Perhaps Lent started for you with these words from Isaiah (Chapter 58) back on Ash Wednesday; perhaps with other words declaring a fast – or something like it. Fasting generally means abstaining from food, but in modern times the concept of a fast has been transformed into giving up some treat, indulgence, luxury, something that one could make do without during the season of Lent. It might be chocolate. It might be desserts or other treats. These days, some might choose to fast from social media (like Facebook) or perhaps all media or TV or something. It’s a way to break a bad habit (or cultivate a new, better one) … kind of like those New Year’s Resolutions from a couple months ago.
As my pastor asked in his sermon earlier this month: How’s that going for you?
Fasting was originally about purification and self-denial, going without food in order to demonstrate dedication and determination (because it requires willpower to do this) or as a process of purification that might be linked to remorse for mistakes and misdeeds (because one is too distressed to be able to eat) or as a way to join with those who regularly must go without necessities of life such as food (because voluntary participation can raise awareness of this reality for some).
Fasting in places where food is regularly available can be an option, a choice. The food is there, but one chooses not to eat it. However, in areas where there is one growing season that is six months or less, fasting has not been an option, historically speaking. Until the development of modern food preservation techniques and rapid transportation methods, the only way to make the stored food stuffs last until more food was grown was to ration it, stretch things to make that food last until spring was in full bloom. Hence, the late winter/early spring season of Lent required some fasting in order to make the food last until more food would become available.
That was then; this is now. Still, the concept of fasting as part of Lent persists … but to what end? Give up chocolate for six weeks so you can enjoy a basket stuffed with it come Easter? Give up eating once a week to drop some pounds for shorts and swimsuit season after Easter? Do something to show what a good, faithful person you are? What are we expecting from a time of fasting now?
Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you take no notice?
Maybe we’re looking for something in our fasting or maybe we’re just doing it simply because it’s the thing to do and we never bother with the why. We do it and, when it’s done, we move on. The end.
But what might God be looking for when God’s people engage in fasting?
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 to be heard on high.
I’ve never seen anyone come to fisticuffs over the Easter breakfast nor have I ever heard any church legend of such a thing. But the larger point seems to be that everyone returns to the same old, same old after the fast. No one has changed as a result … so nothing about the usual way of life changes either. Things continue on just as before: quarreling, disagreeing, fighting with others to have one’s own way, taking advantage of those you can.
Do we look to the fasting or the giving-up or the taking-on of some practice for the six weeks of Lent with a “Let’s do this and get it over with so we can move on” attitude? Or are we looking for some deeper, lasting, more permanent change? After all, six weeks in plenty of time to break a bad habit or cultivate a new one. Are we looking at Lent as a time to make changes in ourselves?
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 to bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
If what we’re doing isn’t making some lasting change in us … in how we see and act in the world … in how we understand ourselves and God … in how we respond and participate in what God is up to in the world, then we may as well not bother with Lent.
The observance of Lent has its roots not so much in necessary fasting to stretch out the stored food as in a time of preparation for baptism. Candidates for baptism would undergo a period of instruction and training in the practices of Christian faith leading up to their baptism as part of the Easter Vigil service. As we tend to do when we have intense experiences, we want to revisit those times, to try to recapture and re-experience what happened then. Lenten practices are rooted in that desire to recapture the experience of transformation and rebirth that is baptism. Even though baptism is no longer reserved for the Vigil of Easter and the concept of intentional preparation for baptism (the catechumenate) has been all but lost and even the possibility of explaining to parents just what baptism is about can be nearly impossible to come by, the observance of Lent still persists. It’s supposed to change us as baptism does. We should come out of Lent into Easter as different people than we were going into this.
That is, after all, the idea behind the word repent. Today it seems to mean saying “I’m sorry” … often with an “oops, I did it again” attitude and a promise to at least try to do things differently in the future. The original concept of repentance (metanoia, in the classic Greek) goes much deeper. It involves deep and complete transformation not just in behavior but in thinking as well and even feelings. Repentance means change down to the very core of one’s being. It’s a deep change … the kind of deep change we can’t do for ourselves. Something greater than us has to come in and do it for us.
And that’s what baptism is about, too. It’s about dying to the old, self-focused way of life and about being raised up with the resurrected life of Christ as the directing power in one’s daily life. Hence, with a focus on repentance that is transformation, Lent continues to be focused on baptism and the transformative nature of that sacrament.
Once more in Lent, we trace that baptismal journey through the wilderness, recalling the promises of God and how God has kept those promises, following Jesus into that death which encompasses all other deaths. This is the death we re-enact time and again in baptism, going into and under the water to drown and die so that we are raised up as new people, fresh creations, with the life of the Risen Christ alive and active in us. That new life in us changes how we live in relation to the world…
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of your 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 will 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…
The point isn’t a self-improvement program to make us better people. Nor is the point to impress God with how good we can be, to do something that merits a favor from God in return. This isn’t some quid pro quo arrangement that starts with us. It’s about God’s invitation to be the people of God and to be about the ways of God and we live and move in the world.
Like the sacrament of baptism, it starts with God … with God’s gracious invitation to be part of a people who are in a relationship with God … a relationship that is lived out in the midst of this world.
What is both Good and New about the Good News is the wild claim that Jesus did not simply tells us that God loves us even in our wickedness and folly and wants us to love each other the same way and to love Him too, but that … God will actually bring about this unprecedented transformation of our hearts Himself.
What is both Good and New about the Good News is that mad insistence that Jesus lives on among us not just as another haunting memory but as the outlandish, holy, and invisible power of God working not just through the sacraments but in countless hidden ways to make even slobs like us loving and whole beyond anything we could conceivably pull off by ourselves.
Thus the Gospel is not only Good and New but, if you take it seriously, a Holy Terror. Jesus never claimed that the process of being changed from a slob into a human being was going to be a Sunday-School picnic. On the contrary. Child-birth may occasionally be painless, but rebirth never. Part of what it means to be a slob is to hang on for dear life to our slobbery.
(From Beyond Words, by Frederick Buechner
Lent is a time for giving up … for letting go … relaxing our grip even just a little on what Buechner refers to as “our slobbery.” Whatever might help you do that, do it … whatever might open up a crack just a little for the new life, do it … because Lent isn’t a self-improvement process. Lent is a journey to new birth and fresh creation, a makeover from the outside in that goes inside out.
There’s still a few weeks left to go – and those final three days of journeying deep into the mystery of death, resurrection, and life again. Keep pressing forward on that journey and be made new.