Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Meditations on a 40 day fast

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, to which the headaches and indigestion of last night's Fat Tuesday indulgences will attest. As our local parish priest, Bruce McNab commented this past Sunday, Lent is not just a time where you stop drinking hot cocoa. It is a time where we intentionally move closer to God. Lent is a time to give something up, take something on, and draw closer to God through prayer. We remove the things that distract us, add the things that enhance our spiritual growth and our relationships with others, and engage deliberately in the “loving gaze” that is prayer.

I've grown up in the Protestant tradition, with a sporadic practice of giving up things for Lent, always thinking I was trying to identify with Jesus' suffering on the cross by suffering through six weeks without candy and desserts. It only took a few years of adulthood before I recognized the pathetic nature of this approach and Lent eventually became something I didn't really practice. A few years ago, however, I was challenged to give up sweets for Lent, mostly because I had developed a very strong sweet tooth that was giving my dentist a headache. Early in the Lenten season, I was spending a weekend with a Catholic friend. He was very pointedly avoiding the M&Ms and coffee in our conference room on Saturday, but come Sunday, I was shocked to see him munching and drinking away like any old heathen. Upon further questioning, he gently instructed me that Lent is a 40 day fast, (that being a recurring number tied up with Biblical redemption) and that there are actually 52 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Thus each Sunday during the Lenten period was not a fasting day. My friend has a PhD in Molecular Biology but I was still skeptical about the math so I actually went and counted the days on a calendar. Lo and behold, he was right!

Turns out that, outside the Tradition of Ludicrous Self-Denial, Lent is a period of anticipation and celebration! Each Sunday is meant to be a mini-Easter, where we break our fast and look forward to the big celebration on Easter morning. I cannot begin to describe how freeing this was for me. Instead of dragging my feet through the weeks preceding Easter, I would eagerly look forward to Sundays when I could enjoy a small something sweet and think about God's love and the wonderful story of the empty tomb. It turns out that the discipline of fasting should, paradoxically, be a freeing exercise.

As this Lenten season begins, I humbly offer out to the world a film I made many years ago. It is a film about freedom through sacrifice. May the next six weeks bring freedom from whatever has been confining you this year.

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