Lenting Fasting; Easter Feasting

I’m not sure what the actual stats were, but it sure seemed like most of the kids in my high school were Catholic. When I started going there as an eighth grader, everyone (it seemed) was busy making their confirmations. On Ash Wednesday, lots of people went around looking like this:
And while I’m pretty sure it wasn’t constitutional or whatever, somehow it seems that the school lunches on Fridays during Lent tended toward the fish stick and pizza variety and away from the fleisch products. Could it have been so? I can’t be sure, but I definitely remember people “giving up” various things–chocolate, swearing, soda–for Lent.
I must admit, I always felt a little left out as one of the few Protestant-y type Christians. Because I don’t how much my A Beka curriculum told me that the Catholic Church was BAD, I found all that liturgy and incense and images and ashes and abnegation attractive; a welcome change from the excessively inward “is your heart right with God?” kind of thing. I could always see–can still see–how holding a cross and a circle of beads might help one’s mind stay on one’s prayers.
But it wasn’t until after college, I think, that I started to see some of my fellow evangelical-type Christians practicing Lent in the more modern style of “giving something up.”
(Orthodox Christians still go vegan for Lent; traditionally, Lenten fasts involved limiting meals to one a day and fasting from various animal products. Hence, Mardi Gras-type celebrations are called Carnival in Latin America: “farewell, medium-well!”)
Some Christians see the tradition of Lent–beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending forty days later, on Easter Sunday–as a way of “fasting while the Bridegroom is taken.” Others see it as a way of participating in Jesus’ 40 days of desert temptation. In any case, practicing some kind of fasting during Lent is definitely no longer a ‘Catholic’ thing. What’s its appeal?
1.  Lenten Fasting Makes Outward and Visible Stuff That Is Otherwise Just In Your Head
A vintage (circa 1960) Christianity Today article put it this way:
“Lent can become a time when material things are put again in their proper secondary position; when we see in the spiritual the unconquerable forces of life. It can become a time of self-examination, when we reflect upon our present position in the pilgrimage and check our directions. It can become a time of personal readjustment, not through mental resolutions to do better but through yielding ourselves afresh to the God who demands to be obeyed. And it can become a time when, by following the battered path to Calvary, we identify ourselves once again with the Saviour who makes all things new.”
And in an NPR interview, the inimitable Anne Lamott said:
“Ash Wednesday, to me, is about as plain as it gets — we come from ashes and return to ashes, and yet there is something, as the poets have often said, that remains standing when we’re gone.”
Hence Facebook, online, and other media-fasts. Not “I should spend less time doing this or more time doing that,” but a firm resolution to do so. Can this be ‘legalism’? Sure. Can it just be a Good and Healthy Discipline? Absolutely.
2. Lenten Fasting Gives You a Good Reason to Say No To Good Things
Andrew Santella wrote the following for Slate a few years back:
“Perhaps it’s the things that made Lent hard to take as a Catholic kid—the solemnity, the self-denial, the disappearance of hot dogs from the lunchroom—that account most for the season’s broadening appeal. I was schooled to see Lent as a time apart, a respite from the daily pursuit of self-gratification.”
And likewise Lauren Winner:
“In sated and overfed America […] fasting teaches us that we are not utterly subject to our bodily desires.”
Greediness is tiring. A season of voluntary simplicity is–or can be–one way of taking a kind of rest. Also, it can be a way of expressing solidarity with those whose simplicity is not-so-voluntary.
3. Lenten Fasting Provides a Counterpoint To Easter Feasting
My favorite Episcopalian priest I’ve never met, Robert Farrar Capon, exalts the rhythm of festal/ferial as a splendid way of ordering our appetites. Because really, how much better is Easter Dinner–how much sweeter a sacramental celebrating that Joy of Joys–when you have prepared for it by fasting?
The sensation I always remember in this regard is how incredibly tasty a nasty freeze-dried meal by the fire with friends can taste when you’ve been hiking up and over mountains all day on nothing but water and GORP–a sweet nectar/sore need dynamic.
Again, Anne Lamott on the breaking of the Lenten fast–ie, Easter Sunday:
“I’m going to go to my little church, and we will have a huge crowd of about 60 people. And I will cry a little bit … out of joy, and then I will go home, and I will have 25 people — 15 relatives and about 10 riffraff, i.e., my closest friends — and we will sit down and we will eat, the most sacred thing we do.”
Amen.
Even though I want to fast, I’m not quite sure what form that will take for me/us this year.
What is your take on Lenten fasting? Will you fast this Lent? How?
{This is the first stop on the IVP Lenten blog tour! Next up is Margot Starbuck on February 27, followed by Brent Bill, Logan Mehl-Laituri, Andrew Byers, Valerie Hess, Beth Booram, and Chad Young. Stay in touch by following @IVPbooks or @IVpress on Twitter.}

