I’m Totally a Lent Expert
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. My earliest memory of Ash Wednesday is of my English teacher coming to school with ashes on her forehead my senior year. Someone asked her what religion she was and she playfully deflected with some comment about tree frog worship. (No, she wasn’t being serious. Yes, you’re right, she was Episcopalian. But really, she’s much more traditional than I am, as I now know, so don’t read too much into her snarky humor.)
But now everyone’s into the church calendar and liturgy and, yes, Lent. Heck, it wasn’t too long after that first ashen exposure to the onset of Lent that I had my own first Lenten fast. My freshman or sophomore year of college I gave up CO2. No bubbles. No soda. If I had been a beer drinker I probably would have chosen something less onerous, but as someone growing accustomed to grabbing some bubbly caffeine in the mid-afternoon or early evening to help propel a night of studying it was something.
That was my first little exposure to some sort of fast: giving something up that I was used to. Giving something up that served a purpose for me. Giving something up that had the power to show me I was looking for something more than needful calories or even momentary pleasure.
Addition and Subtraction
Recently my house church found its way to Isaiah 58. This particular stretch of the prophet denounces the people for their fasts of self-denial. They fast but then quarrel and fight. The people fast from food, but there is a more basic summons:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isa. 58:6–7 NRS)
There is a fasting that is an “adding”—setting aside our self-absorption in order to become agents of justice, in order to become the means by which God provides bread to the hungry and clothes the naked.
The sentiments of Isaiah 58 were echoed by Pope Francis when he called for a different kind of Lenten fast this year.
“No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.”
There is a real danger in pietistic holiness, the danger that we will see ourselves ascending to God only to fail to see that it is only by stepping on people who need tangible help that we are lifted skyward. These are valuable warnings from Isaiah and from Pope Francis.
In Defense of Subtraction
I do not want to speak ill of addition. It is valuable and needful for many of us. But I do want to defend good old fashioned subtraction. Literal fasting. Keeping away from food at certain times, or keeping away from certain kinds of foods.1
Here’s the heart of it: fasting sharpens our eyes to see the places where we are trusting in the provision of this world rather than God as provider. We are a people defined by our consumption. We are consumers. Of food no les than goods.
When we fast we open ourselves to feelings and urges that we are used to meeting more or less immediately (especially in more affluent countries). We are allowing ourselves to feel those pangs and pains and to confront the stark reality of why we want them filled, what we hope that they will do for us.
A couple years ago we were at a church that took one week of Lent to do a comfort fast: no hot showers.
Observing that one made me angry. It wasn’t just exposing me to a less comfortable way to get clean, it was taking away an experience of warm comfort. The pleasure of the warm shower was as much the point as getting clean.
When I fast from food the rumble in my stomach is one thing: yes, my body needs / is used to nourishment now. But then there’s something else. There are those half dozen times during the day (which become several dozen when not answered) that I want to put something in my mouth and eat it because I’m bored or lonely or anxious.
I’m not eating because my body needs food, I’m eating as though my heart needs it.
At the risk of allowing my Calvinist seminary training to peek through, fasting from foods or practices is valuable because it has the power to show us what our idols are and how strongly they are gripping our hearts. It has the power to show us some of the foolish ways we are trying to fill ourselves with bread that will never satisfy.
We are bodily people. At its best, fasting will be an expression of our embodied faith. Fasting should not be an attempt to escape the body, as though only some alleged “soul” matters. Quite the opposite. Fasting should show us how our bodies are integrally related to everything we do as spiritual people.
How we eat is a demonstration and indicator of our spirituality. How we drink is a demonstration and indicator of our spirituality.
Whether or not we feed the hungry and clothe the naked is a demonstration and indicator of our spirituality.
Perhaps the most tangible and direct connection between fasting and spirituality is that it provides us with an opportunity to entrust our very bodies into the hands of God. This is what God led Israel into in the desert, showing them that “people do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
This is what the Spirit led Jesus into in the desert, where he fasted for forty days. When tempted he would not turn stones into bread. He was learning through practice that “people do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
To refuse to eat, or to abstain from a comfort food, is for many of us to expose something in which we have put our hope and trust. It is to reorder our trust Godward. It is to be willing to walk through the pain of hunger and emptiness and loneliness and longing in trust that God is will provide.
I think that this is why Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “When you fast…” He expected we would. He knew we would need it. For those of us who have too much, we might need to taste nothing if we are to see in fresh ways how the Lord is good.
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1. I realize that many people, perhaps including some of my readers, have more significant challenges around food, to where eating enough and getting sufficient calories a significant challenge. I understand that for you it is far more important, and far more an indication of faithfulness and trust, to continue eating than to engage in what would truly be a dangerous and destructive fast. ↩