Thursday, March 10, 2011

Celebrate a SWNIDish Lent

We're a day late to make Lenten remarks, but thirty-nine days is better than nothing.

The practice of Lent is ancient, representing a period of repentance leading up to the celebration of Easter. In the sweeping way that specialists in one area of learning deal with other areas, we'll offer that its origin and development had a lot to do with trying to address the nominalism of medieval Christianity with behavioral practices that drank deeply at the wells of neo-Platonic spirit/matter dualism, promoting aceticism, the denial of physical pleasures or the infliction of physical pain, as the antidote to lack of spirituality.

SWNID lives in ecclesiatical circles that historically rejected the medieval accretions of European Christianity, tried to reform or restore along biblical lines, and in the process adopted a lot of praxis that reflected American notions about individualism, democracy and the like. These days, some denizens of our circles tend to be rather self conscious about all that. Consequently, many are attracted to ancient practices that haven't been part of their experience. Like Lent. Like the so-called "classical spiritual disciplines." Like the lives of the saints, religious iconography, ancient liturgy, vestments, Gothic architecture, Gregorian chant, episcopal authority, etc.

But this is about Lent. Back to it, via what will seem a diversion.

Every Good Friday, the media covers the few folk, often these days in the Philippines, who allow themselves to be literally crucified (SWNID insists on using "literally" in its literal sense) though not to the point of death and often with sanitized, stainless-steel spikes. Our habit is to point out to our enthusiastic and impressionable students that this practice has no relationship to the teaching of Jesus or the example of Jesus. Jesus died for the sake of others. These folk are imitating Jesus' death purely to benefit themselves, as far as we can tell, by way of what is often called "mortification of the flesh" in a sense that the apostle who coined the phrase didn't intend. There's no discernible benefit to anyone else (the benefit to themselves is perverse, but that's another matter).

Now, to Lent. Is giving something up for Lent a thoughtful way to pursue repentance that is oriented to the Christ of the Cross? Or is it like self-crucifixion: having the appearance of spirituality but really tied to an orientation toward oneself that prioritizes one's own purity without considering that one's purity is defined by actions, rooted in attitudes, toward others? Is it a wasted opportunity to serve others that has been turned inward?

Mostly, what the modal Lenten observant gives up for Lent provides no benefit to anyone. Giving up coffee or chocolate or meat or Facebook or situation comedies or whatever--does anyone benefit from that but the one doing the giving up? And what benefit accrues even to that person? Does the Lenten observant become more loving, more generous, more thoughtful? If so, it is by indirect means only, so would it not be better to do so by direct means, that is, deliberately pursuing such virtues and behaviors?

And if doing this or that for forty days has such a benefit, is there some special reason to confine the practice to about a tenth of the year?

SWNID will be glad to hear from gentle readers who find Lent meaningful for some particular reason. But we lay down the challenge: how does one's observance of Lent honor the Christ who willingly gave his life to bring profound blessing to people who certainly didn't deserve it?


Victor Knowles said...

Thou art correct in thy astute observations, Sir Jon!

drkmstr said...

I love lent because here in Buffalo it is the best time of year to get and eat fish fries. If you have never had a good beer battered fish fry then you have not lived.

Plus McDonald's usually has a deal on fish sandwiches.

susanweatherly said...

IMHO -- What "sacrifice" could we possibly make of any consequence to ourselves or anyone else when the ultimate sacrifice for our eternal souls has already been made?

Abby said...

While I accept the non-practice of Lent, and I also believe that *some* people do not really benefit from "fasting" from this thing or that for 40 days, as it often becomes a show of self-deprivation, I am wondering about something.
You said "And if doing this or that for forty days has such a benefit, is there some special reason to confine the practice to about a tenth of the year?"
If cutting out food for forty days has such a benefit, is there some special reason to confine hunger to about a tenth of the year?

Obviously, fasting in its various forms has a spiritual benefit, and I am certain you didn't intend such a meaning. But the way I look at Lent is that the churches that fast together, the liturgical churches like the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglicans, seem to spend much of the Lenten season drawing closer in community with fellow adherents/believers. Churches that do this certainly could spend MORE time throughout the year together, but it also seems beneficial to fast together with others instead of on your own, not to glorify yourself, but to unify yourself with other believers.

