By Rev. Samuel Torvend
As we left the restaurant, my sister, Rebecca, reminded her six-year-old son, Rex, that he had “given up” candy for Lent. Though raised in a Lutheran home, my nephew attends a Roman Catholic parochial school where the Lenten practice of fasting is lived out as doing without something special for the Forty Days. My sister’s reminder was not met with much happiness. Her son’s face scrunched up and in an irritated voice he asked why, JUST THIS ONCE, he couldn’t have a piece of candy. After all, he said, it’s grandma’s birthday! His mother, not wishing to entertain exceptions to this Lenten practice, replied that there was ice cream and birthday cake waiting for him at home. Disaster was averted. His face softened and he happily jumped into the car.
Observing this rather brief interchange, I thought to myself: What is he being asked to do? Does he know why he is “giving up” something in late winter and early spring? For a young boy who absolutely loves sugar, does he think this practice an annoyance foisted upon him by his own mother and holy mother church? Are we intended to fast for only Forty Days and then return to eating as usual, much feasting, too much feasting?
And so I wonder if it is helpful to be mindful of the social context in which the practice of fasting emerged among Christians. When Lent emerged the agrarian populations of western and eastern Europe, the practice of fasting was rooted in human necessity. The warming weather of spring would spoil foods kept in storage. Thus, it was important to eat the foods before they were no longer edible. At the same time, late winter and early spring are the birthing season for herds of animals. By refusing to eat beef, lamb, and pork, Christians helped the next generation of animals survive and so replenish the herd.
But of course this form of fasting, rooted in the desire for human and animal survival, was shot through with biblical overtones. Christians saw themselves in solidarity with Noah and all the animals saved in the ark as they refused to eat animals during Lent, their fasting a gesture toward a new creation. And they were well aware of the Jewish and Christian practice of fasting – but fasting in order to set aside food for those who were chronically hungry. In other words, fasting allowed one to save food or money that could be given to the poor. Thus, in many medieval churches, a hunger cloth – which pictured those in need – was hoisted up on the wall throughout Lent as an instruction for a fasting people as to where their alms should be directed. Yes, fasting focused on the hungry poor, not on simply “giving up something” because “that’s what we do in Lent” or refraining from delectable foods because it makes us pleasing to God or is simply a test of our endurance.
Let us be mindful of these words which also resonate throughout Lent:
Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free And break every yoke?
Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house;
When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Isaiah 58: 6-7, 10
Father Samuel Torvend is Associate to the Rector for Adult Formation at St. Paul's.