Can I ‘eat with joy’ while my neighbor starves? (Part 3)

This week we’ve been considering this question:

Is it better simply not to know about the suffering that takes place due to poverty and hunger a world away?

As we saw in the stories from history–the Russian famine of 1921, the epidemic of cholera in Naples in 1911–knowing has a certain power. Concealment, coverups–orchestrated ignorance–never helps.

But while knowledge is a necessary first step, it is not a final step.

Consider:

Herbert Hoover read about the Russian famine and then implemented relief efforts.

A person who has learned facts about HIV/AIDS must then do something [e.g. safe sex] to prevent its spread.

Mosquito nets really help against malaria, but they don’t protect you unless you use one.

William Kamkwamba learned how to generate electricity from a textbook. And then he worked really hard to make one.

But he probably couldn’t have done it without the textbook. It had to be there first.

So then. What about you? What about me?

I’m pretty sure that knowing the needs of the least of these is itself an act of righteousness. But what can we do?

Four ideas to start with:

1. Get the facts and share the facts

Pretty self explanatory, no? Spend some of your online time reading about events in the majority world, including famines and epidemics of eradicable diseases like malaria and cholera. Tweet about them. Post about them to Facebook. Cultivate a genuine concern for your global neighbors. Consider that your coffee, your chocolate, your coconut, your vanilla come from places of extreme poverty; from the hands of people who likely live on less than $2 US per day.

Sometimes I find that reading blogs from places of extreme poverty has a specificity that shakes me out of the dulling effect of broad-brush profiles of poverty. A number of years ago I discovered Joanne’s ‘Babycatcher’ blog–about her experiences as a midwife in Malawi–and couldn’t forget her intimate, firsthand accounts of the effects of poverty on maternal-fetal health.

2. Remember the poor in your prayers

I really believe that praying for people connects us to them in an intimate way. Pray for the people you read about. It is not for nothing that you have encountered them through their stories. Pray for them.

3. Fast (or something like that)

There are many ways to fast in honor of the poor. Some people are able to fast completely for one day per week, some fast for one meal of each day, some fast from meat on given days–in each case laying aside the money they would have otherwise spent on food to give to hunger relief and sustainable development programs.

When I was young, our youth group did the World Vision 30 hour ‘Famine.’ I think there is something powerful in actually participating–however artificially or symbolically–in the experience of hunger.

For some people, full fasting is not a good idea. If disordered eating is part of your story, fasting is probably not for you.

But there are other ways to ‘fast.’ You can practice voluntary simplicity in your cooking and eating in a way that will not deprive you nutritionally but that will help you feel a solidarity with those for whom simplicity is no choice at all.

(The More with Less cookbook is a great resource for such cooking.)

I believe such things are more than symbolic, even if what you can contribute monetarily is a pittance compared with the size of the problem you hope to address. Eating in solidarity with the hungry can change you.

what one boy did for one pair of shoes...

4. Cultivate gratitude for what you have

And this is related to everything we’ve talked about above. For me, the perfect antidote to greed is gratitude and contentment. Oh, that doesn’t happen easily. But when I find myself lusting after some great shoes or something, I find it helpful to stop and consider the shoes I have already. And how those shoes are perfectly good. And how many people have none. And so on.

Same thing at dinner. Do you realize that what you and I eat on a daily basis would be like a once-a-year feast to many, many people in the developing world?

Give sincere thanks to God for what you have.

Gratitude eradicates greed–and makes room for joy–

for you, and for your neighbor.

What else can we do?