Lent was, perhaps, the first liturgical season. Marking 40 days before Easter, it is set aside as a time of self-reflection, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In the time of the early Christian church, as adult converts were added, Lent was designated for preparation and teaching, with baptisms and first communions after sundown on Holy Saturday or at first light on Easter Sunday. The 40 days of Lent mirrored Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, when he fasted completely despite the temptation to turn stones into bread. Christian fasting was common outside of Lent, as well — between evening confession and morning Eucharist, or during times of prayer for God’s intercession.
To adults new to Christian practices of fasting during Lent, the idea can seem facetious — some sort of trendy way of worshipping both Jesus and our own well-defined abs. But for many, fasting has been a way of cleansing not the body but the mind. Temporary self-denial can invite us to compassion for those who are hungry not by choice, to a remembrance of the trials of Jesus, or to better appreciation of food when we do eat.
But in the face of a world that already pressures many into self-denial, self-deprivation, and self-harm, the strength of the spiritual discipline of fasting cracks. This year, Ash Wednesday falls during National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. At a time when sufferers of disordered eating ask us to remember and acknowledge their struggles, many Christians are thinking about what to “give up” for Lent. The easy examples of a Lenten fast as giving up chocolate or candy or sugar or carbs mirror the disordered rules of restrictive eating. In a misogynistic culture where beauty and thinness are prized, a Lenten journey can easily walk into the realm of self-destruction.
We know too well how many members of Christ’s body suffer from disordered eating, self-harm, mental illness, and suicidal intent: An estimated 30 million Americans will experience clinically significant disordered eating in their lifetime; roughly one in five Americans struggle with mental illness. In 2014, LifeWay Research found that response from people in church caused 18 percent of people with acute mental illness to break ties with their church.
The messages of our culture too often infect the message of Jesus — declaring the body as suspect, worthy of punishment, born steeped in wickedness. For those who do not struggle with anxiety, depression, body dysphoria, or any other mental illness, it can be difficult to realize how spiritual disciplines are easily twisted into yet another source of unremitting shame and guilt. I see too much how our spiritual disciplines become hashtag fasts, easily reduced to 140 characters and proclaimed with emoji trumpets, silently shaming others for their failure to live up to our retweets.
I don't want to preach a faith that can be so easily adapted to self-hatred and self-harm. I don't want to preach a Lent that can be easily turned into a guilt-ridden diet plan. I want a faith that doesn't care about chocolate. I want a faith that demands we fast from injustice, a faith that listens to the cry of the prophet: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”
This is not the year to punish ourselves for wanting something sweet. Maybe no year ever is. It is simpler to muse over our already broken New Year’s resolutions and recommit to self-improvement. Our practice of Lent has been too easily turned into a competition, a scaling of the spiritual ladder, proudly (even if silently) chuckling at those who too easily give up on the gym or the wagon. Yet the journey of Lent is meant to lead us not up but out, to Jerusalem and to Golgotha, to where God incarnate eats with friends and weeps with fear and dies. God dies, fully human, begging us all the while to accept that we have been freed from trying to climb up to God — God has come down to us.
What would a Lenten fast look like that moved us not to self-hatred or self-righteousness, but to compassion for all who suffer?
I wish I could be a Lenten Saint Nicholas, sneaking from house to saddened house, to every door that has known self-hatred or oppression or despair. At the edge of each window open to the new spring air, I would leave a secret: a Lenten calendar. Made in the style of Advent calendars, with a little cardboard window to open each day and a sweet dark nugget of cacao inside. And inside each window, a challenge: to fast from fear, anger, resentment, and self-hatred. Inside each window, a promise: You are God’s beloved; so is everyone else; feast on this, and live.