What’s the Point of Fasting for Lent?

For reasons I don’t fully understand yet, I’m having trouble with Lent this year.  It’s not that I’m just not disciplined (so this may be just the season I need), but . . . after observing Lent for close to 40 years, I’m left wondering, “Why?”

Biblical Origins

In my head, I know a lot of the answers, of couse.  We observe Lent to prepare for Easter.  We observe Lent to remember those 40 days Jesus was tempted in the wilderness.  We observe Lent to grow closer to God.

So is it a season of spiritual realignment?  I like that idea.

A lot of the readings for the first week of Lent repeat this theme of returning to God.  With Lenten focuses on discipline, fasting, and other things we can do to check off our lists, I love the emphasis in these readings that this isn’t a time to be doing things.  This isn’t a time to try to trick ourselves into pretending that we can earn our salvation.  This is a time to simply return to God.

“Yet even now–Oracle of the Lord–return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning.  Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting in punishment.  Perhaps he will again relent and leave behind a blessing.”

-Joel 2:12-14

I love the “return to me with your whole heart” bit of this reading from Joel.  I think that is the essence of Lent.

But, when I focused on these verses (and the few verses after these) in Lectio Divina the other day, the phrase that stood out to me was “fasting, weeping, and mourning.”

Man, that’s exactly the bit about Lent that I don’t understand!

Fasting

Being fully immersed in North American culture, fasting is a concept that I’m not particularly comfortable with.  Let’s be honest with ourselves–as a society, we encourage gluttony.  But that’s another post for another time.

When I was sitting with that verse from Joel, I was left wondering, “What is it we’re supposed to be fasting, weeping, and mourning for?”

In both Matthew and Mark, there’s a demon that the disciples couldn’t drive out of a person.  Jesus did, and when the disciples asked Jesus why they couldn’t, there’s a variant ending to the story where Jesus claims that this particular demon could only be cast out by “prayer and fasting.”  [Matthew 17:21, and Mark 9:29]  This always intrigued me, making me curious about the role fasting plays exactly.

Furthermore, when combining the concept of fasting with “weeping and mourning,” I’m left with two strong images of periods of fasting in the Old Testament:  in Esther, when the Jews were about to be annhilated and they fasted for 3 days straight; and during the exile.  In both these instances, fasting played a serious role in the conversion of the population, and ultimately in their salvation and restoration.

These were large-scale fasts among the culture as a whole.

This may be the bit of the puzzle that I’m missing.

Individual Versus Community Mindset

Reflecting on our modern Lenten observances, while a significant segment of the population observes Lent, it’s largely an individual observance.  We repent of our individual sins.  But do we repent of our sins as a community or culture?

Repenting of our sins on an individual basis is important.  Those individual sins are the root causes of a lot of our larger issues as a society.  However, as a larger society, what are the issues we should be repenting?

I sat on this question for a full day, having some hunches.  The Old Testament reading for the following day confirmed those hunches and drove the point home.

Isaiah Continues to Call Us Out

Cry out full-throated and unsparingly, lift up your voice like a trumpet blast; proclaim to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins.

They seek me day after day, and desire to know my ways, Like a nation that has done what is just and not abandoned the judgement of their God;

They ask of me just judgements, they desire to draw near to God.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see it?  Afflict ourselves, but you take no note?”

See, on your fast day you carry out your own persuits, and drive all your laborers.  See, you fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist!

Do not fast as you do today to make your voice heard on high!  Is this the manner of fasting I would choose, a day to afflict oneself?  To bow one’s head like a reed, and lie upon sackclcoth and ashes?  Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose:  releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke?

Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own flesh?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall be quickly healed;  your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: “Here I am!”

If you remove the yoke from among you, the accusing finger, and malicious speech;  if you lavish your food on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted;  then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom shall become like midday;

Then the Lord will guide you always and satisfy your thirst in parched places, will give strength to your bones and you shall be like a watered garden, like a flowing spring whose waters never fail.

Isaiah 58:1-11

As a society, do we lavish food on the hungry? (verse 7)

Do we bring the afflicted and homeless into our houses?  (verse 7)

Do we point with accusing fingers?  (verse 9)

As Christians, do we often pit ourselves against one another, claiming that our particular brand of Christianity is right, while other Christian denominations have it all wrong?  (verse 4)

Do we turn our backs on our own flesh?  (verse 7)

Are innocent people in prision?  (verse 6)

Do we have unjust laws?  (verse 6)

As a society, do we oppress others?  (verse 6)

Responsibility

As an individual, I feel terribly for those innocent people who may be in prision.  But as an individual, what can I do?  I can re-write unjust laws?  As one person, what can I do to alleviate hunger?

