I didn’t grow up knowing much about Lent. It wasn’t something we talked about much in my church, and when we did it was at a time less than convenient for anyone but the retirees in our beachside Florida community. In my senior year of high school, though, I decided to try to remedy the situation the best way I knew how - by skipping school. Legally, of course, but still skipping school.
My plan started with a trip to my vice principal's office. One day a few weeks before Lent began, I made my appointment with Mrs. Brennan and declared that I was looking for a religious excused absence from school, once a week for the next several weeks. I needed to attend Lenten worship on Wednesday afternoons. I had the required signed letter from my pastor in hand. It was my ticket to a new understanding, I thought. or it could have been that I wasn’t in the right place at the right time.
Miraculously this worked. My Latin teacher, whose class I was missing, rolled her eyes when I told her of my plans. She told me to add it to the book I should write on how to skip school with permission from the administration. I had developed a knack for that by my senior year.
I don’t remember too much about those sermons, and I can’t differentiate now what I learned then and what I have learned later, but it was my introduction to Lent. The next year I went on to college, and had a further education in the season when I met my new best friends who were all Catholic. They taught me about giving things up for Lent - - chocolate, desserts, pop, potato chips, pretty much anything that might add a few pounds to the freshman 15. I came to think of Lent as God’s diet plan for the college student.
Lent wasn't always about chocolate. In its earliest days, the season of Lent was a time of preparation for those who were to receive the sacrament of baptism. Baptisms of adult converts and their households were held on Easter Sunday, once a year, in the early church, and a whole year was spent in study, prayer, and preparation. The final forty days of that year were an especially intense and holy time. Those who were already a part of the Christian community who felt a need to rededicate their lives, who recognized that the way they were living their lives was not the best representation of the body of Christ in the world, would often join the new converts in their final preparations for baptism.
As such Lent became a time of repentance and penance as it is now often considered, but it was at the same time a period of great spiritual growth and rebirth. It was marked by careful devotion to biblical spiritual practices. In Shrovetide, the week before Ash Wednesday, believers would make their confessions to God. They would discover their own required penance to be carried out in the forty weekdays of Lent. The season of Lent would be marked by personal acts of piety that corresponded to the sins confessed, but also general disciplines, like fasting, acts of charity, and prayer. Probably the best known of these in contemporary portrayals of Lent (whether faithful or mocking) is fasting, but many of us still wonder about how to do it or what it is for.
There is a strong biblical witness to the spiritual discipline of fasting. Moses fasted on the top of Mt. Sinai when he remained there to record the commandments of God on stone tablets. For forty days and forty nights we are told in Exodus he refrained from eating food or drinking even water as he dwelled in the presence of God, receiving the terms of God's covenant with Israel. Daniel, after having been saved from the den of lions, fasted as he prayed and mourned in the Babylonian exile. One fast recorded was twenty-one days long, in which Daniel cut out meats, rich foods, and wine. Esther, a young Jewish girl chosen providentially to be a queen while also in exile, asks the Jewish community to pray for her and fast for three days as she discerned her divine placement in the king's court. And, of course, there is Jesus' fast in the wilderness which we heard today. Still wet behind the ears from John's baptism he is led out into the desert by the Spirit where is fasts, presumably from food and water, for forty days and forty nights and is tempted.
There is something to be said for the practice of self-denial. In cutting something out of our lives that we love and crave and, maybe without even noticing, depend upon, we are reminded each time we begin to miss it, to turn our attention to God. Friends of mine from all walks of life answered a question I posed this week about fasting. One childhood friend chimed in that this year he is fasting from coffee, a difficult fast for him as it would be for many who cling to that morning routine. For him it also removes a "taste of home" from his life as he lives and works in China where most other tastes are foreign to his tongue. My friend Chris wrote, "It's amazing how something so seemingly small can provide so much comfort -- comfort that should be coming from His Cup, not my coffee cup."
Fasting, denial of food or water, accompanied by prayer has a long and rich tradition in Scripture and practice. Those who participate in this practice speak of a renewal of spirit, a realization of their dependence on God in new ways, humility in the face of a struggle, a connection to the self-denial and self-sacrifice of Jesus in a new way. For thousands of years people of faith, people of MANY faiths, have felt challenged, encouraged, and blessed through fasts, but the prophecy according to Isaiah seems to be pointing to another kind of fast. It's not better or more holy or more correct, necessarily, but a different way of thinking about a potentially important spiritual tool, especially, I believe, for the church in our culture, our context, our world today.
