An oily black smudge on my forehead and my fingers looking like they'd cleaned a chimney were the indicators Ash Wednesday night that Lent had officially begun.
The 40 days of Lent require fasting for the ones who claim to be followers—disciples—of Jesus.
Fasting in westernized Christianity suggests that we give up something, that we fast from some luxury we otherwise take for granted in our daily lives in order to appreciate what Christ gave up in redeeming the transgressions of the world.
So, we give up anything from chocolate to Netflix to Starbucks. (Well, specialty drinks from Starbucks. Let's not go overboard here!) In the past, I've fasted from all kinds of things: meat, sweets, TV, alcohol, caffeine, you name it. But it reached a point, as it always does in our self-willed religious disciplines, where I wondered, "How is my refraining from simple indulgences making a difference?"
Let's wrestle more with that question and ask, "What difference is it supposed to make?" One of the biblical texts for Ash Wednesday instructs Jesus' disciples: "We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (2 Corinthians 5:20b).
It appears that reconciliation is the difference fasting is supposed to make.
Easy enough. My justification for giving up online shopping is that I will have more time to focus on God. But here, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton insists, "Sacrifices made in this formalistic spirit tend to be mere acts of external routine performed in order to exorcise interior anxiety and not for the sake of love."
Whatever change I hope to make in my life—in this community, in the world—love is the change agent; and love never exists in a vacuum of individualism. Love has no room to breathe in the narrow confines that my fasting assumes to create between me and my God.
Quoting 1 John 4:20, Saint Augustine proclaimed, "Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen." The faithful work of reconciliation requires that I love my siblings—my neighbors—so that I might love God.
We cannot be reconciled to God if we are not about the work of being reconciled to one another.
So, instead of fasting from something, how about fasting toward something? Instead of fasting from things that relieve self-absorbed anxieties, let's make Lent a time of fasting toward reconciliation between self and neighbor so that we would each be reconciled to the Holy One who created us all in a spirit of love.
Fasting toward reconciliation requires us to give up the fears we have of our Muslim siblings and what we assume to know about these dear ones from our anxiety-riddled public narrative. For example, did you know that some Muslims are observing Lent by fasting alongside their Christian neighbors this year as an act of solidarity and interfaith appreciation? (See #Muslims4Lent and the Facebook event page of the same name.)
Did you know that Islam's month of Ramadan—starting June 18—which requires daily fasting from sunrise to sunset is meant in part to remind Muslims of the experience of their poverty-stricken neighbors who are forced to go without food? This religious discipline has something to teach Christians who fast during Lent in order to be reconciled to God, the Incarnate Christ, who is seen in the experience of "the least of these," as Jesus teaches; namely, the hungry.
To fast toward reconciliation, then, is to see the experience of our neighbor and to learn from it.
To fast toward reconciliation is to see the undocumented man who suffered a gash to his thumb while washing dishes in a restaurant we frequent, and to learn how his experience of being unwilling to seek medical treatment for fear of being deported affects his loved ones who, like all of God's children, have to eat.
To fast toward reconciliation is to see how gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Texans can be fired from their job on a whim because of their sexual orientation or gender identity with no legal recourse, and to learn how that experience affects LGBT families who, like all of God's children, need a home.
To fast toward reconciliation is to see how young Black males are stereotypically painted as villains in America, and to learn how that experience affects African American youth who, like all of God's children, are created to thrive and not only survive.
About fasting, Merton writes, "It would be more sincere as well as more religious to eat a full dinner in a spirit of gratitude than to make some picayune sacrifice of part of it with the feeling that one is suffering martyrdom."
This Lent, let's fast from the obstacles that keep us from seeing each other as made in the likeness of God.
This type of fasting restores community, promotes peace, and grants us thankfulness for the mosaic of siblings to which we all belong and to whom we are each accountable. A fast from the societal anxieties that divide us is a fast toward the reconciliatory love that binds us. And this makes a difference.
Photo via flickr user amboo who?