Joel (2:12-18) calls for a fast. He calls the people to repentance. Fasting is one of the three key Jewish practices. Prayer and almsgiving round out the set. Repentance is to be personal—rend your hearts. Change your attitudes. Change your ways of thinking. Change your ways of acting. Repent. Turn your lives around. Change your families, your communities and your institutions. Return to God. Joel does not call individuals to repentance. He calls the whole community even those who ordinarily would have been exempt. The community is called to confess its sins and repent in order to avoid further calamity.
Lent is about change. When we look at Jesus’ life and his final days, one thing stands out. Jesus suffered the agony of capital punishment crucifixion because he challenged unjust structures—Roman occupation and priestly burdens upon his followers. Lent is then about following Jesus and challenging the unjust structures in our government and our church which hold us captive. John Dear offers ten principles of resistance to the vagaries of empire during Lent http://ncronline.org/blogs/road-peace/lent-practice-spirituality-resistance.
Thus, we prepare for the journey up to Jerusalem. Merton challenges us to look at the evil in our own hearts before we start finger pointing. We are so often complicit in the injustices of empire that we do not even realize it. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving prepare us to challenge injustice wherever we may find it.
We sometimes restrict our concept of fasting to moderation in food and drink. Fasting refers to all consumption. Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” has morphed into “I consume therefore I am.” Merton railed against technology and commodification. He decried our focus on things and doing. He bemoaned conspicuous consumption. He reminds us that we are human beings. We ARE in the great I AM.
Isaiah expands the concept of fasting that is acceptable to God:
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the
homeless; Clothing the naked when
you see them, and not turning your
back on your own. (58:6-7)
Richard Rohr and the Center for Action and Contemplation focused on food as gift and provision rather than commodity to be consumed during Lent in 2011. For more information see http://cacradicalgrace.org/lenten/2011/.
Jesus announced his mission when he read another passage from Isaiah in the synagogue:
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”(Lk 4:16-19)
He further defined his mission when he preached the Sermon on the Mount. We are to rend our hearts (repent and confess our individual and corporate sins) and we are to break every structural yoke which oppresses and binds people.
Fasting tames the consuming false self that always wants more and more instead of less and less. We cannot rend our hearts by our own power. We cannot grow and change by sheer strength of our will. God is ever molding us in God’s own image and likeness. The eastern theologians say that God became man so that we might become divine.
We are wont to see our prayer, fasting and almsgiving as individual acts. Our culture of individualism has co-opted the truth of the Gospel message. Jesus is about others and liberation from unjust societal and cultural structures. If our prayer, fasting and almsgiving do not lead to action for justice, they are in vain.
God is ever compassionate and merciful. God heals us and gives us new life. Fasting and contemplative prayer empty us so that God can fill us with love. In God’s love, we love others and respond to their human needs. We meet Jesus in the distressing disguise of the least among us. The Sermon on the Mount, especially the judgment scene in Matthew 25, drives us to alleviate human misery. This is the fast acceptable to God.
Paul (2 Cor 5:20-6:2) cautions us not to receive the grace of God in vain. Now is the “holy spring” (Lent). Jonathan Montaldo (Lent and Easter) reminds us that Lent comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “spring.” Being of Celtic ancestry, I sense a close connection to spring—a time of new life and growth. In the dead cold of winter, we anticipate spring and new life. We look for the new world order proclaimed by Jesus’ kingdom—the reign of God.
Now is the acceptable time to fast and to serve in love. This is the day of our healing, the day of our salvation. Salvation and wholeness come through loving servant leadership.
It is not about show and merit. It is never about results. We sow; God reaps. We cannot earn our salvation. God gifts us with new life. When we pray, we are not to babble countless words in the pew or on the street corner. Rather, Matthew (6:1-6, 16-18) tells us that we are to go into our inner room and close the door. We calm down, slow down, and await God in the silence of our being. We encounter our emptiness and nothingness. In our poverty and nakedness, God penetrates the dark void with the fire of divine love. The divine healer works within us to renew us and to make us whole. All we have to do is to show up.
Lent is a season of celebration. In the old days, Celtic monks made pilgrimages to their places of resurrection. Our inner Lenten pilgrimage will take us to our place of resurrection. God gives us new life, new joy, new hope. All we have to do is to enter our inner room and let God be God—loving, merciful and compassionate. Abba God is ever breathing new life into us so that we can serve one another.