For the past two decades or more, many evangelicals have begun to adopt liturgical practices that have not historically been a part of their own churches: recognition of the liturgical seasons, weekly communion, reciting of the creeds, the practice of Lent. It is now common to ask a fellow evangelical, “What are you giving up for Lent?”
While there is much to commend in this trend, one danger in this kind of ad hoc adoption of tradition is that the practice becomes free-floating, unmoored from any historical context. And so we can attribute to it whatever meaning we choose. In this way, we are less being formed by the practice than we are forming it according to our own whims. These practices are also subject to the ongoing temptation in evangelical worship: to make it all about me and my feelings. When the colors of a liturgical season or the passing of the peace become something merely inspiring that makes us feel good in worship…. well, we have to ask ourselves Who our worship is really about.
In this post I want to address a particular liturgical practice – Lenten fasting – and what it might meant to resist these temptations and overcome these dangers in a way relevant to our current socio-cultural context.
Fasting has a long history in the church, not to mention in the practices of Israel. In the early church it was one of a number of practices that formed a life of asceticism and the pursuit of virtue. At times the early Greek fathers who promoted fasting have been accused of being unduly influenced by Neoplatonic thought, such that they advocated a division between body and soul, between the material and spiritual (“intelligible”) realms. Fasting and similar practices are seen then as an attempt at purifying the soul at the expense of – and even in hatred toward – the body.
Fasting in this view is all about one’s own salvation, and seems to have little to no importance in the social realm. And given that bodies don’t really matter – and that suffering and hunger can actually serve to purify one’s soul – there doesn’t seem much motivation to worry about those who are poor – i.e., hungry involuntarily. Despite Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the poor,” someone like Clement of Alexandria doesn’t even see the poor as particularly blessed. In a famous sermon on “The Rich Man’s Salvation,” Clement emphasizes that spiritual poverty is what really matters, that there is nothing intrinsically virtuous about material poverty, even if its voluntary, and that wealth itself need not be a temptation away from virtue.
However, not all the Greek fathers thought this way. For example, Gregory of Nyssa – a Christian Neoplatonist if there ever was one – draws tight connections between our own eating practices, the situation of the poor, and the temptations of wealth in his sermons on the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. In discussing the “hunger and thirst for justice,” Gregory denies that this exhortation to hunger and thirst after righteousness means our physical hunger is somehow sinful (easy for us to dismiss, but certainly a line of thinking in his context). In other words, he does not want to pit bodily hunger against spiritual hunger, as if we should hunger for God instead of material food. Rather, he says that if we are rightly living out a hunger for justice, that will be reflected in our eating practices. When we focus on basic sustenance, then we let ourselves be filled by bread that is “tasty because it is eaten in justice” – that is, with a good conscience, knowing we have not robbed our neighbors of what they need.
Set in contrast to this eating-in-justice is the picture Gregory paints in his sermon on asking for our daily bread. Gregory describes someone who begins by simply “seasoning” their food to make it more tasty, but soon is carried away by ever more elaborate accoutrements:
For having once crept from the necessary food towards delicacies, [covetousness] will proceed to what is pleasant to the eyes, seeking shining dishes and attractive servants. And so on to silver couches, soft divans, and transparent, gold-embroidered veils [etc.]….And all this serves only to increase the desire for more. For in order that none of these paraphernalia may be missing, one needs an income adequate for providing all these requirements. And so someone must weep, his neighbour must sorrow, many who are deprived of their property must be miserable, in order that their tears may contribute to enhance the ostentatious display of his table.
Living in this kind of opulence has a two-fold effect. Certainly, for Gregory, it impacts our own souls. He sees wealth – like junk food – as dulling our appetite for what is truly nourishing for us and being never fully satisfying. But as is clear from the quote above, it has very concrete social ramifications as well. Even if we do not deprive someone unjustly as a means of our own gain, Gregory sees a responsibility for sharing with those in need: “the creature in need should be made equal to the one who has a larger share, and that which goes short should be filled by what has abundance; this is the law mercy gives men in regard to the needy.” And the two – the individual/spiritual and the social – are connected. If we do not numb ourselves through accumulating wealth and over-indulging ourselves, then we remain hungry for God’s justice, which is lived out by not taking more than what we need and by providing for those who are needy.
So, Gregory challenges us, as we practice Lenten disciplines, not to attend merely to the internal health of our own spiritual lives, but rather to allow these disciplines to contribute to alleviating the needs of others. More than that, he shows us that the two are intertwined: my soul’s growth in justice and righteousness can only happen if I am eating the bread seasoned by justice, rather than seasoned by my own wealth.
What might hungering after God’s justice look like in our current context? Where are we numbed to God’s justice because of our own comforts and lack of need? I would like to suggest the difficult situation of our brothers and sisters who are refugees and immigrants.
Recently, hundreds of evangelical pastors and leaders spoke out on behalf of refugees, opposing most components of the recent executive order. However, 76% of self-identifed white evangelicals – i.e., the average person in the pew – approve of this same order (even after hundreds of state department staff also opposed it). At the same time, we know that the vast majority of whites have only whites in their closest social networks. In other words, most whites – including white evangelicals – are not exposed to the details of refugees’ or immigrants’ situations, nor to the fears and obstacles they face. We are inoculated by our (relative) wealth, and by the social networks in which we exist.
What can be done? I would like to suggest that the centuries old practice of Lenten fasting – one that many evangelicals have embraced – could, if undertaken in a mindful way, be one small step.
One group of evangelicals has provided a resource along these lines – a commitment to scripture and prayer over Lent around the theme of “Welcoming the Stranger,” along with tools to engage the topic of immigration and the stories of real immigrants. Other possbilities include sharing a meal with a refugee or immigrant family over Lent, visiting a church whose congregation is made up primarily of non-whites, or something as simple as giving money to an organization like World Relief. Perhaps we could donate the money we would normally spend on dessert, alcohol, or coffee?
Whatever we do, our Lenten practice ought to contribute to God’s justice in the world and open up our own souls to the hunger for his justice. More specifically, we ought to open ourselves up to the need and suffering of those outside of our own insular communities.
I conclude with a well-known passage on fasting, the prophetic denunciations of Isaiah 58. Here God explicitly rejects a liturgical practice that remains confined to a religious day and does not inform (and form) life as its lived in community. Here Scripture – like Gregory – reveals how our liturgical practices are tied to the justice of God and the well-being of others. May we take these words to heart as we enter this Lenten season.
“Yet they seek Me day by day and delight to know My ways,
As a nation that has done righteousness
And has not forsaken the ordinance of their God.
They ask Me for just decisions,
They delight in the nearness of God.
‘Why have we fasted and You do not see?
Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not [a]notice?’
Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire,
And drive hard all your workers. . . .
Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed
And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed?
Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord?
“Is this not the fast which I choose,
To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the bands of the yoke,
And to let the oppressed go free
And break every yoke?
Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry
And bring the homeless poor into the house;
When you see the naked, to cover him;
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
 Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks/The Rich Man’s Salvation, trans. by G. W. Butterworth, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1919).
 Gregory of Nyssa, The Lord’s Prayer. The Beatitudes, trans. by H. C. Graef, Ancient Christian Writers: The works of the Fathers in Translation, No. 18, (New York: Paulist Press, 1954), 123.
 Ibid., 67.
 Ibid., 66.
 Ibid., 132.