Ordinarily we think of humility as a hallmark of faith. Jesus speaks often of losing our lives in order to gain them, of humbling ourselves, not thinking too highly of who we are, what we have, what we can do. But there in Isaiah the prophet, speaking for God, seems to be saying that a day of humility is not the only fast pleasing to God.
In Epiphany one of the first ways we heard of God acting on the loose in the world was in a story about Jesus preaching in the synagogue. While he was there a man with an unclean spirit arrived. The demon challenged Jesus, recognizing his source and his divinity when no one else could. Seeing the torment this spirit inflicted on the man, Jesus cast it out, cut it out of the man's life in order that he could be free from oppression, from possession, from that which kept him from God and his community.
What if this could be a different model for fasting? Not a replacement, not something better than what has served so many for so long, but a different model, an additional one, one that addresses themes in our culture that encourage self-service and self-indulgence over serving others, putting their needs before our own. What if a Lenten fast was undertaken that cut things out that not just please me, but cut things out that keep me from pleasing God, that keep me pleasing from others, even things that harm others.
A fast of this kind might not look like fish Fridays and avoiding chocolate. A fast of this kind would probably look totally different. It might look like turning the TV off for a while and spending our time volunteering with the food shelf, Networks youth ministry, or Grace Place. It might look like deciding with our children that no toys will be purchased during Lent, but as a family we will purchase teddy bears given to children at Turning Point shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence. It might look like lowering our voices in our homes and among our families, honoring each other as precious children of God, instead of asserting our will and authority with loud and angry shouts. It might look like the fast undertaken this Lent by a good number of friends who responded to my poll this week. They are fasting from fast food or eating out at restaurants or driving through drive-throughs and setting aside the money they would have spent on these things to give to organizations in their community that are fighting hunger.
Another friend spoke of doing everything she possibly could to ensure that the products she buys and uses in her home are fairly traded, that the corporations responsible for them treat their employees fairly. Still another friend and her family have decided to cut out all non-essential spending during Lent. They will buy simple foods, pay their bills, and continue their tithe to the church, but anything else, an app for the iPhone, a song to download, an afternoon at the movies, a coffee on the drive to work, the book screaming to them from the shelves of the store, ANYTHING not related to day-to-day living will be set aside for Lent. The money they save from this fast will be given, above and beyond their usual church pledge, to the church and other causes that aid people living in poverty at home and abroad.
Fasts of this kind honor what God was saying through the prophet Isaiah. Fasting and repentance, often thought of as very personal spiritual practices, have a communal or social aspect to them, too. A fast means nothing, Isaiah tells us, if we’re looking out for our spiritual health on one day, but treating workers unfairly on the next. Denying ourselves pleasures we enjoy, but at the same time ruining the enjoyment of others by fighting, mistreating, and striking others with our words, fists, or attitudes makes for a fast that is displeasing to God.
Isaiah points beyond simply spending time alone with God to other faithful actions we can incorporate into our lives as important parts of a truly faithful fast. Look out for the workers we employ. Watch our angry words and attitudes. Loose the ties that bind the oppressed. Share our bread with the hungry. Invite the homeless into our dwelling places. Cover the naked.
Isaiah's community took fasting seriously. They are not chastised for their lack of piety. But in the context of this passage, the lack of wholeheartedness, the lack of a holistic view in their practice of fasting was evidence that God's people were more interested in looking religious than in serving God and their neighbor. Their half-hearted attempts at fasting, attempts that looked only within, instead of also looking around to the community, were evidence that God’s people were more interested in getting ahead in their own relationship with God, instead of also aiding others in their spiritual and life journeys.
This is not the fast that God desires, a fast that only looks inward and only tends to my personal needs. The trumpet is sounding, Isaiah proclaims, and we are called to listen up: the fast God prefers is the one in which the hungry are fed. In God's realm, the rich person's fast shall make the way clear for the poor person's feast.
This Lenten season, we have been invited to participate in a fast before God, a fast that brings us closer to God and one another. Consider your fast in a new way. Consider casting out those demons that are holding onto your life, that are holding you at arms length from God by holding you away from others. Accept Isaiah's challenge to fast in a new way - sharing what we have to feed and clothe the hungry, satisfy ing the needs of the afflicted, challenging the systems in our community and in our world that oppress the poor.
Then our lights shall break forth like the dawn; then when we cry the Lord will say, “Here I am”; then our lives and our fasts will show the glory of the Lord to all.