Those are just a few of my thoughts on the subject.

susanweatherly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I see fasting mentioned throughout the Bible, New Testament included. Fasting is beneficial in my opinion and shouldn't be thrown out just because we have Jesus now. Whether it is fasting from food for one or two days or fasting from one thing for 40 days, the heart of the issue is the exact same.

-Michael Burchett

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Abby, we actually don't think much of the way that Christians practice fasting, either. For now, we'll simply let gentle readers chew on that.

Anonymous said...

When Jesus went to the wilderness after his baptism, for whom was that fast?

Anthony Jones said...

I don't practice lent and never really have, but I too wonder how practicing lent is different from fasting in general for one day or one meal? the only difference in my mind is length of time and what is being given up. if a person gives up something they enjoy for 40 days and craving that thing makes them more thankful for God's grace, provision, and/or sacrifice, is that negative? what's the difference?

Anonymous said...

SWNID could give up blogging for Lent.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

You have baited us, and we take the bait, however briefly. Biblical fasting is ritualized mourning, not denial of pleasures of the flesh for the benefit of the spirit. Jesus fasts in mourning for the lost people of God, those defeated by the devil whom he is about to defeat. Note well that the temptation to turn stones to bread is the temptation to serve himself with his divine power, the opposite of his mission to serve others.

Fasting is, in fact, mentioned rather infrequently in the Bible, though frequency of its appearance is itself of no consequence, obviously. Notably, there is not a single biblical command to fast given to Christians, though some biblical Christians do indeed fast--in what is understood in context to be mourning for the awful state of humanity. Fasting to get close to God, except in this limited sense, is in the SWNIDish view a practice that has more to do with neo-Platonism than biblical belief or practice.

Lent is indeed a particular kind of "fast." But one ought to consider well why one fasts and whether it has the benefit that one seeks and whether such benefit even ought to be sought before so doing. We tire of seeing such practices trotted out without thoughtful consideration of such matters, pursued with admirable passion but shallow reasoning.

Note well that we have no objection to anyone's observance of Lent or other fasts. We simply but pointedly challenge observants to do something that might be more consistent with the cross than simply giving something up for one's own "spiritual" benefit, however that is construed.

So . . . a mashal:

A certain man observed Lent by fasting from lunch once a week. While abstaining from food, he saw two of his brethren sharing lunch, engaged in edifying, encouraging and challenging conversation. While all sought to honor the Christ of the cross in the season of the year, which brother(s) did so in a manner more consistent with the content of the faith?

Steve said...

Excuse me, sir. You seem to have dropped your gauntlet. Allow me to pick it up.

I fully acknowledge that the driving force behind the tradition of Lent was asceticism; actually, it was likely yet another paganized practice imported into Christianity. As it is understood historically from a Roman Catholic position, it offers nothing. But if we can somehow move the goal posts, there's something to be redeemed.

I think about the build-up to the Christmas season: we decorate, we shop, we consume, and then we attend a cantata or a candlelight service in order to Christianize our attitude. Of course, we can remind each other to keep the "Christ in Xmas," but do we really? Unfortunately not. This is probably the reason I've come to loathe the holidays: Christians manage to focus on anything BUT the manger.

Worse is the way that we ignore the resurrection. Sure we'll wave our palm branches or dye some Mithra eggs, but within a week, the entire passion experience is over. It's marginalized. The most important aspect of our faith is only slightly different from our normal life. Why can't we develop a competing season, one not mired in consumption and action, but focused on slowing down, changing pace, and looking towards Calvary.

So to the question:

"How does one's observance of Lent honor the Christ who willingly gave his life to bring profound blessing to people who certainly didn't deserve it?"

If we can reframe the Lenten practice in light of grace, I think it can work. It must be observed similarly to biblical fasting—that it ought not be conducted to flex one's spiritual aptitude, and to engineer pride within the observant, but that thoughts should be focused towards the Christ who saves us. In my moments of desire, instead of thinking about what I have given up, and can think about why I've decided to do this. Because I don't do this all the time. Because this isn't just any other season—it's the journey toward the empty tomb.

In essence, I guess it's the WWJD bracelet of the 21st century.

