Giving up our servitude for Lent
While Lent is a time of fasting, abstinence, almsgiving and prayer for more than a billion people in the world, these practices are not always examined and their full value is easily missed. This is especially true for fasting and abstinence, seen as something we do for God, but liberating for us. Another view of these sacrifices is that we trade something good for a greater good, and gain freedom through the effort. In fact, fasting and abstinence can help us find material and spiritual freedom.
Isaiah, writing more than 2,600 years ago, said fasting was more than giving up food; God desires that we free those bound, share our food, shelter the oppressed and homeless, clothe the naked and live out our obligations to others (cf Is. 58:6-7). But in a reverse action Donne would appreciate, enriching the lives of others improves our lives because we are all part of the same human race. Giving up or reducing material pleasures such as food or entertainment can result in greater freedom and a richer life by showing us what we don’t need. Thomas Merton applies the Zen definition “when hungry we eat, when tired we sleep” to modern life in reverse: “we eat even when we aren’t hungry.” Our voraciousness consumes plants, animals, land, trees and other people’s freedom at a rate matched only by the waste we discard. To limit our use of good things is to be liberated from our own appetites, and so the invitation to fast is an invitation to freedom.
We are physically dependent on certain essentials, such as food and water, so it may seem a cruel irony that we cannot be fully free from all needs. But Lent is a Christian season, and Christ came to free us not from physical bondage (yet), but from the bondage of sin. Christians believe in a physical transformation at the end of time, but the work of spiritual liberation has already begun, and we have only to join the Resistance. As spiritual beings, our desire to overconsume makes no sense. To ravage and foul our world (personally and globally) is to deny our belief that the life of the spirit is more enduring and of more value. The more we immerse ourselves in the material world, the more it obscures the spiritual, and the more we forget who and what we are: made in the “image and likeness” of God. At the same time, judicious use of our personal and natural resources can be an expression of this identity, just as an artist uses their sense of proportion and restraint in communicating meaning in sculpture, painting, dance or music.
We are advised by Isaiah (and many others, in many religions) to abstain from injustice and sin, and this is a call to be free spiritually. It is so easy to fall into unhealthy patterns of thought: racism, us vs. them, pessimism, anger or pride. Fasting from these is more difficult, but in these areas we have the greatest potential for victory in this life, for total liberation is possible. Justice, magnaminity, joy, kindness, humility and love are gifts to us from God, but we have to desire and embrace them, and this can’t be done with arms full of hate and pride.
If it seems that our sacrifices in Lent are actually to our benefit, and not really a gift to God, good. God knows, loves, gives, liberates and transforms. He requires nothing from us, but provides everything, including life itself. We are made in God’s image, according to Scripture, and in reducing our desires and needs with the help of grace, we become more like our creator.
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