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Is This the Fast that I Choose?

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 21st of Second Month, 2021

Speaker: Eden Grace

Scripture: Isaiah 58:3-12

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

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? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

As you probably know, today is the first Sunday of Lent, the 40-day fast that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter. I didn’t grow up in a family that observed Lent, but I grew up in a town in the Boston area that was heavily Roman Catholic, so I was aware of the annual ritual of extreme sacrifice entailed in giving up chocolate. I didn’t understand why chocolate was so bad that it must be completely avoided for about six weeks every winter, yet somehow not bad enough to be forbidden year-round. And why would God single out chocolate, of all things, as worthy of a special, though time-limited, “thou shalt not”? And if chocolate was so evil, why did my friends end this season of self-mortification with a huge chocolate bunny binge on Easter morning?

Clearly, I was missing the point. And since I wasn’t part of a community where I received any teaching about Lent, that wasn’t surprising. But I have the feeling that, most of the time, my Catholic friends and classmates were missing the point too. Did any of the students at Chenery Middle School really understand why they had to give up chocolate every winter?

Lent gets a bad rep in our culture. It’s dreary. It’s almost always February, and even when it isn’t February, it feels like February. The focus is usually on renouncing something you like, as if to confirm our sneaking suspicion that liking things is wrong, that pleasure itself is illicit. Definitely missing the point. So, what is the point?

Lent isn’t in the Bible, so there isn’t a specific passage to turn to, to clarify things. But periodic fasting certainly is a biblical spiritual discipline. In fact, fasting as a spiritual practice is nearly-universal in human cultures and religions.

There are many important scriptures about fasting, with repeated admonition against the temptation to fast as an ego-driven performative show of piety. In Matthew, Jesus tells people to fast in secret, rather than making a public demonstration of their suffering in order to win praise. In the long passage from Isaiah that we just heard, God juxtaposes ostentatious acts of attention-getting so-called humility and genuine acts of humble justice-making and compassion. We’re reminded that “deprivation for deprivation’s sake could easily become competitive or self-aggrandizing.”1 The fast God desires is not focused on the self.

The 40-day Lenten fast is often explicitly tied to Jesus’s 40 days in the desert after his baptism and before he began his public ministry, when he fasted and was tempted by the devil. But, if you think about it, that doesn’t really fit. Jesus’ wilderness sojourn was an example of a post-theophany fast, as was practiced in Near East cultures. Immediately after a profound experience of divine encounter, someone would withdraw for a time. Moses did it after receiving the Law. Jesus did it after his baptism. The early church in Egypt practiced a 40-day fast after the Feast of Theophany, the day that commemorates Jesus’s baptism.

But Lent isn’t a time of contemplation after a divine encounter, it is a time of purification in preparation for an encounter. It’s much more like the 40-day wilderness fast of Elijah, which culminates in his encounter with God in the “still small voice.” The early church counseled new believers to fast prior to their baptism, as a time of spiritual preparation, and this appears to a more direct antecedent of Lent. It is a time for contemplative purification, in anticipation of a profound communion with the living Christ. Close friends of the new believer were encouraged to join them in the fast, as companions on this journey toward baptism.

This 40-day fast wasn’t originally connected to Easter, but by the 4th century, Easter became the preferred time for baptisms of newly-converted adults, and the Council of Nicea in 325 AD codified a 40-day period of spiritual preparation before Easter for all Christians. After Nicea, observance of the Lenten fast became both strict and serious. Only one meal was eaten a day, near the evening, and that meal was strictly vegan. There was to be no meat, fish, or animal products eaten. These are still the requirements of the fast for Orthodox Christians today.

But by the time of the Renaissance, the dietary restrictions had loosened in the western church, and the focus shifted to giving up luxury items. During the Reformation, Lenten practices were criticized by the reformers as performative vanity that served to mute the call to pure living in every day of the year. Calvin said that a Lenten fast is “false zeal, replete with superstition”

But there is something profoundly right about committing to an intensified spiritual discipline in preparation for Easter. Lent becomes a reminder that spiritual depth requires mindfulness and commitment. We can’t just stumble unawares into Easter and expect it to be anything other than superficial. For this reason, it remains a widespread practice, and is actually gaining in popularity among evangelical and other non-liturgical churches.

For us as Quakers, every Sunday’s Meeting for Worship is an opportunity for the sacramental inbreaking of God’s presence, a recapitulation of both baptism and communion, crucifixion and resurrection. And therefore, the attitudes and actions of the heart, mind and body during every day of every week are Lenten in purpose – to prepare ourselves for divine encounter. We are counseled to come to worship with “hearts and minds prepared” if we wish to truly perceive God’s presence in our midst. If every Sunday is Easter-like, every weekday is Lenten.

How, then, are we called to undertake this fast, to prepare for a fresh inbreaking of the divine? Certainly, we’re invited to examine our lives for whatever stands between the self and God, for whatever has a grip on us that is not of God, and to mindfully choose to abstain from that thing. For most people, my guess is that this isn’t chocolate.

Lenten fasting in our contemporary culture can tend to be very self-centered, something akin to a Christian version of a New Year’s resolution, focused on self-improvement and performative piety. The Isaiah passage counsels us to look at fasting in a completely different way. Instead of putting the focus on sacrificing something that I desire, Isaiah asks us to seek out what God desires. The passage is explicitly transactional: if I yield my will to God’s, then I will shine like a light at dawn. If I stretch myself to encounter the humanity of those who suffer most in our world, then I will encounter the divinity of God.

In 2001, I was involved in a World Council of Churches initiative to call for a Lenten fast from the consumption of violence as entertainment. Our purpose in calling for this fast was to increase people’s mindfulness about the role of violence in their lives, and hopefully to shift the culture that takes pleasure in watching pain and death inflicted on others. It was a call to make us aware of our society’s addiction to violence and the grotesque profitability of the violence-as-entertainment industry.

More recently, some denominations have encouraged believers to fast from emitting carbon, or at least to take proactive steps to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint during the Lenten season. Of course, 40 days of bicycling to the grocery store aren’t particularly impactful on the planet if we spend the other 325 days behind the wheel of a gas-guzzling SUV, but if awareness is the first step to behavioral change, it’s possible to see how this type of Lenten fast can make a meaningful difference. In that vein, reviving the traditional vegan diet of Lent could help to address our society’s over-reliance on animal-based foods. We begin to see how a Lenten focus on personal spiritual discipline can be married to the communal Christian focus on social justice.

A year ago, Sojourner’s magazine asked provocatively:

  • “What if we fasted from accepting the status quo of abuse by corporations and those with power?

  • What if we fasted from seeing mindless consumption as recreational?

  • What if we fasted from buying items that are made by slaves or other exploited workers?

  • What if our fast ended with us feeling more capable and adept at welcoming strangers?”2

The transforming power of renunciation extends beyond the personal. The Christian spiritual discipline of fasting is not just the negative act of abstaining from that which distracts us from God, it is also the positive act of engaging in works of justice, mercy, compassion and witness, of seeing as God sees, of desiring as God desires, of loving as God loves. In both the negative – giving something up – and the positive – doing something righteous – we are preparing ourselves in heart, mind and body for communion with the resurrected and living Christ by yielding our will and desire to God’s.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This document is protected by U.S. and International copyright laws. Reproduction and distribution without permission from the author is prohibited. © 2021 Eden Grace. All rights reserved.

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