I recently was tagged in a Facebook post about the movie star Chris Pratt. The reason for the mention was because the “Guardians of the Galaxy,” actor had written about embarking on a 21-day “Daniel” fast and the tagger drew a connection between Pratt’s fast and our Lenten practice of fasting. Pratt, who is reported to be a practicing and vocal Christian, said he decided to do the fast based on a recommendation from his pastor. Oh that all of my parishioners were so faithful!
Apparently, the “Daniel” fast is based on the idea of following the purported diet of the biblical prophet, with participants being restricted to drinking only water and eating only foods that have grown from seeds. According to proponents Daniel did this in order to better focus on a spiritual connection to God by leaving behind distracting indulgences like meat and wine. There is no mention of the fact that checking everything you eat for appropriate seeds could be a bit distracting too.
A couple of days later I read an article called, “When Lenten fasting is indistinguishable from a New Age cleanse.” In it, Tara Burton writes,
“If you’re a practicing Christian — and likely if you’re not — you’re familiar with the exhortation to give up something for [Lent] -the traditional season of penitence…The season commemorates the period leading up to Christ’s passion and resurrection, and for the approximately one in four Americans who observe it, Lent has been a time of sacrifice, prayer, fasting and reflection. But, increasingly, the popular concept of Lent has been transformed into a kind of vaguely theistic detox. It’s a chance not to give up earthly pleasures but to exorcise toxins. An article published last year in U.K. tabloid The Express, by way of example, provides readers with a handy listicle of the health benefits of giving up some of the most popular fasting targets, such as smoking or chocolate…No wonder that it’s not just the faithful who are getting in on the Lenten action. A 2014 Barna study found that American millennials, famously less likely to be religious than their elders, were nonetheless more likely than the average American to fast for Lent. And though hard numbers are difficult to find, abundant anecdotal evidence supports the idea that a solid minority of those who observe Lent belong to the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated.”
This did not actually surprise me, because most Christians I know give up something for Lent because it’s not good for them – or they just pick up whatever their failed New Year’s resolution was and start over again. When embarking on a tough diet at Lent, I personally have been known to say, “I couldn’t do it for myself, but I can do it for God.” Seriously?! Because God cares how I look in shorts? Does this really meet the criterion of self-denial that is the hallmark of Lent?
Burton suggests that when we give up things like “chocolate, say, or alcohol … we’re not … focusing on self-denial so much as self-improvement. We’re stealth-dieting -giving ourselves another opportunity to be better (and, if we’re thinner, fresher-faced and more productive to boot, then so be it).” In other words, we are behaving just as our ancestors did in the time of Isaiah. “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…Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” In other words, giving up something to benefit yourself is not a true spiritual fast.
So, what is Lent for, if not for self-improvement? I would suggest two things, the first of which is very clearly stated in our passage from Isaiah. Lenten discipline is not about self-improvement. It is about other improvement. “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…Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house”? Lent provides us with an opportunity not to give things up, but rather to give – and to do it quietly, without trumpets and Instagram posts; without touting its benefits to us and those like us, but for the pure pleasure of doing the right thing.
And it is a pleasure, mostly because it makes us feel closer to God. “Be reconciled to God,” St. Paul tells us. Take the time to know God better. Take the time to thank God. “As a father cares for his children, so does the Lord care for those who fear him.” Think about that: God loves you. God knows you – and forgives you anyway. God stands by you – through hardships, calamities, riots, sleepless nights, hunger – through good times and bad. The question is: do you, in turn, stand by God? Do you commend God to others? Do you post on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook about what God is up to? If the answer is “no,” then perhaps instead of giving up something for Lent, you should take something. Take the time to be with God. Talk to God, sing to God and think about what God might be asking of you. If that is self-denial, then fine, deny away. If it pleases you, give up double lattes for Lent – but then take the money it would have cost you and donate it to a worthy cause.
“What does it mean,” asks Burton, “to divorce the personal benefits of Lenten observance – even the spiritually attuned goals of increased mindfulness, a better life – from their divine referent? If we are not fasting to love God, but rather to optimize our own existence, are we not risking transforming a season of penitence into one of glorified diet culture?” Instead of thinking about Lent as a triumph (or failure) of self-control, perhaps we should instead think of it as a surrender to God’s will. Or, as Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Tara Isabella Burton, February 28, 2019: “When Lenten fasting is indistinguishable from a New Age Cleanse, Religion News, https://religionnews.com/2019/02/28/when-lenten-fasting-is-indistinguishable-from-a-new-age-cleanse/
Richard J. Foster, quoted in Tara Isabella Burton, February 28, 2019: “When Lenten fasting is indistinguishable from a New Age Cleanse, Religion News, https://religionnews.com/2019/02/28/when-lenten-fasting-is-indistinguishable-from-a-new-age-cleanse/