For those sharing in the rhythm of the Christian liturgical calendar, this past Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent.
Whether or not you’ve ever participated in the Lenten season, you’ve probably heard of this forty-day period before Easter as a time of “giving up something.” Whether it’s a daily food habit, social media usage, or another go-to, the idea is that we trade something that feeds our appetites for “worldly” pleasures, distractions, or addictions for time devoted to the deepening of our spiritual lives.
When we fast, whether that be from actual food or otherwise, what is it, really, that we are refusing to feed?
In the history of Christianity (though not in the teachings of Jesus himself), we often see an uncomfortability with materiality, and especially with the human body. Following a deep-seated gnostic or puritanical impulse, many of us have gotten the message that spirit = good, while matter (including the human body and its needs for food, sex, rest, etc.) = bad. This division often leads to feelings of deep guilt, frustration, or anger towards or around the body, and to a desire to either purify or reject that which opposes the holiness of “pure” Spirit.
In keeping with this pitting of spirit against matter, a time of fasting or abstinence may serve to reinforce the thought that we are “starving the body to feed the soul.” Even if we verbally affirm the goodness of the body and of Creation, there may remain a sense of needing to transcend the body in order to serve a higher spiritual good.
I’d like to suggest that the real power of Lenten fasting comes, not from a denial of bodily or material experiences, but from the release of a limited self-understanding.
How often do we think of ourselves in terms of our profession, our possessions, our familial or social relationships, our hobbies, etc.? We introduce ourselves and even form social connections based on these “identifiers,” and our sense of self, our personality, is often closely tied to these worldly signifiers.
I believe the invitation of Lent is not to transcend or “go beyond” embodiment into the realm of spirit, but, rather, to set aside our usual ways of being in order to realize that they don’t define us.
It may seem obvious that I am not my morning cup of coffee, but how often do I take the desire for ritual and comfort, for feeling alive, awake and energized (all things that I associate with my morning cuppa) for being me? How often do I feel and act as though my addictions, desires, and habitual ways of operating are just who I am?
In setting aside a habitual way of being, our goal is not to starve the body or to deprive ourselves of human pleasures for the sake of something “higher.” Instead, the laying down of habit gives me the time and space necessary to remember that I am not anything that I think, feel, or do.
In this remembering, we, too, can join with Paul in saying that it is not I (as in the limited ego-personality) that lives, but Christ (God in human flesh) that lives through me (Galatians 2:20).