Monday, March 10, 2014

Holding Fast*

Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP

So, how’s Lent? I’m guessing that on Ash Wednesday you walked up and rang the doorbell. Having stepped into the foyer of Lent’s home, if we turn around and look again at the front door that opened to us that day, we’ll see it has a name—fasting. It’s also the back door that we’ll pass through on Good Friday, as we head out to the garden of Easter Sunday.

Try not to cringe. The spiritual masters of every major religion, and even health gurus, hail the benefits of fasting to mind, soul, and body. Christian fasting, though, is born from a different place: heartache—our love for Christ who “loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20). Spiritually speaking, when we occasionally deny ourselves even something good, we set our own thoughts and desires aside, hollowing out a space inside to let God in. Unlike anything else in our super-sized world, fasting reminds us that no comfort-anything can substitute for a genuine, life-changing desire for God and the experience of his mercy.

We need that mercy, not just for what we’ve done, but for what we’ve been a part of, even if only by our silence. Referring to himself, Jesus once prophesied, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Mt. 9:15). Because of the Resurrection, the bridegroom will never be absent from our world. But as a society, we often act as if he is. He certainly has been “taken away” not only from individual decision-making whenever he doesn’t even enter the equation, but from expression in public life. Yet Pope Francis remarks, “The respect due to the…non-believing minority should not be arbitrarily imposed in a way that silences the convictions of the believing majority….[T]his would feed resentment rather than tolerance and peace” (The Joy of the Gospel: 255).

God’s “absence” is felt today in alarming violations against life, marriage, and religious
Christ the Bridegroom
liberty: the HHS Mandate, requiring almost all employers to pay for employees’ contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs, and the trend in government and culture to redefine marriage. Because such overreaching won’t stop there, it threatens to engulf, not only businesses and institutions, as it already has, but families, your family. If you’ve ever been marginalized because of your faith, if you wonder why your kids seem to be speaking a different “language” than the one you taught them, if you’re tempted to give in to the craziness around you without making waves, then you’ve already felt the challenge. In such disorder, you are in a privileged position to renew the culture, even if “only” in your own circles. But how?

We need to push back. Sometimes by speaking out, but certainly by prayer and even fasting. God honors not only our prayers for others, but our penance, our prayer-in-action. Reading the signs of the times this Lent, we are being called to fast. This call from God is a sign of his mercy. God, who loves us so much that he does not want to see one hair of our heads harmed, comes among us, his People, to challenge and discipline us, as the letter to the Hebrews reminds us (12:6-11). This encounter with God’s mercy is also meant to change the way I think and the way I live my life. After all, how can I be indifferent when so many of my brothers and sisters and my nation itself are in danger of losing the very Center of their lives?

Several years ago my parents were living at St. John of God Retirement and Care Center in L.A. One morning, Sr. Frances, my sister, arrived to discover that our father was missing. No one had seen him at breakfast, and he hadn’t shown up at the nurses’ office for his meds. Despite his deepening dementia, he was fairly independent, so no one was too concerned. But the minutes ticked by, and Sr. Frances began to worry. Finally, she decided to check on our mother, who was confined to bed and on a feeding tube in the Care Center. There they both were: she asleep, and he at the foot of the bed.

“Daddy!” Frances exclaimed gently. “What happened? Why didn’t you go for breakfast?”

He answered quietly, “I wanted to feel what Mama is feeling.” 

That’s the perspective for fasting. As a friend of mine says, it’s a matter of being love-sick. If we are filled with Christ’s love, we should also be filled with his grief: of being scorned and marginalized, of offering life and being rejected. Fasting is about caring so much for another that food is the last thing on our minds. God says that if we “shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” 2Ch 7:14. We are to become so love-sick that the pain of what our “land” is undergoing shifts our sights and drives us to seek the Lord’s will, his path of holiness, and work to build the kingdom of God.

Since this is about seeking God’s way, we need to ask ourselves what God wants of us, how he wants us to fast. It might mean giving up certain things. It usually means an honest-to-goodness reduction in our food intake. If it does involve food, let’s be practical and prudent: “hurt” and “harm” are two different things. God does not want us to endanger our health, which is his gift. But can we put up with a growling stomach? Not to is like telling God, “OK, I’ll do this, as long as it doesn’t hurt.” We’re meant to feel it…in the pit of our stomach! In other words, we’re meant to mirror in our bodies the longing of our souls.

Here at the first week of Lent, we’re still near the front door. Why not explore Lent’s home by opening the fasting doors on other days, too, especially Fridays? To learn how click here. Guaranteed, God will be there to meet us. Baptism has already made Lent’s home—God’s home—ours. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to renew in us the apostolic zeal that proclaims with our lives the good news of his mercy.
* An abridged version appeared online in “My Discover Hope News Notes,” March 8, 2014.

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