[God] humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.*
Lent is typically a season for fasting, for self-emptying oneself of whatever overfills us. And yet, fasting, is something that postively eludes most of us who live in this world of instant gratification and excessive consumption. In fact, “going without” is completely anathema for us so fasting has more than likely been shoved to the back of the storage closet with all those other archaic things. After all, we want to believe in a God that blesses us with showers of abundance rather than a God that might on some days expect us to go without. I’m afraid many of our somewhat fragile identities have a lot to do with what we have. What if, instead, we were defined by what we could do without? (That’s purely rhetorical…I have no answer!)
But fasting has for centuries and centuries been a part of just about every religious tradition. The ancient Hebrews (and those of the Jewish tradition today) observe a special period of fasting as a sign of repentance on the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. Fasting was a sign of mourning or act of reparation for sins. It was both a way to express repentance as well as prepare oneself inwardly for receiving the necessary strength and grace to complete a mission of faithful service in God’s name. This was the reason that Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness–not to prove something but to prepare himself for a life of ministry. Fasting is neither abstinence from nor avoidance of, but a journey into a place that’s empty enough to fill with what God offers. Essentially, it is allowing oneself to die to self and to our selfishness and rise again in Christ.
So, why is it so hard? Maybe it is not merely because we have a hard time going without (although I think that is a large part of it.) Maybe it is because we are expecting it to produce results that it is not meant to produce. Fasting is not meant to make us lose weight or make us decrease our sugar consumption or whatever else you’re trying to cut back on. Fasting is not meant to be manipulated in that way. It is meant to clear rather than produce. Think of fasting as response–a response to grief or sin, a response to graciousness or thankfulness, a response to a God who calls us out ourselves. But perhaps fasting is also about return, a return to our own self before we developed all these needs, before we stored everything away, a return to the self that God created–with proper perspective and an awareness of what basic needs actually are. If you look up the physiology of fasting, you will find that a body can survive for 40 days or more without eating (Well, isn’t THAT interesting?) In that time, depriving a body of food is not starvation but rather a burning of stored energy.
But I have to say that fasting has never been a huge part of my spiritual discipline. Being the good Methodist that I am, I have always maintained that I can “add” to my Lenten practice and do the same thing as fasting. I’m not real sure, though, that that is the case. (Although writing on this blog every day during Lent has become my Lenten discipline.) Maybe, even metaphorically, I am only storing in excess, building and building for the future, trying to take as much of God’s abundance as I can and stash it away. Maybe in this 40 days of fasting, we are indeed called to let something go, to return to who we are before we stored it all away–the “leaner”, fuller, more focused self who knew that our basic daily needs would be met and that the abundance of God was really about allowing God to fill our needs and fill our lives and show us the way. In other words, we are called to give up our self-imposed “fast track” for a new and freeing Fast Track, a journey toward God with God. And once our bodies and our minds and our souls (and our houses!) are cleared of all the stored excess, we will be open to what we need–the very breath of God who breathed life into us in the beginning and each and every day–if there’s room.
Fasting makes me vulnerable and reminds me of my frailty. It leads me to remember that if i am not fed I will die…Standing before God hungry, I suddenly know who I am. I am one who is poor, called to be rich in a way that the world does not understand. I am one who is empty, called to be filled with the fullness of God. I am one who is hungry, called to taste all the goodness that can be mine in Christ. (Macrina Wiederkehr)
We are more than halfway through our Lenten journey. Many of you may already be fasting from something for Lent. But why don’t you try giving up those things that are not blamed for your weight or your high blood sugar, but the things that get in the way of your self, that person that God created you to be. Try giving up anger or resentment or greed or worry. Try giving up the need to be in control. You may come up with others. Just try it through the week-end and if that works out, make it part of first your Lenten discipline and then your Life discipline.
Grace and Peace on this Lenten Journey,