Fasting or Feasting this Lent?
Bryce Wandrey considers fasting, meditation and the cross this Lent
“Let us restrain our body and saddle it into service, and let us, in taming it, bridle it back somewhat from things allowed: so that we not, because of our tamed flesh, slip-slide into things not allowed. Other days, we should avoid drunkenness and carousing; these days, however, we should pull back from meals usually permitted. ...That way, our flesh, which will have gotten used to being reined in from enjoying its own rights, will submit to you so as not to usurp someone else’s.”
So says St Augustine of Hippo to his congregation in North Africa approximately 1600 years ago. And as he did so, he highlighted what the season of Lent had become: a time for fasting and discipline. A time of fasting and discipline in order to rein in our desires and to learn from our Lenten discipline. And of course, this kind of fasting wasn’t done in order to forgo something forever: instead, it involved both an individual and communal aspect.
As Augustine said, “being reined in from enjoying [our] own rights” we can now also submit to certain impulses and desires in order to not usurp someone else’s rights. Lenten discipline and preparation is about a better life together.
All of this echoes the Pauline lesson that he wrote to the Corinthians. "All things are lawful’, but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of others.” (1 Corinthians 10:23)
Historically, this fasting and discipline of Lent was typically put upon those preparing for baptism at the Easter Vigil. But in many places the congregation was exhorted to join those candidates or initiates in their discipline.
As early as the 2nd century, Justin Martyr would say, “As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them.”
Fast forward to the 19th century, and with no connections to Lent or fasting, Thomas Baynes Hayley would write something that we have all heard and experienced and, in a certain kind of way, gets at the heart of Lenten discipline. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Who hasn’t been told that after university or during the summer holiday or just before an extended business trip?
To a certain extent, it can be rephrased and thought about like this: how do we appreciate the real value something? What can we do in our lives, during this Lent, to truly appreciate the real value of something? Audrey Niffeneger, I assume tongue in cheek, would write about how Chicagoans are forced to appreciate the beauty of their city:
“Chicago has so much excellent architecture that they feel obliged to tear some down now and then and erect terrible buildings just to help us all appreciate the good stuff.”
That’s how Chicagoans appreciate the real value of good architecture. How do we appreciate the real value of something?
There is of course more way than one to appreciate the real value of chocolate, or to appreciate the real value of exercise, or the real value of email or texting. It only takes a health scare or the tragic death of someone else for us to begin to appreciate the real value of life.
The wonderful thing about Lent is the two-fold aspect of its discipline: it is very individual (I can’t tell you what you need to appreciate the real value o,f nor can I tell you how to appreciate its real value) but it is also thoroughly communal (whatever it is that we need to appreciate more will, if we can do so, help us to be better contributors to our communities).
Sacrifice on the Cross
The real big question for Lent is, How do we appreciate the real value of God’s love for us in the death of Jesus of Nazareth?
On one level, the Christian tradition has always stressed that reining in the desires of the body allows the mind a clearer path to contemplating God’s love for us - the love we see in Jesus of Nazareth.
On the other hand, it has also said that more meditation and contemplation and devotion will only increase our appreciation of God’s love. Sometimes we forgo one thing in order to more fervently and devotedly take up something else.
The ashes today remind us that all of this, this life and this world, is broken. Our Lenten discipline reminds us that we are broken, that all of us have something that needs a bit of work, needs a bit of honing, needs to be realigned to benefit those around us.
Jesus of Nazareth, on a cross, dying, reminds us that sacrifice isn’t an empty action. Augustine reminds us that we stand in a long line of those who have found God in Jesus of Nazareth. May we be re-inspired to live for him and for each other this Lenten season.