Faces on Faith: More than giving things up
We free church Protestants have generally paid a minimal amount of attention to Lent. We may mark its beginning with an Ash Wednesday service, though we are often a bit uncomfortable about the whole ashes thing. Some feel it’s “too Catholic” – and others just don’t see the point. And at the end of the Lenten season, while many Protestants gather for communion on Maundy Thursday, very few celebrate the rite of foot washing. And Good Friday services are some of the most poorly attended services of the year. Yes, we’re happy to celebrate Easter, but most of us would be just as happy to skip over Lent!
That may explain why, at least in part, we are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the traditional Lenten discipline of fasting.
I remember when I was growing up in a largely Roman Catholic neighborhood hearing my playmates talk about what they were “giving up” for Lent. Often it was something sweet, like chocolate or candy or ice cream. Sometimes it was something less tangible, like watching television. But for most of my young friends who observed some sort of Lenten fast, that all it amounted to: giving something up.
But fasting is intended to be far more than simply giving things up. For that which is given up is given up for a purpose.
One purpose of fasting, perhaps that with which we are most uncomfortable, is to express our grief, our sorrow, over our sin. It is a way for us to physically express our desire to be right with God. It is incorporating our whole being into our repentance. As Scott McKnight writes in his very helpful book on the subject, “Fasting is the body talking what the spirit yearns ” (Fasting, 11).
A second purpose for fasting is to make room in our busy lives for God. When we give up a meal, or even a whole day’s worth of meals, we are then freed up to use that time for nurturing our relationship with the Holy One. We can use that time for prayer or meditation or study. The same principle holds for non-food fasts. Giving up television or surfing the web, for a day, or one day a week, or for the whole Lenten season, would free up an enormous amount of time for some folks.
Another purpose for fasting may be thought of more as giving something away than as giving something up. The temporary hunger felt when one is fasting can, indeed, help one to more closely identify with those who go without. So it is that some folks who fast then take the money they might have spent on their meal and give it to a local food pantry, or to an organization fighting world hunger. Back in the fifth century, Pope Leo the Great preached several sermons on fasting. In one of them, he highlighted this very point: “let the abstinence of the faithful become the nourishment of the poor and the let the indigent receive that which others give up.” (Quoted by Carole Garibaldi Rogers in Fasting, 52)
Fasting is indeed more than giving things up – far more. So how and why might you fast this Lent?
The Rev. Dr. John H. Danner is the senior pastor at Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ.