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Prudentius, Hymn of the Fasting

O Nazarene, Light of Bethlehem, Word of the Father, offspring of a virgin’s womb, be present, Christ, at our pious acts of abstinence, and as our King look with favour on our holy day while we offer the sacrifice of our fast.

Nothing surely is purer than this rite, whereby the heart is enlivened through the cleansing of its tissues, and the intemperate flesh subdued so that fat, exuding the stinking sweat of excess, shall not constrict and choke the mind. Hereby are conquered indulgence and shameful appetite, the debased sloth that comes of wine and slumber, filthy passion, immodest pleasantry, and all the plagues that dull our senses are put down and feel the discipline of restraint. For if uncurbed a man abandons himself to drinking and eating and does not duly control his body by fasting, then in the consequence the spark of the noble soul wastes and cools off by reason of constant indulgence, and the mind falls heavily asleep in the sluggish breast.

Let the desires of our bodies, then, be bridled, and the clean flame of wisdom shine within us: so, with judgment awakened, the spirit will see clearly, it will have freedom and more room to breathe, and will pray better to the Father of all things.

It was by such observance that Elias, the priest of old, grew strong, when he was a sojourner in a dry land, and they say that thus remote and separate from all the noise of the world he put from him a multitude of sins while he enjoyed the pure silence of the desert. But afterwards he was carried away by horses of fire in a swift-flying chariot and soared into the breezes, lest from the near contagion of filth the fell world should breathe upon a man at peace, whose fasts approved had given him renown.

Moses, a the faithful messenger of the awful throne, was not able to see the Lord of the sevenfold heavens till the sun in his passage through the constellations had rolled forty times on his returning path and beheld him lacking all sustenance. While he prayed, his only meat was in his tears; for with his weeping all night long he watered the dust and the ground was wet where he lay with face bowed low on it, until God spoke and His voice touched him and he trembled at the fire his eyes could not bear.

John was no less a master of this power, he who went before the Son of the everlasting God, who made straight the crooked paths and by setting right the twisting ways gave a direct course to follow. This service the messenger made ready beforehand, making a way for God who was presently to come, so that the steep places should be changed to level and the rough places to smooth, and that Truth coming to the earth should find no devious way. No common birth was his: it was a late child that strained nipples that had forgotten their milk, on his mother’s shrunken breast; and ere he was brought forth from her aged womb he proclaimed a virgin pregnant with God. Afterwards he withdrew into the wide solitudes, wrapped in shaggy skins of beasts or covered with rough hair and coarse wool, dreading defilement and corruption from the impure ways of towns. There, living sparely with devoted abstinence, in his unremitting strictness he would put food and drink from him until the late time of evening, and used to give his body sustenance at these long intervals with locusts and the honey from wild honey-combs. He was the first preacher and teacher of the new salvation, for in the consecrated stream he washed clean the marks of old sins, but after he cleansed the tainted bodies the Spirit flowed shining into them from heaven. From this baptism, the stain of sin removed, men came reborn, shining as fair as does rough gold when it is refined, bright as the glistening sheen of silver ore when it is purified and polished.

