“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, 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 him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness 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, and he will say, Here I am.” Isaiah 58:6-9 (NRSV)
Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019, observant Christians will enter a solemn, high and holy season in its liturgical calendar – the beginning of the season of Lent, the ritual 40 days that lasts until Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. The 40 days commemorate the period the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke report that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry, as announced in Luke chapter 4. In all of the enormous body of literature written about the history of Lent, for the follower of Jesus, the central meaning of this sacred season rests on the unanimous testimony of the gospel writers that this was the period when Jesus endured – and overcame – the temptations from Satan the Tempter.
And so the ecclesial and institutional purpose of this season is to usher the believer into the spiritual discipline of preparation for Easter through prayer, repentance, works of charity, and self-denial through fasting. Some Christian traditions observe fervently the Stations of the Cross, to commemorate the accounts of the gospel story regarding the instances where the already weakened and wounded Jesus paused during his march carrying his cross to his crucifixion. All in all Lent is, for the believer, the consecrated time to focus on the spiritual disciplines that bring the believer closer to God through the analogical participation in the passion, suffering, and crucifixion of Jesus – in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.
But through centuries of cultural accretion, Lent has been argued to now be linked to a festival that had its ancient roots in pagan celebrations of spring and harvest. And in Matthew’s gospel that narrative stream grows further into the ethos of early Christians, when the biblical Magis visited the infant Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Since then, early Christians celebrated the feast of Epiphany – the 12th day after Christmas – that disclosed the good news that Jesus came not only for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles and for all the world. This set forth the tradition of the “carnival’ celebration that continues until the day before Ash Wednesday. The interfacing of these two traditions has, unfortunately, created a disjuncture that, in my estimation, has diminished the meaning of Lent in American culture and the deep spiritual meaning of fasting. As Lent has been associated with the sacrifice and suffering of Jesus, and manifests itself in religious obligations that call for deprivation of sensual indulgences, the “carnival” ethos of Epiphany on the other hand has taken on the counterpoint to the sacrificial obligations of Lent by fostering a climate of epicurean over indulgence. As I write this blog, the Mardi Gras made famous especially in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and in New Orleans, LA, is concluding with its famous “Fat Tuesday” festival as the last proverbial gasp to indulge in one’s favorite pleasure before the scarcity of Lent – not unlike hyperphagia, the condition of nonstop eating and drinking that bears go through during the fall months as they desperately put on weight to prepare for winter and hibernation.
We live in a wider social culture that has essentially trivialized the meaning of Lent. The practice of fasting that has been traditionally connected to Lent has now – to the wider society – become a mere occasion to display self-indulgent piety by giving up superfluous “luxuries” like chocolate, red meat, Facebook, Twitter or similar forms of favorite indulgences. Jesus went to the heart of the matter when he taught his disciples about the practical consequences of piety: “And when you fast do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”, Matthew 6:16-18 (NRSV).
And so the words of the prophet Isaiah above echoes from thousands of years past to speak to us with the same relevance and immediacy of the now, which is God’s lament over the distortion of the discipline of fasting by fraudulent spirituality. There is a coherent logic that threads through the period of Lent. It requires us to enter the discipline of turning inwardly, to look into our mortality and brokenness, the fleeting nature of our existence, our being mere “grass”, “dust” and “ash”, that in reflecting on our inadequacy and the fleeting nature of our existence we may be moved into repentance and liberation from our false self, which then moves us deeper into the transforming forgiveness of God and be outwardly moved into participation in the ongoing work of the kingdom in the world.
The prophet Isaiah reorients us to the true purpose of fasting: and that is, to free us from our false self that, in our authenticity, we may live into the presence of God’s reign that already is here in our midst and truly participate in its active work bringing the love and presence of Jesus in every space that we inhabit. Thus we see everything that the prophet Isaiah prescribes as antithetical to all of the many faces of the false self. Instead, he calls us to God’s true desire for us: to live a life that gives of the self for the sake of others, to be a part of all that seeks to loose the bonds of injustice, the things that undo the thongs of the yoke, work that set the oppressed free, to share the bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless to your house, covering the naked, and all that prevents us from alienating ourselves from our neighbors and from the good earth.d
On February 15, 2019, the New York times reported that Ruth Knight, the Church of England’s environmental policy officer, had asked its adherents, and broadly to all, to add a new culprit to the list of ills they forsake as penance even for the short 6 weeks of Lent as penance. One of the “Five Marks of Mission” that the Church of England lists in describing its purpose is “environmental stewardship to safeguard the integrity of creation.” Specifically, the church wants people to avoid the plastic consumer products and packaging that have become a major environmental problem, polluting oceans and rivers, fouling beaches, killing wildlife and clogging landfills. They found a practical application for their mission purpose – one the was not aimed at its institutional preservation, but in the care for the sake of God’s creation.
Are you fasting for yourself this Lenten season? Or, are you fasting for others, and for the earth?