Well, I hope you all enjoyed your pancakes last night. Because from here on in it’s Lent, meaning utter abstinence, abject penance, fasting and general misery for the next 6 weeks till we get to Easter and the Feast Day of the Sacred Chocolate Egg. Right?
Sorry, my mistake. Turns out we’re not in medieval times, when a measure of Lenten fasting was compulsory, in particular abstinence from meat (which Thomas Aquinas thought increased lust). Not to mention penance, a concept most non-Catholic moderns probably struggle with a little.
These days if we’re really dedicated we might give up chocolate, crisps, or Coronation Street for 40 days. Full-on fasting probably isn’t on the Lenten, er, menu for most of us.
The idea of Lent
Most readers of this blog probably know the basic premise of Lent better than I do. As I understand it, it’s a period of spiritual preparation for the commemoration of (and in some sense participation in) Christ’s passion – his suffering and death and ultimate resurrection.
It’s also a time of identification with Jesus’ trials, walking with him in the wilderness for the 40 days of fasting and testing at the start of his ministry.
The number 40 has all sorts of biblical resonances of course. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness consciously echo Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the desert before they made it to the Promised Land. In Jonah, Ninevah were given a Lenten 40 days to repent of their sins. And there’s a tradition that Jesus was in the tomb for 40 hours before his resurrection.
I think there’s great value in the symbolism of Lent, and also possibly in some of its practices, even if not all of the more medieval ones. For the rest of this post I’d like to look at two aspects of Lent that I do think can still be of benefit to us – fasting, and slowing.
The Pharisees in Jesus’ day apparently saw fasting as a way of boosting one’s religious credentials, a marker of spiritual superiority and purity. I think it’s fairly clear that missed the point; but perhaps many of our modern approaches miss the point in other ways.
Some see fasting as a way of twisting God’s arm, or of getting his attention, or of beefing up your prayers with more power and clout. That’s not how I view it.
Similarly, some see fasting as a kind of payment to God, even a way of putting him in your debt so that he’s almost obliged to give you what you ask for, or else to let you off punishment. Again, that’s not my understanding.
Others see fasting as a way of ‘mortifying the flesh’, of bringing the physical body and its sinful, impulses and carnal lusts under control through the exercise of stern self-discipline. I don’t view the body in quite this way. And though I think fasting can maybe have some value as a practice of self-control and delaying gratification, I don’t think it’s all that effective, and anyway I’m not sure that’s its primary purpose.
Some use fasting as a means of identifying with those living in poverty and hunger. I think this can be a useful exercise, but I suspect that if we truly wish to identify with the poor there may be other more practical ways to do it.
Some see fasting as being about coming to God without distraction. I think this comes close – the problem though is that hunger itself can be very distracting!
Above all, many see fasting as something you do when you’re really serious about wanting something from God, or perhaps when you’re feeling really bad about something you’ve done. I can identify with this – I’ve certainly used it in this way – but I’m not sure that’s its main meaning or use.
So what the heck is it about?
Challenging our dependencies
Firstly, fasting challenges our priorities and our dependencies – our idols if you like. It calls into question the things we think we need, that we can’t live without.
In Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, food and shelter are at the base. In the wilderness, Jesus went without both, demonstrating that we can live without for a time at least. Our most basic need, he seems to suggest, is for God. I don’t mean this in a pious sense; it’s not that our souls’ hunger is for church, or liturgy, or Bible study or whatever. Rather we have a deep need for soul-to-soul communion with the divine; with perfect goodness and complete love.
In fasting, you demonstrate your utter reliance on God – and demonstrate it to yourself as much as to God. Fasting says very loudly that God is your true source, your true food, your true nourishment. He is both the provider and the provision.
And sometimes when we have no words to say, fasting can be a prayer in itself. It’s an embodied prayer of lack, of need, of faith and dependence.
But fasting isn’t just about going with food or luxuries. For me, more than anything else fasting is about self-emptying before God. In fasting we come to God just exactly as we are, effectively stripped bare before him, with nothing but ourselves and our hunger, our emptiness.
Fasting is a physical, enacted, embodied symbol of our utter need of God – our need to be filled with his grace, his presence, his power, his mercy. It’s a physical expression of our spiritual hunger, our hunger for God, for redemption, for love, for forgiveness and full acceptance.
Fasting is also a way of symbolising our empty-handedness. It says we have nothing to offer him except our true self – and at the same time paradoxically our true emptiness, the lack we need him to fill.
In true fasting, we come to God without pretence, without artifice, without any tricks or techniques or disguises – as far as that’s possible for us. Far from being about manipulating God to do your bidding, true fasting is about being utterly yourself before God and letting him be utterly himself to you. It’s about bringing all of your reality – warts and all – before all of his redeeming Reality. It’s no-holds-barred contact, and sometimes it may be more like all-in wrestling, and sometimes it may be more like the complete intimacy of sex.
Slow it down
So I think that fasting can be very important and helpful. But I won’t pretend that it’s easy. As someone quipped, ‘Why is it called fasting when it makes the time pass so slowly?’
The word Lent comes, I think, from the German word for the season of Spring, literally meaning lengthening, referring to the days getting longer. And in another sense, yes, the days do lengthen when you’re fasting. There’s also the French word ‘lente’ meaning slow.
And I wonder if the painful slowness is actually part of the point. I think fasting is partly about slowing; slowing down, stripping back, reclaiming precious time from the bonkers-crazy busyness of our daily lives. We live in a constant state of low-level anxiety, borderline stress and information overload. We desperately need to slow it down, simplify, take it back to the essentials.
We can live for a while without Facebook, email, mobile phones, TV, games, the internet, the car… go on, switch them all off for a season. I dare you. Step outside. Get out into the countryside and breathe in the air. Look up at the stars, and down at the grass. Turn off the noise and listen to the silence for a while.
Of course, any form of fasting can be boring, and if we’re fasting from all our sources of entertainment and connection there’s almost definitely going to be a boredom barrier to push through. I don’t think this is a bad thing though. Some boredom is good, right, necessary and even creative.
I wrote recently about feeling bored with church and ‘Christian’ things. I don’t think that this is necessarily a sign of apostasy or a cause for concern. On the contrary, I believe there’s such a thing as ‘Holy Boredom’ – a grace-prompted dissatisfaction with business as usual, with the status quo of the world, of the church and of our own lives. This kind of boredom or dissatisfaction may just be the call of the Spirit to greater depth and reality.
So I encourage you to feel your hunger again, and your boredom, and to stay with it a while and see where it leads. I invite you to indulge in a bit of abstinence this Lent.
Damn, that means I might have to as well… 😉