Editor’s Note:  During the Lenten season, we have invited other writers to join us to help remove the pressure to produce content from us regulars.  On that note, I am pleased to introduce Cate MacDonald, a friend, a graduate of Biola University and the Torrey Honors Institute, and a current student at the Institute for Spiritual Formation.  She keeps a personal blog at misscate.com and will be blogging here periodically for the near future.

Fasting is a troubling discipline. It pretends to be to be about something other than it is. When we fast, we remove food or another source of material comfort from our lives in order to… well, I suppose it is there that the trouble starts.

Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,

and oppress all your workers.

Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight

and to hit with a wicked fist.

Fasting like yours this day

will not make your voice to be heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose,

a day for a person to humble himself?

Is it to bow down his head like a reed,

and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?

Will you call this a fast,

and a day acceptable to the LORD?

For an unrelated purpose, I was assigned to read this passage in Isaiah 58 two days before Ash Wednesday. The prophet seems to be saying that a fast filled with contention and anger, mourning and false humility is no fast at all. Well, Isaiah, you make no sense. I “call this a fast” when I am not eating what I would like to eat in order to focus my energy and my body on the sustenance the Lord provides. That is the discipline I have been taught, that is the discipline that thousands (millions?) of Christians are participating in throughout the world these coming weeks. Have we missed something?

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of wickedness,

to undo the straps of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover him,

and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up speedily;

your righteousness shall go before you;

the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;

you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’

It appears that the Lord has chosen a fast that is no fast at all. He does not tell us what to give up, but instead what to do. The fast the Lord has chosen is charity, justice, and generosity. And so this makes me wonder, what exactly are we supposed to be fasting from after all? I don’t know. It doesn’t say.

In fact, it seems that fasting is irrelevant, or at least it could be considered as such depending on how you use it. And as I write this personal revelation, it occurs to me that all spiritual disciplines are in exactly the same position.

Any discipline that the Lord asks of us is no good by itself. We are not like the yogis or the secular ascetics who believe that certain practices themselves have the power to enlighten. Nor should we believe in a genie of a god who responds best to particular demonstrations of admiration or affection. Any discipline is undertaken with much prayer and hope. It is a way of quieting the world, the flesh, or the devil, only in order to hear God a little more clearly and to speak to him a little more honestly. His response remains an act of his mercy and goodness, based on nothing but his love. Fasting is an attempt at listening to a Being who can speak very quietly, and there is nothing more noisy than our own wickedness. How will we hear his response to our prayers when our own voice uses the fast that was meant to quiet it as a loudspeaker, happily abusing the downtrodden or making a show of our self-denial for the benefit of those more easily fooled than the Almighty.

Aristotle famously said, “The soul rules the body like a despot.” I wish this were truer than it seems. In my case, it is often the other way around. The church has set aside these forty days so that we can join together in quieting our bodies for the benefit of our souls. Let it be a fast that the Lord has chosen.

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Posted by Cate MacDonald

3 Comments

  1. makelovehappen March 10, 2009 at 1:20 am

    “Any discipline that the Lord asks of us is no good by itself.”

    You are on to something here.

    A man is not an Israelite if he is only one outwardly …

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  2. […] Two other gems deserve noting.  First, Gary offered a series of insightful, informative, and edifying reflections on the thought of Thomas Aquinas, all of which are worth reading. Second, Cate MacDonald offered a deeply insightful post on fasting during Lent. […]

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  3. […] 17th is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. Around this time last year I wrote a reflection on fasting as it is portrayed in Isaiah, wondering at the nature of a true fast. I think it’s sort of funny that I end up writing about […]

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