It is Ash Wednesday, the start of the season of Lent. The first thing that comes to mind when most people hear “Lent” is the notion of giving something up. This has been a traditional time of fasting for centuries.
Maybe that’s a good thing. The truth is that most of us have come from a prolonged season of feasting. What I call ‘the eating season.’ It’s starts with Halloween. Buckets and buckets of candy—excessive calories for all! Children love Halloween and all the treats that come with it. Even if parents try to ration out the candy (and perhaps save some of their favorites for themselves! We see you out there), there are few times when kids can enjoy such a bounty of candy that comes pretty much freely their way. Halloween candy can last for a while. Adults also are known to pick up more when it goes on sale immediately thereafter to start to make room for Christmas wares.
Then comes the feast of Thanksgiving, a holiday that is centered around the meal itself. It’s all about eating. It’s the time for big turkeys and bountiful spreads and stuffing the bird before stuffing our faces. Culturally we have made Turkey Day one in which we can all pig out to our heart’s content.
Christmas comes not just on December 25, but on all those days and nights when we celebrate with others. There will be parties and lunches and any number of other occasions where cookies and fudge and desserts and snacks are in abundance. It is a festive time and that means food.
New Year’s Eve comes a week later and the feasting continues. Add in some extra drinks as well. New Year’s Day has traditional fare in many places in addition to everything that we tend to consume while watching football and basketball games.
For the Scots among us there is also Burns Night with its Ode to the Haggis and neaps and tatties, and of course, a wee dram to taste the Scottish heritage.
Valentine’s Day is another excuse for celebration and candy and once again, more calories than might be helpful.
What we have endured is a long line of days, feasts, and excuses to consume an excess. That’s part of what feasting is about, right? Special days call forth special dishes and a disregard for diets. We may have talked about eating healthier at New Years, but we tend to pile up our plates and pile on the pounds during these winter months.
Enter Ash Wednesday. Enter Lent. We have a day in which we are more conscious of fasting than feasting. We have a season that acts as something of a corrective to all the consumption that we have allowed ourselves. We may not think about it primarily as a good time to diet, to lose some pounds, to seek a better shape for summertime; but if those are side-effects of our spiritual pursuits, then all the better. We have had many days and many reasons for excess—now we will find reasons for limitations.
Fasting is not as common in our culture. We have defined success as a measure of excess and having more than enough is valued. We do not like the notion that we might have to be deprived of food or even special foods. Going without chocolate or cheese or coffee— none of that sounds appealing to modern American sensibilities. If we feel so good about all those feast days we’ve experienced, then the opposite will tend to make us feel bad, right?
Yet, some are beginning to learn that there is a physical health benefit to reducing our intake and even taking some days to go lighter. Rational fasting, the notion of reducing for a couple a days/week, has gained wide-spread attention. People report eating less but actually feeling better. People discover that they can live without 3 square meals/day and a good bit less feasting. People realize that the digestive tract needs some rest on occasion just as the whole body needs sleep. Not having everything we want every time we want it might not be a bad thing at all.
Another aspect of fasting is that it helps us to see what things are actually controlling us. If you have something in your life about which you say, “I can’t do without that,” then you may be on to something that has a grip on you. People say they can quit smoking, or drinking, or coffee, or a host of other things. But when they’re just talking about it and not actually doing it, then we have to wonder. Perhaps we have something like this in our own minds and bodies.
The reality is that we are empty people. We have empty stomachs that demand to be filled on a regular basis. Any interruption in that process is an irritation; any prolonged delay in the process is a major problem. Lent reminds us to focus on how we are consuming. We have eaten unconsciously for a season. Now we are called to examine what we eat, how we eat, who we eat with. Fasting puts all of those habits into sharper focus.
It also reveals what is eating at us. If I miss a meal, then the negative emotions will start to bubble up. If I have to ‘avoid’ something I am accustomed to, then I will become more aware of my attachments.
Feasting and fasting both teach me about my emptiness. My stomach, my soul, my spirit—all can be empty at times. I feel my need for food. I feel also my need for fellowship. I long for a sense of fullness that I do not find easily. Foregoing even the simplest of pleasures is a place of emptiness.
I long for fullness. Not the kind that comes from eating seconds or thirds, or even the kind that comes from a smug self-satisfaction as if my going without is valuable. I long for the fullness of relationship—a full spirit that can only come from Spirit.