Today is a fast day. But in our church, we’re putting the fast off as long as possible.
Before we confess our sins, before we remember our deaths, before we receive the ashes on our foreheads, we’re going to eat together and we’ll probably even sing happy birthday to one of our students. Because after all, it’s not her fault she was born on a day when the church gathers to remember the darkness of sin and the inevitability of death.
And yet we will fast. Because today is all about the fast.
We fast to prepare for this holy season because that’s what Jesus did. He prepared to live into his calling by heading from baptism to the wilderness, from receiving a blessing in the water to facing a tempter in the wild. For forty days he fasted and prayed. For forty days he endured the anguish of hunger. For forty days he walked through the lull of fatigue. For forty days he felt the pangs that come from going without. And for forty days he remembered that the God who had sent him to this place was the same God who was providing for him now. He might not have had food to end his hunger or water to quench his thirst but with God he had all he needed.
From almost the beginning the church has been inspired by Jesus’ journey of self-denial to take one of our own. We remember his journey of preparation in the hope that the one we take will prepare us as well.
And so we fast, living without something that seems essential, to remember what it is we truly need. We experience the pain that comes from going without to receive the gift of rediscovering how we are already being filled up. We sacrifice to lose the delusion that we are self-sufficient to gain what we need to follow Jesus all the way to the Cross and beyond.
Of course, there are plenty of ways to fast. You might fast by giving up sugar, or heaven forbid, caffeine. Maybe your fast is a digital one, a more difficult sacrifice for some of us than giving up food. You might fast from being critical of people who see the world differently than you do. Or you might try the transformative practice of becoming less critical of yourself and learning to see yourself through the eyes of the God who created you.
(If you are looking for a last minute way to fast this season, I’ve got a few ideas here.)
And yet for me, the fast I choose to begin today is to fast from looking away. The fast I choose during this Holy Season is to train my eyes on the Cross and to center my attention on the generous love of God on display there.
If we’re honest we can admit how hard it is to have a single-minded focus on anything. We’re overwhelmed by the rush of things competing for our attention, the clamor of voices and the cacophony of ideas to consider, causes to support, actions to take.
We’ve been trained to have our head on a swivel, gazing in all directions. We’ve been schooled in the practice of not dwelling too long in any one place. We’ve been lured to believe that what we long for is to be found in a shallow understanding of many things.
Lauren Winner’s Wearing God has served as a guide for me during the last several weeks. One of the images holding my attention in a book full of them comes from Moses’ encounter with God at the Burning Bush.
The only miracle that day wasn’t God appearing and calling Moses from a shrub on fire. Indeed, as Winner writes, “The miracle is that Moses paid attention long enough to notice that the shrubbery was not being consumed…To encounter the blazing God is to encounter the God who can hold, and wants to hold, our gaze.”
We have been deformed by turning our attention everywhere else. But God can still reform us if we can find the strength to stare at the Cross of the One who has come for us.
It’s not easy to look at it, the brutality of its pain and separation. It’s a lot easier to wear a cross than consider this One – the destination charted by our sin and brokenness, the suffering inflicted on the One who taught us and still teaches us how to love. And so we look away, desperate to find anything else to hold our attention. We avert our eyes, ready to consider anything but our own separation. It is all just too much.
But if we can look at it, we can find our hope. If we can turn back and linger, we can discover a path forward. If there our eyes can remain, we can remember all that has been done for us in love.
If we can go there, we can learn again the truth that sets us free – with God we have all that we need.
This is the fast I choose.