there so many songs about rainbows and what’s on the other side? We’ve been told that rainbows are merely illusions, light refracted into its constituent parts by water droplets, but people do not write songs or poems or myths about light refracted by water droplets. They write songs and poems and myths about rainbows.
This attempt to deconstruct the rainbow, to explain it away is a danger in our modern scientific world. The danger is that we see through everything and soon there is nothing to look at anymore. “The rainbow is only refracted light. The rainbow is merely an optical illusion.” No. It is not only or merely anything. It is a gigantic stripe of every color that goes from one side of the sky to the other. If a person sees through a rainbow, then they no longer see the rainbow. Someone who can look at a rainbow and not see a rainbow is blind.
This problem of seeing through is particularly a modern problem, but humans have always suffered from this blindness. St. Peter writes in the second reading today that baptism is not merely the removal of dirt from the body. Somebody might see a baptism and say, “That’s it? That’s all? Just a little water, a quick bath?” They have seen through the baptism, so they cannot see the baptism. They cannot see a person saved through water and the Holy Spirit.
Is love merely a chemical reaction in the brain? No. There may be such a reaction, but it is not the essence of love. If you want to know about love, ask someone who has loved, not a neuroscientist. Is the Mass merely a lot of unnecessary words and rituals? Is the Eucharist just bread and wine? If you want the truth, you cannot ask someone who has seen through it all. You need someone who has seen the truth, the ineffable, wonderful, amazing truth.
That is Jesus in our Gospel today. He went out into the wilderness to fast for 40 days, the first Lent, and he came back with a vision for the people of Galilee: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel!” Jesus could see what we blind people miss. He constantly prayed and fasted. He is God, of course, and knows the Father and the Holy Spirit perfectly, but he also made certain that his human nature was able to see what we look right through. In fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, Jesus brought his human nature into right relationship with God.
Perhaps it is clearer how the other two practices of Lent relate to our relationship with God. If we want to be close to God, obviously we should pray, talking to him and listening to him. And almsgiving means serving the people he created. If I love God, I will pray and help others. These two are clearly important, but perhaps it is less obvious that if I love God I will not eat meat or give up desserts.
But fasting is the tool by which we are able to see the reality of the symbols. Like when we look at a drop of water through a microscope and see all sorts of living creatures swimming around that were invisible before, or we look at the sky through a telescope and see planets and stars and galaxies where there seemed to be nothing, if we are going to see to the reality of things, we need a tool; not a telescope or microscope but something else. That something else is fasting, and it is so very essential to the Christian life.
How is it that fasting allow us to start seeing things? It is not that if we fast long enough we will eventually start hallucinating. There are people who do that in other religions, but that is not the goal of Christian fasting. We know this because the good effects of fasting last even after you begin eating normally again.
For us, fasting is based on a hunger that is present in every human soul. Atheist or Christian or whatever religion, the hunger is present because God put it there when he created us. We experience hunger pangs of this spiritual hunger. It is painful to have a desire that cannot be filled. So we try to answer the hunger with various things: food, entertainment, alcohol, whatever. This hunger is why we eat too much. This hunger is why people get drunk. This hunger is why people jump out of airplanes and ride rollercoasters. This hunger goes under many names, but above all it is called Boredom. O wonderful boredom, the realization that I am not satisfied with what this world has to offer!
If we sit on the couch with a bag of potato chips, watching TV, we might quiet this hunger for a little while, but not very long. If a starving person cannot get food, perhaps they will chew on gum or something else to pass the time, but, when they have food, they will throw away the gum and begin to eat. So we also, when we get to heaven and live in the presence of God, will throw away whatever we have used to quiet our longing for God here on earth. Here and now it is painful to throw these things away. We must force ourselves to fast so that we do not forget what we really want, so that we do not forget what the longing is really for.
As we fast this Lent and rediscover our longing for God, we must be careful not to find a substitute for what we have given up. Particularly if you have given up television or the internet, you may find that you have literally hours of extra time each day. Now is not the time to become an avid reader of novels. Use the time for the other Lenten practices: prayer and almsgiving. Help those in need. Read the Scriptures. Spend some time in Adoration. If our fast is the kind of fast that God loves, it will turn us outward to God and to our neighbor.
Then, we will be able to see. A person who has not spent time fasting cannot see the love of God, but we can. We will look at rainbows and see a promise given thousands of years ago. We will look at the Eucharist and see the Body and Blood and Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. If we imitate Jesus this lent and fast for 40 days, we will begin to feel something. When our hearts are burning because we refuse to settle for anything less than God, when our whole bodies are on fire with desire, then we will walk around with our eyes wide open, then we will be able to see.