In my candle-burning, young professional, emergent, Rob Bell-like, hippie church, we're encouraging Lent this year. But as we examined the Scriptures, we made sure to assert that it tends to be about the individual. Hopefully, in framing this as a communal venture, we can collective focus on Christ's death and resurrection.

Anthony Jones said...

Doc, will you go into more detail about how biblical fasting is restricted to the purpose of mourning for the poor condition of humanity? Do people in Acts not do so simply in preparation for big decisions to seek more guidance from God or make sure he is a part of it?

And as far as there being no command, is that not because it is assumed? "When you fast" were Jesus' words, not "if." Is there any significance to that?

Anonymous said...

I would reaffirm that far from all biblical fasting is to do with mourning, yet all of it seems to be in conjunction with prayer (not by far the only "acted-out prayer" we find in Christian practice).

I'm also unconvinced that Jesus' fast in the desert had more to do with Israel than himself (and can't we see that the two are connected?).

Finally, who do we mourn for? Not, "who do we mourn over," but who do we mourn for? Does it help the deceased that we mourn? Did it help Jerusalem that Jesus mourned for it before entering on Holy Week? Mourning is for the mourner, thus one of the most introspective types of fasting one can perform.

Jamie said...

First a quote from someone who knows something about the theological/spiritual value of these sorts of observances:

"Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and . . . inflated without cause by his/her fleshly mind."

And with that in view, I denounce mortification (such as fasting and depriving oneself of chocolate) as having a necessarily positive spiritual value. Indeed, I think it has the opposite effect.

Second, and a bit contrary to the above (but not really), Jesus in Mark tells the disciples to fast before casting out the really big fat demons, not because the fasting is itself magical, but clearly, as I know good SWNID believes, because this was an effective *preparation* for the task.
Jesus tells them to fast because, clearly, the phrase "in the name of Jesus" had changed from a powerful invocation of our Lord's divine nature, to a mindless formulaic power trip. The fast served as a preparatory device/act to help them refocus the nature of their ministry and their relationship to their ministry, etc. So I can see in this way that the Lenten processes can serve as the sort of preparatory process that fasting served for the disciples.

Third, there is a sense that engaging in Lent somehow de-comodifies and thus increasingly legitimizes the Christian experience. It doesn't, insofar as the degree to which people make up their own Lenten observances (no chocolate, no ice-cream, no coffee . . . oh please!) re-commodifies their spirituality by tailoring the spiritual experience to suit personal preferences.

Fourth, I don't practice Lent, but likely I am exactly the kind of person who should.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

What biblical examples of fasting aren't connected to mourning? We grant that mourning is not explicit in all instances, but where there is an explicit cause, mourning is it. Reading Acts 13, Jones's reference, in that light, makes better sense than imagining (as we Americans do) that the church's leaders are fasting to make a decision. Seems more that they hate the lost state of the nations, express that in fasting, accompany that in prayer to the God who promises to bless the nations, and get something in response: set apart Paul and Barnabas for the work God has for them.

Note well, as a parallel example, that cleansing is not explicit in all instances of ritual dipping. Yet it inheres in the act through its origin and common practice and so can be assumed where it isn't explicit in the context.

"Mourning" isn't for anyone, in the sense of "for the benefit." It is simply the response a person makes to something awful, namely death or its adjuncts. The prayer that one prays in fasting is for God to grant life and its adjuncts. When this is done with a consciousness that one is God's steward and agent in the world, it focuses one outward, where one's focus belongs.

Otherwise, what's the sense of fasting while praying? As an expression of mourning, it's doing deliberately what one does naturally when in deep sorrow: refraining from food. If it's otherwise, it's virtually inexplicable in origin or significance. We are unacquainted with any etiology or ontology for fasting apart from ritualized mourning that doesn't assume a spirit/matter dualism at odds with the biblical worldview.

We seek biblical light in the dark tunnel of neo-Platonism. We think this is a glimmer of it. We haven't heard anything so far to the contrary.

Anonymous said...

I gave up Lent for Lent 43 years ago at a baptismal resurrection service and have kept that promise. I give up many things for Christ, but he has the habit of providing for my needs. So I am ahead. What I hate is when someone asks me what I gave up, but then I say, "Lent!"

Anthony Jones said...

