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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Fasting and almsgiving - a quick lesson from the Lenten lectionary

A lot of Catholics (and others) attended services on Ash Wednesday. When they did, they heard the proclamation of a fast proclaimed in the book of the prophet Joel, and then heard Jesus, in a passage from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, speak about how fasting, prayer, and almsgiving by good Jews (and, by Matthew's time, Christians) should be characterized by an interior disposition of generous love. Fasting, prayer, and almsgiving are not for the glorification of the individual, but are oriented toward the Other, as gestures of trust and desire for a particular God. This God is one who is concerned that we be concerned for every other person as an equal, a brother or sister. Our job is not to be holier-than-thou, but to be concerned-for-thy-welfare. The disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving reorient us outward.

If you've read my little book, Change Our Hearts: Daily Meditations for Lent, you know that its premise and format is to see the Lenten lectionary, day-by-day, as a primer for discovering more deeply the meaning of being a Christian, in order to receive the Easter sacraments or renew our baptismal vows more authentically at Easter. In other words, Change Our Hearts views the Lenten period through the lens of the baptismal promises, which are a mirror of the kingdom proclamation of Jesus: repent, that is, turn away from the way of life that you live in Caesar's world, and believe in the good news, that is, there's another way to go about your life with a real God who loves you and who wants a better world than Caesar does. "Repent and believe the good news" is the biblical predecessor of "Do you reject sin? Do you believe in God?"

Looking back over the first week of the Lenten lectionary, much of that time is devoted to parsing the meaning of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The Friday and Saturday after Ash Wednesday, in fact, both explore the subject of fasting from a biblical perspective, and the Tuesday after Ash Wednesday looks at the only prayer Jesus taught his disciples. I want to look at that prayer again later this week (or soon, anyway) but to point out just a couple of things about the link between fasting and almsgiving that I think the church is making in the lectionary, the strange path down which it appears to lead us.

Why do I say strange? Well, in the gospel on both of those days (check those readings on the USCCB website, here), while Isaiah is talking about true fasting, Jesus and his disciples are noticeably not fasting. In one, the accusation is made that they are not fasting in such a way that they are noticed by their religious leaders. In the other, they are eating and drinking with unrespectable "sinners," the collaborator tax-gatherers, including the one named Levi.

On those two days, we hear all of Isaiah 58, one of the most profound and clearest expressions of the meaning of true religion and of divine disappointment in the yield of formal worship. In the words of the prophet, God repudiates fasting and worship as rituals that do not yield broken (that is, opened-up) hearts in people. Instead, God makes clear that
...This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.
And apparently all the excuses about Sabbath worship didn't wash well with the prophet either. All of us who put traveling soccer and basketball, professional sports, and the demands of commerce ahead of the spirit of Sabbath, that is, a day of worship and honor set aside for a God who frees from slavery to the timetables and commerce of the wealthy and powerful, would do well to heed Isaiah 58 as well:
If you hold back your foot on the sabbath
from following your own pursuits on my holy day;
If you call the sabbath a delight,
and the LORD’s holy day honorable;
If you honor it by not following your ways,
seeking your own interests, or speaking with malice—
Then you shall delight in the LORD...
Apocalypse Now

On the first Monday of Lent, which in antiquity was the first day of Lent, before Ash Wednesday was invented to get "40 days" of Lent in a more literal way, the gospel of the day is the apocalyptic parable of the Son of Man judging the world at the end of time. Remember that the Son of Man is a mysterious character introduced to us in the book of Daniel, written just a couple of centuries before the time of Jesus, in which a human being ("son of man" is a Aramaism that just means "a human being") is sent by God to set things right in a world distressed by famine, brutality, and desecration, the "abomination of desolation." In the parable, the dividing line between the blessed and the lost, who look for all the world as interchangeable as sheep and goats, is not any kind of orthodoxy, piety, or feeling about the world. The dividing line is what we did on behalf of the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned. And, apparently, it doesn't matter whether we did it knowingly or not, just that we did it. Everyone, saved and lost alike, is surprised by the verdict. "When did we see you?" is the universal question. The answer is "It doesn't matter. When you did it, you did it for me."

The answer to the question, "when is Jesus returning?" then, seems to be "Now."  When is the apocalypse? Seems like it's going on now, and we are participants in it. In the Gentle Reign of God, in the empire of the servant, human beings like us are righting the wrongs of Caesar's war economy by fasting from self and attending to the needs of the other. It is "almsgiving" as the peaceful work of justice, rather than as the feel-good occasional practice of "charity" toward the needy, though I know those words could easily be interchanged. Fasting and almsgiving reorient us away from ourselves toward the other, who is the Other. "Whenever you did it for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me."

So from the perspective of the earliest days of the Lent in the lectionary, it seems to me, fasting and sacrifice are less tied to ritual practice and self-help motivations than they are as means to discovering and giving ourselves over to an awareness of the needs of the other, and, out of our own substance, who we are and what we have, whether it's a little or a lot, alleviate the suffering of the other and render the world a little more equal because Our Father wants it that way. Everyone gets enough. Fasting and sacrifice are an experience of ecstasy, "standing-outside" of ourselves, and experience the Other by giving ourselves over to the other. Authentic fasting, at least in the prophetic and gospel tradition, is not at the service of law, but follows the economy of love. It responds to the experience of God's love by imitating God, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, forgiving debt, forsaking violence, and dining with the marginalized.

Which brings us to prayer, I think, and why Jesus taught his disciples to pray in a particular way. That's what I want to write about next time. Happy Lenting.

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