I’m a big picture kind of person. The reason that thinking in terms of the Grand Narrative of the world is so helpful to me is that it helps me contextualize that which is more immediate – that which is in front of me. I don’t do well with the “why’s?” of what’s in front of me if I don’t have something bigger and prior to which I can appeal. When dealing with issues of devotion, habit, rhythm, and worship, the bigger and prior something to which I appeal is the Church. The Church from its earliest days appealed to the bigger and prior traditions of Temple and Synagogue worship in Israel. With the new guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church also began to practice wise new traditions including gathering corporately to worship every Lord’s Day (Sunday), receiving communion together, and annually celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. Soon, the Church began ordering the calendar year around the life and ministry of Jesus, celebrating the announcement of his arrival, his birth, dedication, baptism, ministry, suffering (passion), death, and resurrection. The center and most glorious of the yearly observances was always the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.
Very early on, Christians began fasting before Resurrection Sunday to identify with Jesus’ suffering and death. Congregations in various locations would practice fasts of various endurances before Easter, but nearly all churches recognized the magnitude of the resurrection and the need to prepare in mind and body for the celebration. By the middle ages, the practice of a forty day fast (not including Sundays) was in practice by most of the Church. Lent, as this season is called, had become a part of the Church’s yearly life.
Lent is marked with fasting and contemplation. I often find myself contemplating the fast itself. I think it’s because I don’t really know how to fast. I’ve read some material about fasting and I’ve tried it out in various forms at different times in my life, but fasting is still not a very familiar practice for me. During lent, I get bogged down thinking about how fasting is supposed to help me identify with Christ’s suffering. Or is it supposed to help me remember that I need God more than food, or tv, or whatever? Is it a way to help me “die to myself?” “Take up my cross?” Does it make me more aware of my own mortality and “dusty” nature? Are these lessons and their applications recognizable cognitively, or do they just bolster me spiritually, deep down? I suppose if I could really grasp the lessons of fasting by shear reasoning effort, there would be no need for fasting. And that notion rejects the bigger and prior wisdom of all of God’s people going back almost to the beginning of the story.
So once again, I find that the answer seems to be “contemplate the reasons for fasting, all the while fasting.” As with so many wise traditions in the Church, when the question is “why do it?” the answer is best articulated in the doing of it. Don’t get me wrong; I value a well-worded, thoughtful, thorough explanation of things. As with anything from gardening to bungee-jumping though, no theory or explanation can substitute doing it. So it is with the lenten fast: it was borne in wisdom, and the Church has affirmed that wisdom by practicing the fast for centuries. Appealing to that wisdom, now I am challenged to deal with the “why’s?” of this season in front of me.