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The Hero’s Fast

When I was a young evangelical on the Canterbury Trail, the liturgical calendar gave my faith structure and meaning in a way I had never experienced before. Advent? Lent? Holy Week? It was all fresh and exciting, and I loved the way that the liturgy guided my formation. So when my priest announced that we were doing a communal fast during Lent to downplay any sense of competition or comparison in the congregation, I was on board. The idea was that we would fast from something different each week, while guided by a daily devotional written by our clergy and parishioners.

The list of weekly fasts was fairly conventional: dessert, social media, television, and so on. In the guide, there was a note that some people might want to let the fasts build by continuing the earliest choices through all of Lent, so I decided to do that. Everything was going great, until Holy Week, when we were supposed to fast from meat. I was already a vegetarian, and didn’t eat much dairy, and was still giving up dessert from earlier. I figured the next best thing to abstain from was all forms of bread. What I failed to calculate was that I would essentially only be eating vegetables for the week, which did not bode well for someone with a jam-packed schedule as a boarding school teacher, dorm parent, and crew coach.

On Wednesday evening, while driving the boat trailer back from a regatta, I stopped for dinner with two other coaches. Both pointedly commented on how little was on my plate and together goaded me into eating a piece of bread. Besides that one concession, I was undeterred. I made it until about noon on Good Friday, by which point I was feverish and shaky, and felt on the verge of collapse. A tearful phone call to my mom ended in her ordering me to eat a bagel and go to bed. I begged out of the rest of the academic day, and one of the coaches who had expressed concern two days earlier graciously agreed to cover my boat at afternoon practice. Weak and exhausted, I slept through that evening’s church service.

Fortunately, after 24 hours of proper nutrients and caloric intake, I did make it to my first Easter Vigil. It was as glorious as promised, and remains my favorite liturgy in the prayer book to this day. But I was deeply humbled by my failed fast. I had pushed myself beyond my physical limit, and suspected that in doing so I had missed the point of Lent entirely.

Jesus’ time in the wilderness, described in each of the synoptic Gospels, lays the foundation for our observation of Lent. Matthew and Luke expressly state that he fasted for those 40 days before he was tempted by Satan, though Mark leaves that detail out. With that fast, Jesus clearly pushed his human body to the very limits of its capacity to go without sustenance. The next thing Jesus encounters is Satan tempting him to turn stones into bread, which he resists with “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). This seems to suggest a theological pattern for Lent of “fast and resist.” Under this narrative, the point of Lent becomes figuring out whatever it is one depends on the most, giving it up, and then resisting the temptation to consume it for 40 days. This can produce an awareness of our need for God and increase our dependence on him, as we struggle with our human weakness and liability to temptation. But, in certain overachieving personality types such as mine, it can also produce a hero’s mentality, in which Lent becomes about proving oneself, at least to God, if not to the whole world.

But what happens to our theological understanding of Lent if we back up a few verses? Immediately before the Spirit drives him into the wilderness, Jesus is baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist. As he emerges from the water, he hears these words from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). These are the words that he takes with him into the wilderness, the last thing he heard from God before undergoing his grueling fast and temptation. While experiencing weakness and mortal limitations was important for his incarnation, and while his temptation by Satan gave him understanding of what we as humans endure and succumb to, God’s affirmation was given to him before he underwent any of it. He knew who he was and what he meant to God. None of this was dependent on what he encountered in the wilderness.

In our baptism, God makes us his own. We hear these words from the priest: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever” (BCP, p. 308). These promises are not based on anything that we have done, but are based on Christ’s death and resurrection for us. We take these words with us out of our baptism and into our wilderness, exemplified during the season of Lent. We fast and pray, we face temptation, we wrestle with our weaknesses and limitations. But God’s affirmation of us is secure, based on what Christ has done for us, not how impressive our fast is or how much temptation we resist. There is no need to play the hero because it will not change what God says about us.

In his recent book on desert spirituality, Andrew Mayes describes the relationship between our weakness and our understanding of who we are in Christ, played out as we journey in the wilderness.

There seems to be, in Jesus’ experience and in ours, a double movement: increasing exposure, and deepening enclosure. … We need to hold two things in tension: like Jesus himself we are exposed to the reality of our vulnerability and human fragility, exposed to temptation and to distorting visions of reality (Matt. 4:1–11); but we are also, like Jesus, enfolded in the enveloping truth that we are Beloved, God’s child. (p. 70)

It is our understanding of this double movement, this exposure and enclosure, that allows us to observe a holy Lent. We enter the wilderness of the season knowing who we are. Whatever we feel called to in our Lenten practice, it is based on our identity as God’s children, not our need to prove ourselves. As we experience the inevitable weakness of our humanity during Lent, in both fasting and temptation, we are driven not to perform better or do more, but to cling to the words of promise we hear from God. These words then strengthen us to continue to endure the wilderness, to pick up with the fast where we fell away. We rest in knowing we are forgiven and beloved.

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