The texts for Ash Wednesday invite to think this way about our Lenten Fast: we are invited into a time of both fasting from, and fasting to.
The text from the prophet Joel makes clear one certain fact about life: we all will have to face what we have done with our lives. This fact was held over us with great portent in my childhood church. There was a large man, a lovely man, who seemed to stand 6 and a half feet tall, with an arm-span of fix feet, who would with great drama lead us on Sunday nights in this song:
There’s a sad day coming, a sad day coming,
There’s a sad day coming by and by;
When the saints and the sinners shall be parted right and left,
Are you ready for that day to come… Are you ready… for the judgment day…
But Joel’s portent of judgment is not what we might call a “religious” observation. We better understand him, I think, if we see him making a plain statement of fact, as he sees it. Our deeds and our choices and our lives all have consequences, and they all catch up with us, for good or ill, sooner or later. And for the prophets, this is a truth not only about our lives individually, but about our lives corporately. For the prophets, it is not merely my choices that are weighted with great consequence, but our choices.
Thus these “day of the Lord” moments may come beyond the grave, or lying on one’s death bed; it may come when your spouse packs his bags, or it may come when the CEO calls you to her office; or it may come when there is rioting in the streets, or when the gods and winds of war take our children, for blood sacrifice.
But let there be no mistaking: life is brief, and yet our brief lives carry great consequence, our choices momentous significance. To forget this is to be a fool. The prophets and the biblical wisdom literature make this abundantly clear. It is the fool who refuses to take seriously the heavy accountability that comes with a human life and its choices; and it is a foolish society that refuses to take seriously the hefty responsibility that comes with being members one of the other.
This is one reason why Ash Wednesday is a day of liberation: to liberate us from the delusion that we will not die. Here we are reminded: “remember that you are but dust, and to dust you will return.” We will all be dead, and sooner than we can imagine. Remember. Don’t forget.
And yet even within that relative brevity, we do have an abundant riches of days. And within the span of days marked out for our lives, the prophets and Jesus and the Psalmist all call us to “repentance,” to “change.” They call us to the practice of fasting. They speak of torn and broken hearts, to turn back with fasting, weeping, mourning.
Indeed, there is a time for mourning and weeping and grieving: when we see the brokenness of our own lives, and the brokenness of the social systems in which we are implicated.
To grieve our personal fearfulness, and to grieve the nationalism which is but fearfulness writ large with walls and tanks and military parades;
To grieve our private lusts and greed, and to grieve the public lusts which drive our entertainment, militarism, and consumerism; our marketing and our commodification of all things;
To grieve our broken and strained relationships, and to grieve the societal norms of means without regard to ends, which are like an acid that eats away at the possibilities of friendship, citizenship, and shared social concern.
I tend to think that we have not yet begun to live fully until our hearts have been splayed open with the tragedy which marks my own life, all human lives, and all human societies. Such broken hearts are the harbinger of the possibility of something new. I think, for example, of some of the moments from my own life in which the pain and the tears and the brokenness led to new possibilities, new sorts of living and life:
For one, to face depression in a mid-life crisis, and finally seeing that my old dysfunctional habits salved nothing, and new ways of relating and living and loving had to be found;
Or for another, to remember walking the banks of St. Joseph's lake at Notre Dame, forcing myself to keep reading Elie Wiesel’s Night, overwhelmed with the madness of the Holocaust, weeping and asking how God could allow such a horror; and coming to realize in time that such madness was propped up by middle class people who loved their country and were nominal Christians; and this realization would lead to decades of academic work of always being keenly aware of the ways in which delusional violence is indeed a danger in which we all might fall;
Or for a third example, to grow incensed when the preening arrogance of people in power talk about their big buttons and their big nuclear weapons, and wonder how we all have contributed to this utter madness, and now ask questions about the ways forward, and how to be an agent of reconciliation in the midst of a world of new hostility.
Such depression and tears and anger all mark the possibility of new life.
But we should beware. There is a danger inherent in such grief. There is a thin line, it seems, between honest grief and indulgent self-pity. There is a difference between anger which prompts action, and self-entitled introspection which leads to wallowing in embarrassment, oh look at me, oh look at us, how awful, how awful: these latter sorts of tears are not the fast which God requires of us. God is a grown-up, after all, and will not be manipulated by our tears and our self-hatred, and surely God grows weary with our chicken-little cries that the sky is falling, the sky is falling. It is this latter sort of tears and self-indulgent anguish into which I fear a lot of us middle-class so-called progressives are prone to fall.
In contrast, Thomas Merton, as I recollect, once said that a sign of spiritual health is when we become able to laugh at lascivious thoughts. This is wise I think: to take our sinfulness overly seriously may, in fact, be taking ourselves too seriously, and God’s goodness and kindness not seriously enough.
In other words, fasting from has its place: fasting, grieving, even depression, can allow us space to see things we need to see, to grieve what we may need to grieve, to re-order or re-configure the commitments of our lives or our social systems. We may need to fast from food to get a clear glimpse of our self-indulgence; we may need to fast from sex and the internet to get out from underneath the lash of lust; we may need to fast from social media to shake loose our addiction to the dopamine releases socially engineered into the likes, shares, and views. We may need all these fasts in order to see the distraction, the manufactured greeds, and the fabricated rage which governs pop-culture and pop-media.
But this is but the first half of repentance and change; and it’s precisely the first half of repentance because our God is not a kill-joy. We do not serve a god of restraint and limitation and repression. We fast from only so that we might envision anew what we might hurry on, fastly, toward. So I love the line from Dag Hammarskjold, a beautiful man who anticipated that his fidelity to God would one day require the very giving of his life, which happened in a suspicious and fiery plane crash in the wilds of Zambia.
He said, “Your responsibility is a ‘to—’: you can never save yourself by a ‘not to.’” I might redact it this way: “You responsibility, and joy, is a ‘to—‘: you can never save yourself by, and will be quite neurotic if you are always focused on, a ‘not to.’”
To change, then, is never an end in itself. The important matter is what we are changing to; the significant question is that toward which we are turning.
Fasting from has its significance and importance. But in significant ways, God doesn’t care whether, during Lent, you eat chocolate, drink coffee, stay off social media, have a beer, or have less sex with your spouse. More important than what you are fasting from, is the question of what you are fasting to.
May this Lent be a time for us all to be challenged again: to what am I giving my life? To what, as a community—as a church, as a city, as a nation—are we giving our lives and our social practices? What are we doing with our lives? We dare not not answer this question, and answer it with all the honesty we can muster. Because life is short, we are but dust, and to dust we shall return, and we shall give an account.
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