~ Isaiah 58:2-8, 12/Luke 5:33-35 ~
Mardi Gras! Fat Tuesday! It’s all about the food. Eat and eat some more. Feast today because tomorrow, the first day of Lent, we begin the fast – or at least that’s what were supposed to do, right? Feasting and fasting. The Ying and Yang of the church year; the ebb and flow of spiritual experience – or, at least, that seems to be the idea. Sometimes we feast; sometimes we fast. And somehow there are spiritual lessons to be learned.
Borrowing from our Catholic forebears, we Protestants, over the past hundred years or so, have bought into the Church Calendar to help us through the year; a spiritual journey in time. And feasting and fasting are examples of how we live that out. The whole of the calendar is centered on a kind of back and forth, centered on eating. In Advent we’re meant to fast; in Christmas, we feast. In Lent, we fast; in Easter, we feast. In Ordinary Time we keep eating, but we don’t think of it as feasting. And, maybe, sometimes as individuals we will fast, but not as intensely. There seems to be a rhythm to it all so that it balances out – not too much feasting; not too much fasting.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the physical act of eating, or not eating, is supposed to have a spiritual effect. In the act of eating, of feasting, we are to experience joy and celebration – at least we’re supposed to. In the act of not eating, of fasting, we are expected to engage in self-examination, contemplation, even sorrow. Indeed, we are expected to grapple with death, itself. I mean – Ash Wednesday throws it in our face! “Ashes to ashes; dust to dust. You are going to die. Deal with it!”
Now, I must admit, I’m conflicted about the idea of a direct spiritual connection with eating or not eating. I guess I’m more apt to see the spiritual benefit of eating, of feasting, because, well, I really enjoy eating. I enjoy the social benefits of eating, of feasting, together. I find that the communal experience of eating together to be spiritually uplifting.
Fasting? Not so much. I don’t enjoy not eating. Oh, a couple of years ago Linda and I did a two-week “cleanse” diet that did seem to have good results, at least physically. I’m still not sure if there were spiritual results. Furthermore, fasting seems so individual. It’s not a communal event. Oh, I suppose a group of people could agree to fast together for a time. But the only communal feature, it seems, would be to ask, “how’s your fast going?”
What’s more, evidently fasting can be abused. Just ask the readers of Isaiah’s prophecy. Fasting for the purposes of gaining spiritual Brownie points doesn’t cotton to well with God, it appears. And Jesus seems to just cavalierly toss fasting aside. It isn’t the time to fast.
And yet for centuries people of faith have gained much from the practice of fasting for a time. There is a long tradition of fasting in Jewish and Christian tradition. And, of course, if your Muslim you’ll fast for the whole month of Ramadan.
It seems that this back and forth of feasting and fasting is healthy. We should not be all feast and no fast. Alternatively, we cannot be so consumed with fasting that we don’t feast. There needs to be a balance for we are a people of both joy and sorrow. And maybe, just maybe, going through the introspection, the self-assessment of Lent, helps prepare us for Easter. As one of my favorite heretical Christian writers, Robert Farrar Capon puts it, “How much better is Easter Dinner–how much sweeter a sacramental celebrating that Joy of Joys–when you have prepared for it by fasting?”
This season of the church year is a confluence of mixed spiritual messages. Joy and sorrow inexorably intertwined together. And in the world of our current experience the sorrow or disappointment or even the despair of it all might outweigh whatever joy we might hope for way off in the distant Easter future. Why slog it out with constant reminders of sin and guilt and death that is Lent when the world is such a mess. We don’t need more reminders of our mortality. And yet….
Anne Lamott is one of the most down-to-earth yet seriously devote Christians around. When asked once about her take on Lent and Easter she said this:
Well, it’s the most profound holiday in the Christian tradition. And I think it’s about two things, really. One is something that the great writer Barbara Johnson said, which is that we are Easter people living in a Good Friday world. And I think that every year the world seems more of a Good Friday world. It’s excruciating [to think about the terrible things that happen in the world] that makes no sense when you think about a loving God. But it’s a time when we get to remember that all the stuff that we think makes us of such value, all the time we spend burnishing our surfaces, is really not what God sees. God, he or she, loves us absolutely unconditionally, as is. It’s a come as you are party.
Jesus invites us to the party and he wants us to come as we are. Jesus invites us to his table to feast. Isn’t it ironic that one of the most sacred worship things we do is to eat – to eat the bread and drink the wine of communion. The feast of grace awaits us.
But also, the party takes us into eternity. It is a never-ending party. It is not surprising that even eternity is painted with the brush of feasting. As the old spiritual puts it:
There generous fruits that never fail on trees immortal grow.
There rocks and hills and brooks and vales with milk and honey flow.
I am bound for the promised land. I am bound for the promised land.
Oh, who will come and go with me? I am bound for the promised land.
Feasting and fasting! May we embrace both for our own health and for the health of the world. Amen.