Asceticism (in the New Testament)

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In the Gospels asceticism is presented under the concrete theme of following the historical Christ and thus sharing the hardships, dangers, and penalties that loyal discipleship to Him exact; in the Epistles of St. Paul asceticism is described principally in the image of the spiritual athlete who consciously and constantly disciplines himself in a strong effort to live more fully in docile obedience to the Spirit of Christ, to attain not only his own salvation but also that of the community.

In the Gospels. The relationship between the disciples and Jesus, described in the Gospels as following Jesus, implies an ascetic self-renunciation by the disciple. Those invited by Jesus to follow Him must sacrifice their feelings and former ties, give absolute priority to the work of the kingdom, and be animated by a singleness of purpose. His call was: "If any man wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whosoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it" (Mk 8:3435; Mt 16:2425; Lk 9:2324). Following Jesus is difficult for human nature because it requires total self-commitment and entails contempt and danger from others. Yet following the historical Christ is a special gift of God (Jn 6:65), not granted the wise of this world (Mt 11:25). In the Gospels, following Christ does not mean merely imitating what Jesus does, but actually sharing His experiences with Him. It means discipleship and participation in His fate. For later Christians the lesson of the Gospels is that they, as Jesus' disciples, must deny themselves all that separates them from Christ and be ready to sacrifice even their life in loyalty to Him. Another ascetic theme of the Gospels is that of humility, so well exemplified in the poor of spirit (anāwîm; Mt 5:3; cf. Lk 6:20). The ănāwîm are those pious and humble persons who, conscious of their spiritual need, look to God for strength and help. Often enough they are also the economically poor, oppressed and trodden upon by the rich and powerful. To them Christ addresses the first beatitude, "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 5:3). Christ, in describing Himself as "meek and humble of heart" (Mt 11:29), is probably referring to Himself as an 'ănāw (a poor one).

In the Epistles of St. Paul. In St. Paul the asceticism necessary for the Christian life is expressed by diverse images, especially that of the spiritual athlete: the Christian is like the athlete who must constantly train and practice self-control in order to win the race (1 Cor 9:2427; 1 Tm 4:7); his fight is against the old man (Eph 4:22), the flesh and its weaknesses (Rom 8:1213; Eph 6:8), and the demonic world rulers (Eph 6:12). The Christian thus must practice humility and self-discipline in emptying himself of selfishness (Phil 2:58) in order to live in communion with Christ (Rom 6:13, 1214). St. Paul himself has made strenuous efforts in the manner of the disciplined athlete in striving for the goal (Acts 24:16; see also Heb 5:14; 12:11; 2 Pt 2:14), and he is aware that he must strive to the end (Phil 3:13).

Another prominent feature of Paul's asceticism is its corporate significance. The Christian lives and acts in and with his glorified Lord and His Spirit. He has a mystical relationship to Christ (Gal 2:1920) and to all who are baptized into Christ (Rom 6:314); thus what he does either helps or hurts the total body of Christ. The individual's strivings, like those of Paul, have communal significance; he "fills up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for His body, which is the Church" (Col 1:24).

See Also: fast and abstinence; following of christ.

Bibliography: r. schnackenburg, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, 1:930932. t. w. manson, "The Sayings of Jesus," The Mission and Message of Jesus, ed. h. d. a. major and c. j. wright (New York 1938) 301639. g. t. montague, Growth in Christ: A Study in Saint Paul's Theology of Progress (Kirkwood, Mo. 1961). l. bouyer, Introduction to Spirituality, tr. m. p. ryan (New York 1961). a. gelin, Les Pauvres de Yahvé (Paris 1953). j. kremer, Was an den Leiden Christi noch mangelt (Bonn 1956). 4:38 PM 3/15/02

[j. lachowski]