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Underneath the Lenten Fast

FastWe are now 6 days into Lent. How is your fast going? Have you started to feel the effects and symptoms of going without a beloved treat or beverage? Are you starting to get anxious about how you will pass the time given your decision to step away from television, Facebook, or online games? Have you pondered the possible loopholes that may allow you to work around the fast? Technically Sundays aren’t a part of Lent, so technically I won’t be breaking the fast if I eat the treat on Sunday!

For many of us, year after year it is the same routine: We decide to go without our favourite food or activity for a brief period of time, and once the 40 days are complete, we jump right back into that which was given up. We spare no time filling ourselves with that which we have done without during the Lenten season. Easter comes and instantly we go for our treats; or we log onto Facebook in order to see what we have missed during our frustrating time away.

Yet fasting is not just about refusing to eat our favourite foods, or drink our favourite drinks. It’s not a a more spiritual way to go on a diet, or to reduce our TV time. It is a spiritual discipline which at its heart is about filling our lives with the things of God. We do without something externally, so that we can internally grow closer to God. A fast is more an interior discipline than it is an exterior one.

The reality is, you can engage in an external, physical fast, without ever connecting that to any internal discipline. In fact, many people do. We probably all know of people who give up coffee, or chocolate, or Twitterand then spend the next 40 days complaining about it. If you are like me, maybe that statement hits a bit too close to home. That’s not actually a fast is it? The person who gives something up, yet constantly complains, hasn’t really given up their chosen itemtheir life is still defined by that which they have given up.

The book of Isaiah talks about this very dynamic. God speaks against this shallow observance of physical non-eating and challenges Israel to partake in a fast that has more to do with inner transformation than external abstinence.

“Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice, and untie the chords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free, and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelterwhen you see the naked to cloth him, and not turn away from your own flesh and blood.” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

It’s an interesting idea isn’t itparticularly in light of the habit to ‘give something up’. For those whose Lenten fast are more food related, how could we engage in a fast through the medium of sharing rather than abstinence? What would that look like? A Lenten fast around chocolate could mean that we decide to share the treat every time we have it; or buy a coffee for someone every time we go into our favourite coffee shop. Could you give a donation to a food bank, or a shelter, or a relief agency every time you purchase your favourite delicacy?

What if our Lenten Fast is not food related but more activity based, what then? Perhaps a fast from swearing is not about the mere giving up of four letter words, but about dedicating our words to the uplifting of others; maybe it’s about using our words to praise others instead of being critical or hurtful? If our fast is about the abstinence from television or Facebook, is this so we can fill up the time with  another idle activityor is this so we can build  deeper connections with God and others?

It seems that the true fast for which God has chosen is not merely a solo affairsolitary action for individual spirituality. Rather, the true fast described in Isaiah brings in elements of community, responsibility, and ministry. A fast, therefore, is a manner in which we further our involvement in God’s kingdom work in the world. While fasting may involve a decrease in the occurrences of chocolate, potato chips, or television in our lives, so too, true fasting must involve an increase in our participation in a life with God. If we choose to give up an activity, the point is not simply to refrain from action, but to fill that time in prayer, meditation, or ministry. St. Augustine wrote “In fasting, therefore, Let [one] rejoice inwardly in the fact that by this fasting, [he/she] is turning away from the pleasures of the world, to make [one’s-self] subject to Christ.”

See, the point of a Lenten fast is not a slimmer waste, or simply 40 days away from our favourite social media site. The point is an interior transformation. We grow deeper in our relationship with Jesus, and that changes the way that we live out our Christian lives. The power of a fast lies in the fact that a fast shocks our system out of the comfortable complacencies and idle idolatries that we sometimes set up in our lives. Through the external act of self-denial or abstinence we recover our interior dependence and reliance upon the presence of Christ in our lives.

So the question to ask yourself is this: What’s the point of your Lenten Fast? Is it so you can say that you ‘gave something up?’ Is it to merely say that you have humbled ourselves during the appropriate time – or is it an avenue for you to live within the presence of God, and participate in His work in the world? Perhaps a deeper question is: “What is the fast The Lord requires of you?” If the issue of a fast is not refraining from exterior indulgence, but about the inner transformation in Christ-likeness, how will your fast bring that about in your life?

What have been some positive and negative experiences of fasting in your life?

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith.

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8 Responses to Underneath the Lenten Fast

  1. The temptations you mention seem so common …the very ascetic practices intended to help me renounce my selfishness become opportunities to show-off my “spirituality”, even if only to myself. I think Francois Fenelon and C S Lewis both suggest that pride can subvert even a penitent reflection on my sins into a self centered exercise. But perhaps one advantage of Isaiah’s definition of fasting (as you say “not merely a solo affair” but rather about how we act socially & economically & politically) is that even if my inward transformation is subverted or ineffective, at least the community gets some benefit from my attempt?

  2. Kyle Norman

    Thanks for your comments Dell.

    It’s amazing, isn’t it, how so many things come back to community?

  3. Indeed. Every year about this time, I think seriously about the community connection, as I watch many clergy and lay ministry folk make posts about abstaining from Facebook (or other networks) for Lent.

    While I think healthy boundaries around electronic media are a good thing, there is something that has always puzzled me about the “Facebook fast” – namely, it’s often practiced by those who see the Internet as a natural extension of face-to-face ministry, and even a mission field. (I blogged about this some two years ago…) Why, then, abstain from a community? Would we fast from youth? Old people? Coworkers? Family? Sunday services? Might it make more sense to set some healthy boundaries, and use these tools better?

  4. Kyle Norman

    hahah . . .abstaining from old people. Jesse you have a way of describing things which cuts to the heart of the matter. Awesome.

    • Well, I’m just saying… if relationships are relationships; if all life is ministry; if this is just another method of communication; if online ministry reaches out to people by going where they are, then what are the implications of abstaining from that community? Do we miss the point? Do we fall back on the “if they really wanted to know Jesus, they would show up on Sunday and do things our way” mentality? I wonder.

  5. Kyle Norman

    There is the recognition that for some, social media is about idle pastime. It’s about games and quizzes and the other useless stuff you find on there. In those cases, I don’t mind when someone says they are giving up facebook – because they are choosing to give up FarmFrenzy and other stuff. In those cases, to give it up for the purpose of spending more time in prayer and bible reading is (I think) appropriate and commendable.

    However, I obviously agree with you that when we see social media as something about communication, relationship, and community building – not idleness or self indulgent time wasting – we see it as something that should not be given up.

  6. Could a Lenten fast also be us examining what we believe , why believe and how does that effect how we live , both with our families , friends and our churchs. And I think that Lent is a very fitting time to do this examing our faith . And that can take a lot more time than the 40 days of Lent.

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