I will now recount the history of a fast in ancient times, a tale made known to us by the faithful Book, how the merciful Father’s thunderbolt was appeased, its fires in love suppressed, and spared the inhabitants of a city that merited destruction. There flourished once a mighty and arrogant nation, given over to evil indulgence, and which in its debased wantonness had in the mass passed all restraint; wherefore being stiff-necked in its stupid pride, it was disregarding the worship of God on high. Justice ever merciful is at last offended and aroused in righteous wrath. It arms its right hand with a fiery sword and brandishes rattling storms and crashing whirlwinds in a cloud of fire and thunder. Yet giving them a brief space for repentance, if haply they might be willing to subdue and break their wicked lust and long-continued follies, the awful Judge, who is yet easily entreated, suspends the blow, the doom pronounced is for a little stayed. The merciful Avenger calls Jonah the prophet to go and proclaim impending punishment; but he, knowing that the Judge who threatened would rather save than strike and punish, flees in secret and turns his steps privily to Tarshish. He embarks on a tall ship by the gangway standing ready; the wet mooring-rope cast off, the vessel sails and they make their way over the deep. But the sea grows stormy, and then search is made for the cause of the great peril, and the lot is cast and falls on the fugitive prophet. Arraigned, he alone of them all, and condemned to die, for the turning of the urn had made his guilt manifest, he is hurled headlong and plunged in the deep, caught then in a monster’s jaws, and swallowed up alive in the vault of its great belly. Passing swiftly over, the prey escapes the futile stroke of the teeth, for he flies unhurt over the tongue without shedding of blood, so that the wet grinders cannot hold the morsel in their bite and break it in pieces; right through the mouth he passes, and beyond the palate. While three days and nights went by he remained engulfed in the beast’s maw, wandering there in the darkness of its inward parts, round and round the tortuous windings of its guts, his breath choking with the heat of the entrails. From thence, when the third night comes round, the monster retching spews him out unharmed; where the wave breaks at its loud-sounding close and the white spray beats on the briny rocks he is belched out, amazed at his preservation. Back to Nineveh perforce he turns with quickened step, and after upbraiding and censuring its people, laying their shameful misdeeds to their charge, he cries: “The wrath of the great Judge hangs over you and will presently burn your city with fire, believe ye.” Then he makes for the peak of a high mountain, to see from there the thick smoke arise from the jumbled ruin, and the city in a heap of dire destruction, while he shelters under the shoots of a plant that sprouts from many a joint and enjoys a shade that of a sudden has grown up. But ah! the saddened people, pierced by grief not known before, is in the agony of death. Commons and councillors, citizens of every age, young men with pale faces, wailing women, rush to and fro in crowds all about the wide city. Resolved to appease the angry Christ with public fasts, they put the habit of eating from them; the matron, taking off her necklaces, dons dark vestures, and instead of jewels and silk, foul ashes besprinkle her flowing hair. The fathers wear the dark robes of mourning all ungirt, the common crowd in lamentation put on coarse haircloth, the maids, with hair unkempt and shaggy like a beast’s, cover their faces with black veils, the children lie rolling in the sand. The king himself, pulling away the clasp, tore in pieces his mantle that had the glow of Coan purple, put off his bright jewels, his band of precious stones, the emblem that clasped his brows, and cluttered his hair with unsightly dust. None had any thought of drinking or of eating; the whole manhood had turned from the table to fasting; nay, the cradles are wet with the tears of little ones crying because milk is denied them, for the niggard nurse withdraws the liquor of the breast. The very flocks the herdsmen take shrewd care to enclose, lest roaming at large the cattle put their lips to the dewy grass or drink a draught from the brawling stream, and the sound of their plaints fills the foodless stalls. Softened by these and the like acts, God restrains His short-lived anger and turns propitious, mitigating His awful sentence; for His ready mercy willingly cancels the guilt of men when they humble themselves, and shows favour to their tears.

But why do I speak of the example of an ancient race, seeing that Jesus, long since, when He was burdened with a mortal body, fasted with consecrated heart, He who was aforetime by the mouth of the prophet named Emmanuel, God with us?

This body, which is by nature weak and a prisoner under the lawless tyranny of pleasures, He set at liberty by the strict law of virtue; He gave freedom to the enslaved flesh and conquered the passion that held sway before. For, living remote in an inhospitable place, while forty days passed He never claimed the pleasant taste of food, but with wholesome fasting strengthened the vessel which is enfeebled by its seeking after joys. The enemy, wondering that perishing clay can sustain and endure such effort, tries to find out by cunning artful inquiry whether it is God that has been received in an earthly body; but his trickery is rebuked and he flees behind Christ’s back.

Let us now follow, each according to his strength, this that Thou, O Christ, the teacher of holy doctrine, hast given to Thy followers, that the spirit, being in command and having overcome the lust of eating, may triumph over all the field. This it is that earns the black enemy’s malice and spite, this that wins the approval of Him who rules earth and heaven, that makes the altar of sacrifice propitious, awakens faith in the sleeping heart, and clears away the unhealthy blight from our breasts. Not so surely does water put out fire, or the snows melt in the heat of the sun, as the unclean crop of rebellious sins vanishes under the cleansing of a restoring fast, if kindly liberality be ever joined with it. For it is a noble form of virtue too, to clothe the naked, feed the needy, give kindly aid to them that beg for it, hold that rich and poor share one and the same humanity. Blest enough the man who holds out a right hand that grasps at merit but is lavish of money, whose left hand knows not the kind deed: him everlasting wealth straightway satisfies, and profit an hundredfold on his lending makes him rich.

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