Then there’s today, Ash Wednesday, preceding St. Valentine’s Day this year, leading many to postpone those Lenten fasts for another day or two.
Every year, friends both religious and not observe Lent by fasting. Often they tell me, “I’m not really religious, but I’m giving up ___ for Lent.” There seems to be a universal appeal to self-sacrifice, at least in small doses.
The reasons given and types of fasts differ, but most resemble a self-improvement plan. Fasting from Twitter or Facebook; from chips, candy, or caffeine; from cursing; or from meat on Fridays, will, they think, somehow make them a healthier person, a more disciplined person, a person, perhaps, more pleasing to God or themselves.
I understand. For most of my life, I’ve fasted for Lent. Some years I’d fast one day each week; other years I’d give up favorite foods. Sometimes both. I always started with the best, penitential intentions, but a few weeks in, I’d begin to wonder if I was losing weight. I was much better at sacrificing food than my vanity. I never did lose weight, nor did I feel spiritually improved by my fasting. I kept thinking, “If only I could fast and not think about the potential weight loss… If only I could humble myself.”
Then, a few years ago, I truly heard Isaiah 58, where the people ask God,
3 ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
And he answers (highlighting mine, for the skimmers; I understand how that is.)
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 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?
God seems unimpressed by merely not eating and praying and makes his usual request: take care of the poor and oppressed. Share what you have. Be just.
Does that sound like fasting? It certainly isn’t giving up Starbucks or Facebook for six weeks. It’s not about discipline or self sacrifice for their own sake, or for your own sake.
However, when that daily $2 cup of Starbucks not purchased equals $80 you gave to charity, that is fasting that shares with the hungry. When that former FB time is dedicated to tutoring at-risk students or delivering meals on wheels, that is fasting that undoes the straps of the yoke.
Last year, as a family, we gave up eating out for Lent. Honestly, if we’d only be doing it as an exercise in spiritual discipline, we would not have lasted the first two weeks. Having selected a cause at the outset that would benefit from our sacrifice, the Hope for Sexually Exploited Girls, it was easy to stay motivated.
Unlike my years of giving up sweets and treats, I didn’t dream about eating out, or debate whether Sundays should count. I didn’t think about how I might benefit, and then feel bad that I was thinking about myself. Again. For those six weeks, I thought about those girls, and how much help they needed. I could not stop praying for them.
I hadn’t given something up; I was giving something out.
When I see the material and spiritual poverty in the world, I know that my sacrifices and efforts are puny, and, even when done for a just cause, they do not make me righteous in the sight of God. Yet I feel privileged that I can make even a small contribution in his name.
I also know that the righteousness of Christ goes before me. His light rose in the darkness. He poured himself out for the hungry and afflicted, of which I was one.
8 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.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.