I may not think that I, as an individual, am guilty of opressing people.  But if my society oppresses people, I am guilty by association–as an accomplice or more likely, by full participation.

If I buy things made by companies whose profits rely on exploitation, I am guilty of exploitation–my ignorance about my complicity doesn’t make others’ suffering any less real.

If my government wages war or oppresses others, I am also guilty.  They’re waging that war or oppressing others on my behalf, with my tax dollars.

If my society insists on depleting the world’s natural resources, unless I’m actively fighting the depletion of those resources, I’m complicit in destroying life on earth.

So What Can We Do?

Considering all the wrongs going on in the world, trying to fight them all is a little overwhelming.

However, we do need to shake ourselves out of our comfortable bubbles.  We need to educate ourselves.

Our ignorance is no excuse for our complicity.

Take one or two issues, learn about them, and find some concrete ways to live for a more just world.  What are one of two things we could do to “break off every yoke”?  (Or even a yoke or two.)

How–practically speaking–can your share bread with someone that’s hungry?  There are LOTS of right answers!

What are real ways to bring the afflicted and homeless into your house?

How can we clothe the naked?

Who “among your own flesh” needs some more attention and support?

What are ways we can stifle our “accusing fingers and malicious speech”?

How can we make sure we’re not “driving our laborers” on days we claim to be fasting?

Large-Scale Lent

Much like those Old Testament communities who were facing annhilation and exile, where have we, as a society, fallen short?  How far are we from being the just society God wants us to be?

When we take time to step back and realize where we’ve gone wrong, only then can we begin to make things right.

But we have to be aware of problems before we can try to fix them.

This Lent, let’s give up our ignorance.

This Lent, let’s take responsiblity for our actions.

And, if by combining an increased understanding of the world around us with responsibility, we would be observing a Lent that would bring us closer to God.  If that kind of Lent would bring us into increased relationships with our neighbors, we’ll be in increased relationship with God.

This is the kind of Lent that could bring us to a resurrected society come Easter.

Resources

 

 

  • your local farmer’s market–it’s a very, very likely bet that everything sold at your local farmer’s market was made by the people selling it (or someone they know), and it’s quite likely that that person is making a reasonable living from selling that product.  When we support smaller businesses and producers, we’re much less likely to be supporting large-scale exploitation.  (Which isn’t to say that all large companies are all bad–not at all!  Large companies provide lots of jobs, and that is a very, very good thing.  But by and large, local businesses are healthier for the planet and our economies.)

I know, farmer’s markets seem like a fluffy answer to really big problems.  But honestly, local connections, caring and supporting our neighbors, would go a really, really long way to solving what ails us.

 

Do you have any other good reads to pressing issues?  (Not necessarily political, but ways we as innocent bystanders may be supporting and promoting organizations and systems that exploit others or our planet.)  Link to them below!

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Featured image of Man in Greif is by Lucas Clarysse on Unsplash.

Pinned image of Ashes on Forehead by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash.

 

 

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Anita Ojeda says:

    You’ve given me a lot to think about. I didn’t grow up in a religious tradition that paid any attention to Lent–I think we should be concerned about the things that concerns God’s heart ALL the time. Thank you for the call to give up our ignorance and to quit being quietly complicit. Our country has so much wealth and does so little to change the world (peacefully–we’re great and acting like the hall monitor and bullying countries around).

    1. Jill says:

      Yes! But that’s exactly what I like about Lent–when we start to slide, it’s a time specifically set aside in the year to jerk us out of our complacency, asking us to be a bit more intentional. At least, that’s what I’m beginning to realize is the real meaning of the season!

  2. Christine says:

    I’m not a part of a faith tradition that celebrates Lent as such, but we do have other times of coorporate prayer and fasting that are very powerful for us as a community of believers. I love how you encourage us to do what we can to be good stewards of our world. Thank you.

    1. Jill says:

      You’re welcome! It is important to set aside times to observe both the highs and lows of life . . . or the different seasons . . . however we want to call it!

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