Lent is known as a time for fasting and penitential reflection, although if we’re honest about it, fasting and penitence is observed with less than disciplined intent by most of us. Penitence seems medieval, painful, even pointless. Fasting to follow the latest diet fad might be OK, otherwise it’s likely to be something like chocolate, meat, or drinking, which may all be good to do in their own right. There are serious efforts made by some, and more power to them, especially if it’s intended to reorient them toward a more Christlike direction in life, but I think Lent is better put to use in other ways.
The invitation to a holy Lent includes a recitation from Isaiah about what kind of fasting comes highly recommended by God. In Isaiah’s 58th chapter, the people wondered why they fasted but God paid no attention. The answer was not what they expected about what get’s God’s nodding approval.
“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, as day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 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? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”
God, speaking through the pen of Isaiah, may have addressed the people of ancient Israel, but isn’t it as valid for our times and our lenten fasts? Social justice, it turns out, is not a liberal vs. conservative thing, it’s a godly thing, and God is perfectly clear about what social justice means.
A lenten discipline of self examination is intended to make us more aware of our acts and prejudices that corrupt social justice, and give them up, at least for Lent. It’s hard work, but it’s only for forty days during which we might give more thought to the value of living closer to God’s ways. When the forty days are over, and we once again rejoice in the power of the resurrection, it may have led us to a greater commitment to work for improvements in conditions leading to higher standards of social justice in the community, and in our own lives.
It’s not intended to be an exercise adding more guilt to an already overburdened soul. We have enough of that without Lent adding to it. No one advocates some form of spiritual PTSD as a good thing. To the contrary, it is an exercise in more fully recognizing that God’s abounding and steadfast love pours out over each of us, no matter what our condition in life might be. The self examination to which we are called in Lent is meant to reveal to ourselves that with which we have oppressed ourselves, that with which we have treated ourselves unjustly, and give it up to make more room to receive the freeing peace of God’s love, given not earned. It’s ours to have, yours to have, just by making room for it.
We don’t easily give up the burdens, beliefs and attitudes we impose on ourselves. We’re inclined to hold them tightly because they contribute in important ways to defining who we are. Each in our own way wonders, if I give them up, then who would I be? The answer is a new creation in Christ Jesus; still the old you but a better you filled with more freedom and love, and fewer self imposed burdens, prejudices and fears. Lent is a time to experience it anew. Lent is a time to wade into it.
It creates the space needed for each of us to be more committed and confident agents of God’s love working for godly social justice among the people with whom we live. A lenten fast from that which oppresses and impoverishes our lives and the lives of others in our communities makes room for more of God’s abounding and steadfast love to pour into our lives, and through our lives into the lives of others.
Have a blessed Lent.