Thursday, March 10, 2011

A True Fast: An Ash Wednesday Meditation

As a balance to last night's meditation, I recommend this wonderful blogpost, "Eating Chocolate for Lent." God calls each of us, individually, by name. Some, God calls to eat chocolate.

This meditation is on Isaiah 58:1-12 and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.


Lent is a tough season. Tougher, certainly, than Advent, which invites us to kindle lights in the darkness in anticipation of a birth. Advent is about angels and pregnancy and starlight hope, and at the end of it all, we get Christmas!

Not so with Lent. For one thing, Lent gets absolutely no play in the world outside the church. Easter does, to the extent it becomes an opportunity for folks to sell us candy and flowers and hams. The commercial world is on board with Easter! But Lent—how can you pretty up a season whose chief metaphors have to do with journeys in the wilderness and the kinds of diets they would never print in a women’s magazine?

Lent is misunderstood, I think. Our friend J. pointed this out beautifully in his Lenten meditation, found on the Ash Wednesday page of our church devotional. He noted that we tend to think Lent is about us, a kind of spiritual home-improvement project involving self-reflection, self-awareness, self-discipline, to the point where we neglect to notice where all that navel gazing is supposed to lead us—to a closer walk with Jesus. Lent is about Jesus. Lent is about sharpening our focus on Jesus. The church has traditionally encouraged us to do this by the adoption of certain spiritual practices which pre-dispose us to notice how very much we need him to show us the way. One of those practices is the fast.

Fasting is the practice of going without something, or limiting your access to it—in scripture, fasting nearly always refers to abstaining from food for a certain period of time. But in our modern context people can fast from anything they suspect they are overly attached to, as part of an attempt to make more room for God. Saint Augustine said that God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them. Fasting is a way for us to try to empty our hands, so that God can give us something good. Both our readings this evening speak of fasting. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus speaks of fasting; he seems to accept it as a normal part of religious observance, something most faithful people will do at one time or another. However, he seems to be talking about it as if the practice is somehow going wrong as he observes it.

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

~ Matthew 6:16-18

It sounds as if those who are fasting are using it as an excuse to either get everyone to think they’re extra-special good people, or to garner sympathy. Neither of these, Jesus says, is the point of fasting. Likewise, in the passage from Isaiah, the prophet sounds frustrated with those who are using the fast as an excuse for oppressing their workers, or even for getting involved in fights and skirmishes—“striking with a wicked fist,” as he puts it. Clearly, if a fast has anything at all to do with deepening our connection to God, striving to follow Jesus, this fast has gone entirely off the rails.

And—I have to confess—when it comes to food, I have always found it difficult to separate a fast for religious purposes from that other purpose that always interests me, controlling my weight. I can’t tell you how many times I planned to abstain from some specific goodie for Lent, all in the service of trying to lose weight—a perfect example serving my own interests on the fast day.

So, here are a bunch of ways fasting can go wrong:

We use it as an excuse for crankiness, or even violence.

We use it as an excuse for oppressing others.

We use it as a way to gain sympathy.

We use it to impress someone.

Fasting goes wrong if we do it for the wrong reasons, to serve our own interests. Fasting goes wrong if God is not at the center of it. Simple. So, how do we do “fasting” right? How precisely do we empty our hands, so that God can give us something good?

First, I think we need to recognize that when we give something up, our natural response is going to be to try to replace it with something else. When fasting, one of the goals is to actually experience the emptiness we feel when we cannot eat or drink or do or have that thing we are fasting from. So, we have to resist the urge to fill up on something else. If we have given up chocolate, we have to resist the urge to fill up on pie. If we give up the internet, we have to resist the urge to fill up on TV. We have to commit to feeling the emptiness.

And there’s just one exception to that rule. Don’t fill up on something else—unless that something else is God. So, in the midst of our stomach churning emptiness, we can pray. We can grumble or complain to God, or ask, just what it is that God wants us to learn in this empty moment. When our fingers are itching to text or to fire up Facebook, we can turn to scripture—perhaps this is a good time to set ourselves a goal of reading through one of the gospels, or the book of Exodus. When we think we’ve just gotta have cake or die, we can try to understand our powerful and disconcerting feelings by writing about them, keeping a journal. Our fast will only accomplish the goal of sharpening our focus on Jesus if we actually give Jesus a shot at speaking to us. Prayer, scripture and writing are all ways we can open ourselves to hearing his voice.

Isaiah has still more to say to us about the fast. Isaiah directs the people to the great fast that God truly wants them to observe—a fast from injustice.

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? ~Isaiah 58:6-7

Lent is not about us. Fasting from something we are attached to—whether food or drink or digital media or toys—is one way for us to open ourselves to an awareness of Jesus’ presence. Fasting from injustice is a way for us actually witness to Jesus’ presence in a broken, hurting world. Lent is not about us. If we choose to fast, whatever fast we choose, let’s allow God to be the nourishment that fills us and strengthens us. Let us allow God to direct our path, as we seek to walk more closely with Jesus. Let us allow God to break the bonds that chain all of us to those things that are not good or true or holy. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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