Doc, will you stoop to the level of those of us who are ignorant and direct us to those passages which speak of the origins and sole purpose of fasting explicitly being named as a way of mourning the corruption of humanity?

Anonymous said...

Why does Jesus then contextualize fasting with other spiritual disciplines when he addresses how one should fast in the sermon on the mount? Just a natural reaction to loss? David fasts for his sick son, in hope that he will be delivered, and then stops fasting after his death. Is that just mourning, or something more?

In Acts, "while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting" says mourning to you? And does the HS typically set apart apostles in conjunction with mourning? After the two are commissioned, more praying and fasting—no doubt they were just really really sad that their buddies were leaving.

Fasting doesn't begin with medieval monks and we shouldn't let their twisted interpretation of it spoil our view of it. Fasting isn't supposed to be mortifying, but uplifting. This is because fasting is good for you and you body—not to mention whatever spiritual benefit might come of it. One forsakes physical food for a time so he can concentrate on food from heaven.

Now, giving up cola or chocolate I think has very little to do with biblical fasting, but it doesn't hurt Americans to do without some of their luxuries for a little time each year.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting how much mourning takes place in ancient holidays. In America there are no holidays at all that mourn anything (correct me if I am wrong). But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't make Lent into an occasion of mourning, similar to how the Jewish people would often make a holiday out of events that they saw as historically worthy of mourning.

It's funny that the "rob-Bell like church" was mentioned because thats exactly what I think of when I think about protestants fasting...and yeah it is definitely for personal benefit.

-Michael Burchett

Anonymous said...

Facebook. . .lent, you must repent SWNID! The benefit of lent as I see it is the fruit of the spirit that is so rarely plucked, self-control. It would involve a sacrifice known only between one and the Lord. No need to boast, as so many do.

Q said...

I appreciate the discussion, much of which I have been pondering prior to reading this post.

There were very few Catholics or other liturgical churches where I grew up. I never saw people with ashes on their forehead until my wife and I moved to Louisville. I was nearly 30 years old then.

Now with facebook, I see lots of old friends who are Catholic talking about Lent. There is a part of me that appreciates this tradition and how such traditions unite liturgical folks in this shared experience.

Then I also see others fb friends who go to Restoration churches and other nonliturgical churches talking about "doing" Lent. One person even on staff of a CC/C of C blogs of doing Lent. The theme of the blog seems to be "look at me" or "if you're a good Christian like me..." as the guilt is slathered on to those who don't do Lent

I personally can't get past the fact I would feel self serving, hypocritical, or even pharisaical if I did the Lent thing. AND I refuse to have guilt slathered on me for not "Lenting" by those "Lenters" who try to slather guilt.

God has given me more than enough ministry to do.

Once again, I appreciate the discussion. This is a great blog. AND I too like the fish!

From the shallow end of the IQ pool,


KevinAK said...

Swind is incorrect when he says there is not a single biblical command to fast. Note that in Mt 6:16-18 Christ uses the words when you fast, not if you fast.

Giving something up is only one part of the Lenten practices. We are also called to pray more and do charitable works.

Christian said...

In the great words of Emo Phillips, "I'm not Catholic, but I gave up picking my belly button for lint."

Anonymous said...

Your view of Lent is not complete. Lent is not limited to giving up something. Sometimes it is taking on a new practice, maybe a time of prayer or reading. And sometimes the practice may extend beyond Lent and become a new spiritual discipline.

I know a number of people who observe Lent without giving up chocolate, soda or beer.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

KevinAK, believe it or not, we've read Matthew 6. The discourse assumes the Jewish practice of fasting but doesn't command it as such. "When you do X" is a different speech act than "Do X." Read elsewhere in the Synoptics and you'll confront the same Lord explaining why his disciples don't fast. The NT's discussion of fasting is nuanced and paradoxical, and in the end has more to do with things that are independent of fasting than with whether or how to fast.

Anonymous said...

i'll add to this 3 years after the last comment, but isaiah 58 talks about the kind of fasting god DOES want from his people, and it seems exactly in line with what SWNID argues. god wants fasting that serves others, period. that should be the goal of the christian and of every christian practice. if a practice serves or helps you serve others, you are following christ. if not, it's probably the look-at-me-i'm-doing-lent type fasting that SWNID is railing against.