Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Why we need Lent: Fasting, Almsgiving, Prayer

When I think of Lent, I think of fish sandwiches. I know, this isn't the most pious of associations, but having grown up in a predominately Lutheran and Catholic community in Iowa, even the school lunch calendar was subject to the liturgical seasons. So every Friday during Lent, we'd get fish sandwiches. I love fish sandwiches, so I was pleased. I also knew that this school lunch schedule was influenced somehow by a call to fast from meat on Fridays during the Lenten season.

Fast forward to the present. I now live in Arkansas, a state with far fewer Catholics and Lutherans. 

I frequently get asked: Why do you put that ash on your heads at the beginning of the season? Why do you give things up for Lent? What is Lent, anyway?

Let's take these in turn. First, Lent is a solemn religious observance that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends about six weeks later (40 days), before Easter Sunday.

Ash Wednesday is a midweek liturgy (this year it falls on March 1st). During this service, worshippers make preparations for the season. There's a call to repentance, with prayers of confession. The worship leader calls the assembly to commit to the three primary disciplines of Lent--fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Then the community comes forward for the imposition of ashes on their foreheads, including a spoken reminder of our mortality--"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (echoing Genesis 3:20).

The assembly is then called to the traditional disciplines of Lent. These are worth a closer look.

The first discipline of Lent is the one related to fish sandwiches--fasting. Over the centuries, the church has called the people of God to fast in various ways. One of the most common fasts is from rich foods. This is why some people give up chocolate, or wine, or meat for Lent. Personally, this year I'm going to fast from meat and fried foods (so no fish sandwiches).

Fasting in the Christian tradition is complicated. We're aware that the prophets called the people to a different kind of fast.

Isaiah 58.6                  Is not this the fast that I choose:
                                    to loose the bonds of injustice,
                                    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
                                    to let the oppressed go free,
                                    and to break every yoke?

And Matthew 6:17, one of the texts read at Ash Wednesday service, directly instructs the community not to fast in ways that draw direct attention to the fasting.

What does this mean for Lent? Well, it means that social justice is a crucial, perhaps the crucial theme for Lent. We are called during Lent as the form of our fast to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.

This is a very active form of fasting. In addition to, or as supplement to, the fast of social justice, Christians over the centuries have learned that traditional fasting (from meat and rich foods, or even fasting from food altogether) can strengthen the efforts of the community in social justice. Fasting makes the community stronger (see Daniel 1:12).

Then there are two other Lenten commitments. There's a commitment to almsgiving. Almsgiving is simple: it's giving gifts to the poor. This is not giving with strings attached (like, for example, giving food stamps but only with the addendum that 'junk' food is forbidden). You give to the poor simply because it is good to give.

There's a significant passage in the apocrypha related to almsgiving that is worth quoting.

Tobit 12.8 Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than wealth with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to lay up gold.  9 For almsgiving saves from death and purges away every sin. Those who give alms will enjoy a full life.

Significantly, this passage places almsgiving even above prayer and fasting in terms of value, which is likely related to the prophetic insight that the fast God desires is a fast that accomplishes good for the oppressed.

For this Lenten season, our congregation is going to focus our devotional time each week on economic justice. Each Wednesday, we'll gather for a soup supper at 6:00 p.m. Then at 6:30, we'll sing Holden Evening Prayer, and conclude with a meditation on God and economic justice.

During this five-week series, we will uncover how our Lutheran faith shapes our perspective and role in the economy. Each week, we will look at one key aspect of the economy and explore questions related to economic justice. As we journey through the study, I encourage you to use ELCA World Hunger’s “40 Days of Giving” daily devotional calendar to reflect on economics, hunger, hope and faith throughout the weeks of Lent (you can sign up for the daily devotional here).

Finally, Lent is a season steeped in prayer. Prayer has a certain mystique in our culture. It's both simple and complex, easy and awkward. During this season, one simple way we increase your opportunity to pray is by adding the second mid-week service where we sing evening prayer. I encourage you to consider other prayer resources that might suit your prayer habits. One of my favorites is simply to pray the daily prayer offices.

The whole season of Lent is, in another sense, solemn preparation for our observance of Holy Week. The focus of our fasting, almsgiving, and prayer is deepening attention to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We observe Lent that we might convert our time-keeping more to the holy time of God in Christ. 

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