When I was in catechism class in middle school, the pastor once made an offhand comment about fasting. He said something like, “If someone decides to give something up for Lent, it should feel like a sacrifice. Otherwise, we’re not really identifying with suffering.”
In that moment, as an eighth grader, I decided to give up sweets for Lent. And I did so every spring through high school.
When I look back, it’s difficult to discern my motives. They were mixed, I’m sure. Part of me thought it could be a way to lose weight. Another part of me was looking for a way to please (or appease?) God. Another part of me wanted to prove that I could do something difficult.
I’m not sure the practice achieved any of those things in the end. Mainly, I remember being frustrated that the season of the shamrock shake always seemed to fall within the season of Lent. Especially since I worked at McDonalds.
Ever since then, I have struggled with the Lenten practice of fasting. There are years I have given something up, and years I haven’t, but either way, it has never really felt comfortable. Parts of me has balked at going into the box of doing something during the same season as everyone else. Other parts of me have wondered what it’s really for. What should I give up? Why fast?
During the Morning of Midrash event on February 9, we talked about a different kind of fasting. That which is talked about in Isaiah 58...
Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?
Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rereward.
- Isaiah 58:5-8
The Hebrew word for afflict used in verse 5 is anah, the same word used in Deuteronomy 8 to talk about how the manna of the wilderness was meant to anah, humble, the people. On February 9, the room talked about what manna would do. How it would create dependence and trust. How it would prevent hoarding and wealth building. How it would connect us to the humanity in ourselves and others. How it would demonstrate the difference between want and need.
And I wonder what it would mean to fast for Lent in a way that humbles ourselves. What if we did something to connect us with our dependence and trust in God? Or gave up something that would normally help us build wealth or feel secure? Or acted in a way that consciously saw the humanity in our neighbors?
How might the justice and healing talked about in Isaiah 58 be birthed from a different kind of fasting? What if we thought outside the box of giving up sweets or even social media? What if we spent time before Lent pondering what keeps us disconnected from God and each other, and attempted, when Lent came, to fast from that?
How might it change how we see Easter if we spent the weeks leading up to it with a practice that humbles souls in a deep and communal way?
As Lent draws near, I am grateful for the timing of this Isaiah 58 passage, and the communal conversation around it. Every time I am in a Scripture Circle, whether a big room like the morning of midrash, or a smaller room like our open circles, I learn. I see things from the eyes of others that I didn’t see on my own. I feel the Spirit guiding us to what we need.
I will be thinking about fasting differently because of February 9. Thank you to all who brought your voice into the conversation.
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