Cathedral News, February 26, 2017
Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the final Sunday before Lent.
I never will forget my first experience of someone carrying Lent to the extreme. I had just begun my ordained ministry and was an assistant at Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati, Ohio. One of the members of a Bible study I was leading at the time, a woman who was fairly new to the Episcopal Church, was excited about her first observation of Lent. She wanted to know about the practice of fasting, and so at one of our meetings I explained about the history of fasting as a spiritual exercise, noting that there were a variety of ways one could fast: giving up one meal per day, simplifying meals, or not eating from sunrise to sunset, as a few examples.
The next week our Bible study met again, and I asked how everyone’s Lenten observance was going. People shared their experiences over the first week of the season, including the woman who had asked about fasting.
“How is that going?” I asked her.
“Well,” she said, “I’m pretty hungry, to tell you the truth.”
I assumed that she meant that she was hungry while she was fasting, and so I said, “That’s pretty normal, I think. Part of the spiritual discipline of fasting is taking the hunger that you feel and focusing on it as a hunger for God, then allowing the Spirit to fill you.”
She was new to the Episcopal Church, and I was new to the ordained ministry. One was full of anticipation for what being part of this season would mean, and the other was full of the righteous eagerness which often characterizes the newly-ordained.
The next week our study group met again. Once more, as a prelude to our scripture study, I asked about Lent. All had good things to say about the various Lenten rules they were following: spiritual reading, volunteering, engaging in a Cathedral ministry, etc.. When it came to the fasting woman, she was silent a moment before she answered.
“I’ve been very light-headed,” she said, “and a couple of times I thought I was going to faint.”
I had known many people who had fasted as part of their Lenten observance, but no one had ever described their experience in this way. I asked her if she was diabetic. No. I asked if she was drinking fluids through the day. Yes. Then, for some reason, a light went on inside my head.
“Have you eaten anything since you began to fast on Ash Wednesday?”
“No,” she said straightforwardly.
“You mean you’ve been fasting completely, without any food at all?”
“Yes. I thought that’s what I was supposed to do.”
I was amazed. Needless to say, our group digressed into another lesson about the practice of fasting, and how it is NOT an imitation of Jesus’ fasting for forty days in the wilderness. Heavens!
This story is an important lesson in how not to approach Lent. This season that is upon us is not a time to prove your heroic and super-human ability to endure hardship. Neither is it a time to prove how deeply spiritual you are. Lent is not about punishing yourself for all the faults and sins you perceive within yourself; flagella, whether physical or metaphorical, are not instruments of God’s loving embrace.
Lent is a season that the Church has provided in which we can be purposeful about drawing nearer to God in Christ. Shouldn’t we always be engaged in that pursuit? Yes, of course, we should be, but we all know that we are distracted from it by all that surrounds us in life. For forty days, however, we are invited to create an oasis in our lives where those distractions are set to a minimum, and our attention is directed to increase in our lives those things that magnify the beauty and love of God for us. Are we to give up things in Lent? Yes, if they are barriers and distractions from our deeper relationship with God. Are we to take on additional disciplines in Lent? Yes, but only if they foster that deeper communion with the Divine that we so avidly desire: “Like as the hart desireth the waterbrook, so longeth my soul after thee, O God.”
Above all, I have found, Lent is not about rules, or things, or disciplines, or observances. Lent is about community, as is all of our pilgrimage. We gather in small communities, groups for study or prayer, so that we can experience Christ. We gather in larger communities, as the Body of Christ gathered for worship, to know the presence of Christ in our midst. We seek out community so that we can be part of the community of the Trinity, and so that we can share in the love that is known between the Three who are One.
May this be a holy, and wholly enlivening, Lent for you.
Read the rest of the announcements.